I Used to Love Science…And Then I Went to School:

The Challenge of School Science in Urban Schools


Gloria Ladson-Billings

University of Wisconsin-Madison

[Plenary Session at the Annual Meeting of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching, March 25th, 2003; Philadelphia, PA.]


            As a child growing up in West Philadelphia in the 1950s and 60s I have fond memories of my family, my community, and school. I was considered a “good” student. I read well, I did my homework, and was well-behaved. However, in my early years I don’t remember my elementary school as a place where I experienced much science teaching.  Elementary school was a place that focused on the three R’s and parents and community members seemed to support that focus. No, my science education took place at home. One of my early science memories comes right after my older brother received a Chemistry Set for Christmas. As we set about trying to perform the experiments in the accompanying handbook we learned quickly that scientists (or at least chemists) sometimes had to improvise. We also learned that there were unintended consequences to scientific experimentation. For example, when we decided to make soap as directed in the Chemistry Set experiment book, we thought it would be ok to use the previously used cooking grease that my mother kept in a can on the stove top. We didn’t know that such impure fat would create a slimy, food flecked, glob that no one in my family would or could use. Another example was when we decided to make the rock candy-slash-sugar crystals. Of course, as applied scientists we were less interested in crystal formation than producing candy. We set out on that experiment during a time when both my parents were gone and my grandfather was left in charge. Again, it did not occur to us that using available resources—in this case, all of the sugar my mother had in the canister—would cause a problem. Our rock candy seem to form just fine, it was our explanation to my mother upon her return that did not seem to go over well.

            Sometime around 5th grade, science became really important in our school. This was the same time that the Russian’s launched a successful satellite. Suddenly, we began receiving science books and the Weekly Reader began to have a very deliberate science message. However the school’s version of science wasn’t like the kind of science my brother and I were doing from his chemistry set. There was no mystery, no uncertainty, no unintended consequences, and most importantly, no fun. Science—when we had it—was boring. It consisted of reading chapters, memorizing facts, and answering the questions at the end of each chapter. I found it boring and I was a good reader. I cannot imagine how horrible it was for the struggling readers.

            By the time I got to junior high school I learned that Science was a special subject. I knew it was special because we had it in special classrooms. These rooms had big black covered tabletops with sinks on one end and what I would soon learn was a gas outlet for something called a “Bunsen Burner.” My 7th grade teacher, Mr. McLean had a preciseness about himself. There was a specific way that the science notebook had to be kept he said, because scientists work in very precise ways. Already I was starting to get nervous. Mr. McLean insisted that we head our papers in a particular way. He also insisted that we use specific vocabulary—hypothesis, observations, conclusions—and that we include precise diagrams and illustration with our lab work. I liked doing the labs—they reminded me of my chemistry set antics—but I was so nervous about the preciseness of the reporting that I often paid little attention to what I was supposed to be learning. For example, I could recite every single part of the microscope but I don’t think I knew what any of those parts really did.

            One of the assignments for 7th grade science was a leaf collection assignment. We were to locate at least 10 different kinds of deciduous leaves, mount and label them, and create a booklet. I think the one thing I understood about the assignment was the word booklet. The thing that Mr. McLean did not understand about me was that I traveled by trolley and bus to attend that school because my mother thought it would give me a shot at a better education. Most of my classmates lived close to the school and living close to the school meant that they lived close to Bartram’s Garden the oldest botanical garden in the country. I lived in a neighborhood where the city had removed most of the trees and replanted one species—Sycamores. I did not have access to the same variety my mostly White classmates did. My mother, in her attempt to help, talked with a co-worker who had a part time job in a greenhouse. On the eve of the day my leaf booklet was due my mother came home proudly displaying a set of leaves. They were absolutely beautiful. Unfortunately, they were not deciduous and my mother nor I really knew the difference. I placed my leaves on paper, labeled each one, covered each page with plastic wrap and made a nice construction paper cover. I failed the project because while my classmates turned in maples, oaks, elms, and many other leaves from trees native to the Philadelphia environs, I turned in a booklet with orange tree, lemon tree, rubber tree, and other leaves from a greenhouse.  I felt stupid and vowed to try to do science “by the book.”

            In 8th grade, I had a wonderful teacher named Ms. Mowbray. I was excited by the idea that we had a woman as a science teacher. Ms. Mowbray made the science fun. We did lots of experiments and got to ask lots of questions. I did well in her class. However, on one of the last extra-credit assignments I ran into a problem. We were supposed to construct a “Cartesian Diver.”  Once again I was coming home with an assignment that was beyond my parents’ understanding. This time I did understand what Ms. Mowbray wanted. She wanted us to understand “buoyancy” and that an object is buoyant in water due to the amount of water it displaces. She wanted us to know that if the weight of the water that is displaced by an object in water exceeds the weight of the object then the object will float. I understood that. It helped me understand why people float in large bodies of water. My problem with the project was that it required a glass jar (we did not have plastic bottles), an eyedropper, and a semi-permeable membrane. The only component of the project I could get was the semi-permeable membrane, which was a balloon. I could not get the glass jar because glass bottles had a 2 cents deposit attached to them. I could not get the eyedropper because every eyedropper in my house was in use with someone’s medicine.

