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How to Creatively Integrate Science and Math

| Ben Johnson

Why is the sky blue? I remember in my physical science class, our teacher showed us a possible reason why the sky is blue. He took a canister of liquid oxygen and poured it out on the table. I saw the blueness of the liquid as it flowed out and then disappeared. Then we talked about color, frequencies, and absorption, reflected and radiated light. I wondered how scientist ever figured these things out? Duh -- math! How can you really teach science without math? It is impossible. Science is the application of math.

In science, geometric principles such as symmetry, reflection, shape, and structure reach down to the atomic levels. In science, algebraic balance is required in chemical formulas, growth ratios, and genetic matrices. In science, math is used to analyze nature, discover its secrets and explain its existence and this is the big problem. Science is so complex and getting more so each day. In order to study, analyze and interpret science, mathematical tools are required.

In math class one of the biggest needs is relevance. Why not use science to teach math? Since one of the biggest uses of mathematics in science is data gathering and analysis, that is the best place to start. When a teacher gives students a real science problem to solve -- one that requires math tools -- the teacher is giving the students a reason to use math. Math then becomes something useful, not something to be dreaded.

Being able to teach math better and being able to teach science better are powerful reasons for the math and science teacher collaborate with each other. According to a case study conducted by Jennifer Dennis and Mary John O'Hair, another reason that math and science teachers should collaborate is that science helps provide relevance to math that is all too often abstract and isolated calculation operations. Ultimately, as another study reported, the students' increased conceptual understanding of math and science is the greatest benefit of math and science teacher collaboration.

Unfortunately, knowing that increased teacher collaboration in math and science will benefit students and teachers is not enough. Teachers are so busy that finding time to collaborate is difficult. Add to this, the structure of the school inhibits collaboration when math and science teachers are spread out in a large campus. How do you overcome this? Well, a simple request to the principal might do the trick. Another solution is that even though geographically speaking the math and science teachers may be isolated, everyone has cellphone, texting, Facebook or even email can be considered forms of collaboration.

What are ways you work with your companion subject teacher (math or science) to help students understand math and science better?

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Administrator, author and educator

Team Paradise

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Terry:

Seems like you have an idealic situation. You make it sound so easy, but I have a bunch of questions. When you try to bump up the difficulty, or rigor how does the science teacher respond? How do you handle assessments and what kind of data discussions do you have as a team? What strategies do you both use to develop common vocabulary sets for the teachers and the students? How do you determine which class has priority? What kind of leadership structure exists in the group, and how do you keep track of who is doing what? If you have time, I really would like more details, PLEASE!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

Administrator, author and educator

Transition from Middle school to High School

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Richard:

I agree that colleges need to prepare teachers better, especially elementary teachers. And it won't hurt to make the secondary teachers more well rounded too. Perhaps they are doing the best they can with what they've got to work with, so that means the education industry has to attract a new breed of teacher, but in order to do that, teacher salaries need to be addressed. The dominoes just keep falling...

I love your idea of a team of four teachers at the high school level working with the same students as a continuation of the middle school family concept. I just read an article from Ed Week that states that not only is the transition from MS to HS a problem, but the transition from ES to MS is also a big concern. If that is the case, why transition at all and why departmentalize at all? Good points!

Ben Johnson,
San Antonio, Texas

Middle School teacher

Middle School Teams

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As a middle school teacher, we have a core team that meets daily. I am able to work directly with the science teacher (I am math). We are able to coordinate our instruction so that a topic is reinforced in each class.

President at Smart Science Education Inc.

The Best Secondary Schools Can Do

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"The best secondary schools can do is to pair teachers and collaborate on topics from both classes, or one teacher becomes very familiar with the other teacher's content area and pedagogy and teaches certain topics in a correlated manner."

I guess I'm a bit more optimistic. Sure, if you accept the status quo, then that's about it. But we're in a dynamic period of ferment and change. Online schools are challenging traditional schools. New ways to utilize the Internet are being rolled out constantly, or so it seems. Your vision of breaking down inter-department boundaries should not be so limited.

Internet technology can make a difference. Right now, today, you can create your science/math course online. Who will use it? Who knows? Khan Academy is allowing for individual contributions now, I hear. Find a platform and just do it. Show the world how it's done.

The best that secondary schools can do right now need not be the best of the future.

"...it is much harder in the

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"...it is much harder in the secondary, not because it would not be perfect for students, but because finding teachers who are so well rounded that they can teach everything would be very difficult."

It might be difficult to find teachers right now who could do it. If colleges were preparing teachers to specifically teach all subjects it would be more feasible. I am pretty sure that it could be approached as a discovery and the teachers and students would learn together. Then if teachers used planning periods for something other than grading papers, gulping coffee and smoking they might work together to help each other. I know that is what you mean by collaboration I just think that if teachers are going to collaborate for math and science why not for all the subjects. I believe that is somewhat the idea that underlies team teaching.

If you had four teacher teams like exist in middle schools now but rather than the students changing classes and the teacher teaching one lesson to four diferent groups the kids and teachers stay put. One teacher would keep the same group of kids all day teaching them all four of the "core" subjects. Planning would be collaborative with each teacher contributing from his or her area of expertise. Contributions would include troubleshooting problems.

I do not have the answers but I am sure that change has to come to public education or there will be no public education. Look at the demonizing that is going on right now.

Administrator, author and educator

Thematic Instruction

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Richard:

Thank you for your insights. Driving a truck is similar to what education should be. Although it was good for Henry Ford to organize labor in departments, when the elementary years of school are spent preparing the dividing learning into departments, secondary years knowledge is compartmentalized fully and further in college and then students wonder why they struggle in life when they are asked to put the pieces together again.

