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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 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?

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

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

Harry:

You are absolutely right. I should not limit my thinking. The ultimate learning environment would be thematic instruction all the way through middle school. Since College is right around the corner for the high school students, it would be too much of a shock to go straight into departmentalization from thematic instruction. Perhaps in high school a team of four teachers like Richard suggests. I am intrigued by Khan schools' idea of a personalized learning plan for each student. Writing curriculum is not as easy as it appears and then add other content areas integrated and it is even more complex. Technology is the solution. Let's figure out how to make it work to integrate the student curriculum into one big effective hunk of learning.
Let's keep talking.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

Richard Cottingham's picture

I notice many comments about the difficulty of developing thematic units at all levels and of the difficulty involved in making it possible for children to "transition" from thematic to departmentalized instruction. If it is worth doing (and it may not be) it should not be dismissed due to problems that will need to be overcome.

I think that at some point I suggested that colleges and universities might develop broad thematic units for use above elementary school level. I must caution that my own experience with multi faceted instructional programs developed by a university is not encouraging. I taught 5th grade in a school division that adopted the "Success for All" lguage ats program developed and marketed by Johns Hopkins.

I have never seen any other program that was as amateurish and naive. It was a total failue in our school division and every teacher I have ever spoken with who had used it found it a waste of time, money and effort.

Most of my teaching career and all of my administrative experience were at the elementary level. However, all of the time I was a principal, grades 6 and 7 were in the elementary schools where I worked. One year we kept sixth and seveth grades self contained except for reading class.

Classroom management improved. Lesson planning improved. Positive interaction between teachers and parents increased. Parent participation in PTA and Room Mothers increased. Standardized tests did not improve but were not considered as important as today (this was in 1978 -1979).

My school went through a 5 year assessment from SACS that year and the visiting team was extremely critical of the self contained 6th and 7th grade classes. When their criticisms were analyzed they came down to "It is not done that way elsewhere so it must be bad."

Teachers began complaining that planning lessons in all subjects was too hard and the approach was abandoned after that one year. The experience has left me with a very questioning attitude about the whole middle school concept.

Please keep in mind that teachers, like most people resist change largely because it is more work than sticking to the status quo.

George Peternel's picture
George Peternel
Retired Principal

My nearly 30 years experience as an elementary and middle school principal seem to run counter to that of many of the other educators who have contibuted to the discussion about the topic of math-science collaboration (or any other cross-curricular collaboration). As I asserted in an earlier post, it is a curriculum problem. The curriculum sequences of math and science aren't in sync. Collaboration is therefore impractical, not because it is more work, but because the teaching sequences of skills, concepts and themes in math and science curricula don't match up very well. Yes, there are moments when it is useful to make collaborative "cross-overs," but those moments are few and far between. The collaboration that has been suggested is nothing new, and it has been been given a thumbs down repeatedly by teachers looking to serve their students in new and better ways but are thwarted by fact that the sequences do not match up well. Sort of like teaching a pig to sing. Impractical, and annoys the pig. Create an integrated curriculum and teachers will gladly teach it. Otherwise, the best efforts at collaboration will be clumsy and produce the kinds of results where teachers ask themselves: "I did all this for what?"

Richard Cottingham's picture

George,

Your observations are very well made and accurate. As the curriculum is organized right now it is virtually impossible to synchronize math and science or History and Language Arts. What is even more distressing is that it is hard to even think of curriculum being organized any other way.

I honestly believe (and I too have had many years experience) that all learning needs to be taught as part of a "system" rather than as fragmented and isolated subjects. I know too that there are others who share this belief. One problem is that most of us cannot even think in terms of a system becaue all we know is subjects. Whenever I try to think of organizing a systemic approach to developing a body of learning I find myself still thinking in terms of where first grade math will fit in with first grade science etc. I think it is somewhat like the claim that you don't truly learn a new language until you think in that language. If you are always having to translate it back into your native language you don't truly know it.

