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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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How to Creatively Integrate Science and Math

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

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 In math class one of the biggest needs is relevance. Students want to know how they are going to benefit from being able to do calculations. 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. Instead of using the word problems out of the book that many dread, why not walk down the hall and talk to the science teacher to find out what math they are using in science class? Ultimately, as another study reported, the students' increased conceptual understanding of math and science is the greatest benefit of math and science teacher collaboration. Conceptual understanding means the students know the bigger picture of why things work in math and science, not just how to make them work.

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. Let the principal know what you want to do and show him the evidence and if he can, he will help. Another solution is that even though geographically speaking the math and science teachers may be isolated, everyone has a cellphone. Just call them. Texting, Facebook, Google+, Skype, Google Hangouts, or even email can bring science and math teachers together. There are many options -- just do it!

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

Comments (39)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Harry Keller's picture
Harry Keller
President at Smart Science Education Inc.

I've been advocating for this sort of idea for decades. It's axiomatic to me, but then I've been involved in math and science all of my life. Some educators even are so bold as to suggest that English skills can be improved through science too.

The current structure of our education systems prevents effective collaboration as some of the previous comments say. The entire concept of four core subjects plus ancillary arts and physical education seems truly archaic.

Nevertheless, I have a couple of quibbles with this article. First off, you can teach science without math. Science is a way of thinking, not a bunch of equations. Sure, scientists constantly use one sort or another of math. It's also true that you should collect quantitative data when performing science experiments if possible. However, we're talking about science education here, not science itself. You can go far with just a smidgen of arithmetic when teaching science. Of course, I like it much better with lots of partial differential equations, advanced statistical analysis, and multiple analysis of variance. But that's just me. I certainly don't expect young students to have that bias.

I also cannot buy into "science is application of math." Science is a way of thinking, not of calculating. Math often is applied to science, yes.

On to the bigger issues. Math can be unexciting as usually taught. The same is true of science. Big deal! However, an inspired science course can engage students so that learning the math and language skills necessary to do the science becomes an attractive proposition. Before science courses can become valuable math learning exercises, they have to be reformed themselves.

And what is this red herring about a large campus. I assume that we're discussing high school education here. How many high schools have such a great separate between math and science classrooms? Geography is the least of the problems in getting collaboration between any two subjects. Mathematics has always been taught with abstractions and with a few "word problems" that have little bearing on real life. (My apologies to math teachers who have broken that mold.) Science can be relevant but rarely is. Often, when it is, it is very forced and unnatural.

Mathematics began as a practical tool, not an abstract one. It was vital to measuring land, keeping accounts, and lots of military activities. These alternate fields pushed people to figure out math in the first place. It just makes lots of sense for math to be taught in these contexts instead as a collection of x and y values, at least through most of high school.

I strongly believe in the basic concept of using science more effectively to learn math, reading, and, most importantly, thinking skills. IMO, this article makes a relatively weak case for that approach. However, I applaud the effort.

Joetta Schneider's picture

Our school began integrating Algebra I and Science-9 this year! It's going well. We implemented a team-teaching, PBL based course for ninth graders in math and science as well as one in Social Studies and English. The relevance and critical thinking is truly there.

George Peternel's picture
George Peternel
Retired Principal

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.

Harry Keller's picture
Harry Keller
President at Smart Science Education Inc.

Math is taught as a mostly abstract subject. Much science is taught as a bunch of words, formulas, and procedures to memorize. That's just wrong.

Both disciplines develop important habits of thought. Yes, even quadratic equations. BTW, those equations come in for quite a workout in fairly simple science courses.

However, the typical class in math or science does not focus on thinking but on memorizing. There have always been exceptions, but exceptions should be the rule. Then, more integration might be useful. However, you cannot lose the rational logical process of thinking that math provides.

pmackd's picture
pmackd
Physics teacher, former science department chair, technology manager

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.

Diego Floor's picture

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.

Richard Cottingham's picture

Yes it is my real name and there is nothing spooky about it. I am aware that it is the same as that of a serial killer. Thanks for bringing it up.

What can I do?

Let's start with what I did. I was an educator for 42 years, 14 of which was as a principal. I won awards, including Teracher of the year in a large city. I developed/invented/adapted numerous devices, procedures, concepts for application in classrooms. I wrote a complete history of our state in mnemonic verse.

My complaint with your article is that you title it "How to..." then simpy state an idea that has been around for ages. Your article does not tell how to integrate math and science.

Keep in mind that in hundreds of thousands of elementary classrooms teachers teach every subject. Many of these teachers integrate the two at least by referencing applicable math concepts and operations to science procedures.

What can I do? I can spot BS.

Diego Floor's picture

Here's what I'm reading in a nutshell: "A good way to teach math would be together with an application. Science would do the trick"
What's so deadly wrong with that?

Also, I'm quite surprised with the lack of politeness here.

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

Diego:

Bingo!
You hit it on the head. The impulse for writing my thoughts was prompted by observations that made me ask why more teachers do not collaborate in math and science. Then I started thinking what could be done and who is doing it. It is not an in-depth article, or treatise, but my goal was to get conversation going about this topic.
Thanks for understanding.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

[quote]Here's what I'm reading in a nutshell: "A good way to teach math would be together with an application. Science would do the trick"

What's so deadly wrong with that?

Also, I'm quite surprised with the lack of politeness here.[/quote]

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

Apologies to the allusion to another name. I did not know if you were serious.

Thanks for sharing your experience. You seem imminently qualified to respond to my question. How would you go about getting Science and math teachers to work more closely together? Since you and I are a former administrators, I am very interested in hearing your perspective of the role of leadership in helping students learn math and science better.

Sincerely,
Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

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