For elementary and middle school levels, thematic instruction makes perfect sense. I believe it is much harder in the secondary, not because it would not be perfect for students, but because finding teachers who are so well rounded that they can teach everything would be very difficult. The best secondary schools can do is to pair teachers and collaborate on topics from both classes, or one teacher becomes very familiar with the other teacher's content area and pedagogy and teaches certain topics in a correlated manner.

Good thoughts Richard!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

My Perspective

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What I would do to improve Science and Math instruction would need to be done at evey level from pre-school through Grad-School. The whole concept of knowledge and learning needs to be presented differently.

Language Arts, Social Studies, Mathematics, and Science all exist as part of what I think is best described as a system. To separate them for convenience of presentation does violence to understanding the systemic nature of learning. The real world does not break knowledge into component parts that is only done in academia.

Perhaps this is not the best analogy but on short notice and without my notes it is the best I can do. Several times each day I get into my truck and drive somewhere. I turn the key and at the speed of light electrical energy turns a starter and heat energy from the combustion of gasoline and air cause gases to expand and create mechanical energy that moves the vehicle. I will read information on the temeprature guage, the dashboard controls of the heater and the radio and I will use numerous devices that have been invented throughout the course of history I can only explain this through the use of language and if there had not been events we call history people of today would not know how to make it happen. How likely is it that I would get where I am going if my truck had to operate in four separate areas: those that are purely scientific, those that are mathematical, those that are historical and those that involve language?

Teachiing and learning needs to be more like driving or riding in my truck.

When i was in undergraduate school and again in graaduate school I learned about "Thematic Units." As I recall some of these were inclusive of history and english or math and science. why is there no effort to develop learning units that combine all knowledge into systems that keep the learner in touch with the reality that the universe, the world, everything is part of a system?

Too little time and too little space here to elaborate more.

Richard L. Cottingham (not the Torso Killer)

Administrator, author and educator

Practical Education-- It's about time!

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George:

In Texas, the law says that every student must have four years of math and four years of science. Larger schools can offer different variations to match interest and needs, but small schools are pretty much stuck with what you describe. Finance and accounting have been relegated to "vocational" education and are not typically found in the mainstream core classes. I am not sure what the equivalent science would be- agro-science, perhaps a beefed up health, or home- ec class... Anyway, your point is well taken. At the same time the best teachers know that the most efficient way to get students to learn something is to get them to use it in their lives--i.e. find real connections between classwork and with what the students know and do daily. So until things do change for the better, duck the pendulum and keep on teaching the best way you know how.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Quote:

Tradition rules. The traditional one-size-fits-all high school math (algebra-geometry-calculus) or science (biology-chemistry-physics) curriculum has never been a useful match of skills, concepts and information learned to real world or career needs. Only for a very small percentage of students who become mathematicians or scientists. How many people have ever used a quadratic equation at home or at work? We value math and science blindly, as most educational policymakers are ignorant enough about either that they don't dare mess with them. All they know is that both are important, so let's keep on doing what we're doing. Sort of like Latin. If the Catholic Church still said masses in Latin, maybe Latin would still be a staple of American education.

Sol Garfunkel and David Mumford have some great ideas about replacing algebra-geometry-calculus with finance-data-basic engineering for most students. I, on the other hand, would replace a lot of the study of literature and replace it with technical and scientific reading (and writing). Pipe dreams, however, for Garfunkel, Mumford and myself. Methinks unfortunately.

Administrator, author and educator

Calculus and Physics

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Pmackd:

When you wrote about physics thought of my son in his Calculus-based Physics class. At first he believed that it would be an extremely abstract and mathematically challenging class. After the first few months, he is still challenged, but the physics together with the calculus help him understand both better. His teacher gave him a physics challenge to prove that initial altitude modifies trajectory. My son worked on this challenge over the course of several days; drawing, graphing, and calculating the proofs. I don't believe that it would have been near as interesting or engaging if the actual science was not there to test it out. I agree with you. The high school concept of a shopping basket approach to learning needs to change. There is no reason that students cannot choose majors in high school. Especially in these times of seeking for relevance, it would benefit a student tremendously to be anxiously preparing him or herself for a particular area of study.
Thanks for the post.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Quote:

The days of one size fits all are numbered. When the failure of current "reform" efforts becomes obvious to all, the pendulum will swing the other way. After ninth grade (at least, maybe for ninth grade as well) high school students should have a degree of specialization. Not irrevocable, they can still change. ALL students do not need to learn quadratic equations. I taught AP Physics for 17 years. Even in AP Physics, problems involving solution of quadratic equations were explicitly ruled out and never seen on the AP test.

Administrator, author and educator

Start Simple

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Diego

Elementary teachers integrate science and math more easily than secondary teachers because of the collaboration involved. Not that it is impossible, it is just one more thing to do in the busy life of a teacher. I teach a college algebra course and I cringe when I hear my students say things like "take-away" or "Multiples". One thing science and math teachers can collaborate on especially in introductory courses is making sure that they both use the same appropriate vocabulary for math and science. I work with a correlated math science program called Mix it Up and they found out right away that some vocabulary used in math means something different in science-- velocity in typical math classes is just speed, but in science classes it is speed and direction.
Your lecturer could be a math teacher or a science teacher using the other discipline to strengthen understanding of his own.

Good post.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

Quote:

Collaboration may be difficult, but it's not necessary as an introductory course. I mean an introduction to both science and mathematics in the same discipline. There the lecturer could start asking simple questions to introduce science problems and start developing the mathematical tools to tackle them.

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