If you or someone else reading this thread can suggets ways to change the thinking on this subject I would be very grateful to hear those suggestions.

Mrs Maxwell's picture
Mrs Maxwell
Middle School Math Teacher

This article makes a lot of sense. As a math teacher, the students are always asking "How/When will I use this in life?" They want concrete answers. They want to know if multiplying polynomials will help them buy their first car. It is typically hard for middle school students to appreciate that math teaches them to think.

Kelli Davis's picture

This article makes perfect sense. Thanks to Ben for pointing out what many of us have overlooked for years. Math and science are inseparable as are language and culture or comprehension and reading.
The portion where I read about math for chemical formulas took me back to two items both calculating moles and converting between them and grams and setting both sides of a chemical equation equal to one another in my AP chemistry high school course.
As an ESL Math and Science teacher I have observed the obvious like both content area using number prefixes in words. Both requiring the use of mathemaitcal operations and formulas to calculate something and the use of charts, tables, and graphs to plot information.
I am currently about to begin teaching area and perimeter in Math and motion in Science. These two topics in the two content areas require the use of measurements so they will flow hand and in this week and the next.

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

"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."

Some incorrectly conflate science and math. And need I also mention the incorrect conflation of science and engineering (e.g., robotics as science) and of technology and science?

Math as an abstraction is hard to present. Only a small fraction of people are capable of embracing this concept. Math as a tool can be shown as something valuable that you can use. While learning math teaches logic and rigor in thinking, it's hard to sell that way.

Learning science turns us all into explorers, an exciting prospect. However, as you explore further and further you begin to find that more and more math is required. You can't get too far before you have to use algebra. Calculus is useful but required only for fairly hard-core science.

OTOH, as you advance in math, you don't have to have any science to support yourself. This is not an equivalence relation. Science helps learn math, not vice versa.

In addition, these explorers (student scientists) must read and write to do their exploring. So, language arts becomes another tool that must be mastered to explore. If the science teacher brings in current events in the news, then civics (political stuff) enters, and students can learn more social studies. By putting the student exploration in the context of the times when the initial discoveries were made, history and society also become part of the learning experience.

I do not take away one bit from the value of these fields in and of themselves by suggesting that it's possible to build a full curriculum around science exploration and even include music, art, and physical education if you desire.

Science is just about knowing (the meaning of the root word), but knowing by finding out in specific ways with reproducible data and disprovable predictions and hypotheses.

Perhaps, it's time to break down those barriers between subjects, all of them. I vote to put science in the lead, but I'm biased by being a scientist. :-)

Trish's picture

Thank you for this post. As a science teacher, I agree that math and science are so interconnected! I wish there was more opportunity in my building for collaboration with math and science teachers. We have gone to the math teachers and asked how they teach certain topics in an effort to stay consistent with our language; however, this is pretty much the extent of our collaboration. I agree with some of the comments that it is difficult logistically to collaborate. My district is currently exploring the concept of the flipped classroom; perhaps this will open the doors for exploration in ways we were not able to previously. Do you have any experience with the flipped classroom and cross-curriculum collaboration?

Elizabeth Johnson's picture

This was a great post. It is very important to realize how interconnected subjects are. Math and science go hand in hand and I think that it is important for us as educators to deliver our lessons in this way. Once students realize that they can use skills they learned in math to help their science, I feel there will be many who will excel. It also helps them to meet CCSS and become college/career ready.

Mary Yonan - 323626's picture

As a primary school teacher I think, integrating math and science into classroom instruction is very important to ensure students successfully gain and build basic skills knowledge. This integration will provide elementary students a chance to explore the subjects and through activities will create the interest and desire to learn math and science. The integrations have been productive because they have proven to students that math is important and essential to many aspects of their academic as well as day-to-day lives. Math and science are not just integrated but inseparable therefore, teacher's collaboration has a huge impact on students' motivation in learning math to build foundation skills. Technology is playing a great role integrating math, science, art and other subjects through math games which kids in all grades and ages can be hooked on for hours.

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