            By high school, I had an after school job and was in a better position to marshal school supplies on my own. I was a good student and earned good grades in science courses, especially chemistry. For a brief moment I considered a career in the sciences. But, I have always been puzzled by the way science is seen as the special purview of some students while others are systematically excluded from participation in the sciences.


Science and African American Students

            As an African American student growing up in a working class household and community I should be a science education statistic. However, a number of factors converged to ensure that my K-12 schooling experience left me with enough social and cultural capital to enter college and pursue advanced studies. But, it is important that we look at what is happening to African American students in science today. In the 2003 Quality Counts report [slide] we learn than although many states are doing their best to recruit and retain skilled teachers, few efforts are targeted at finding teachers for students need them most. Teacher quality is important because [slide] the existing research indicates that effective teachers can get an additional year’s worth of learning out of students and the effect of having a string of ineffective teachers is cumulative. Although we have read about the achievement gap, the digital gap, and the learning gap, we have not addressed the “teacher gap” [slide]. This gap indicates that students of color in high poverty schools are more likely to have teachers who do not have college majors or minors in the subjects they teach. They are more likely to have teachers who are not certified in the subjects they teach. They are more likely to be inexperienced teachers without the benefit of student teaching before they face a classroom of students.

            According to the MetLife 2001 American Teacher Study, “students overall, and black students in particular, have high expectations for their future. However, teachers and principals in heavily minority schools have lower expectations for their students. Teachers in schools with high proportions of students of color report lower quality teaching and teachers in schools with high proportions of students of color are less satisfied with several school relationships (e.g. with principals, colleagues, students) and less committed to the profession.” (p.10)

            The achievement gap we reference emerges in a context that includes a teacher gap (as well as a resource gap). As we look at the NAEP data we know that the largest achievement gaps are in 8th grade science on which 40 percent of White students score at or above proficient compared with only 6 percent of African American and 11 percent of Latino students. At each assessed grade level (4,8, and 12) Black and Latino students score significantly lower than their White counterparts.

            Any number of assumptions are tied to African American students’ lack of science proficiency. Some of the “usual suspects” are that the students lack the motivation, fail to have supportive parents, and/or do not have prerequisite skills for science learning. Haycock (2001) indicates that when the Education Trust staff queries adults about the racial/ethnic achievement gap the comments tend to be:

 “They’re too poor.” “Their parents don’t care.” “They come to school without an adequate breakfast.” “They don’t have enough books in the home.” “Indeed, there aren’t enough parents in the home.” Their reasons, in other words, are always about the children and their families. Young people, however have different answers. They talk about teachers who often do not know the subjects they are teaching. They talk about counselors who consistently underestimate their potential and place them in lower-level courses. They talk about principals who dismiss their concerns. And they talk about a curriculum and a set of expectations that feel so miserably low-level that they literally bore the students right out the school door. When we ask, “What about the things that the adults are always talking about—neighborhood violence, single-parent homes, and so on?”—the young people’s responses are fascinating. “Sure, those matter,” they say. “But what hurts us more is that you teach us less.” (p.3)

            In this discussion I want to focus on the idea that the students lack the motivation or aptitude for science. I want to argue that African American students continue to be interested in science but often attend schools where they have little or no opportunity to learn “real” science. To “test” student interest in science I have been interviewing pre-school and kindergarten aged African American students to determine how their interests converge with science. I have purposely not interviewed older students because the nature of their school science experiences may unduly influence what they believe about science. I have been interviewing 4-5 year old children at an African American church and 5-6 year olds who are attending kindergarten. I used Brodhagen and Beane’s framing questions of “What do you want to know about yourself” and “What do you want to know about the world?” The following are a sample of the questions the children posed (I edited out those that were not science questions):

v     Why is my shadow long sometimes and short sometimes?

v     Why do people have different color skin?

v     Why do the leaves fall off the tree in the winter and come back in the summer?

v     How can a big airplane stay up in the air?

v     Why does stuff come in your eyes when you are sleeping? (I think this is a question about mucus).

v     How does the weatherman know what the weather is going to be the day before?

v     Why does the moon look different? Sometimes it’s a big moon and sometimes it’s a little teeny moon?

v     How can the moon and sun be out at the same time?

v     Why do some of my mother’s flowers come back every year and some she has to plant every year?

v     Why is it late at my house and early at my grandma’s? (I think this is a time zone questions).

v     How does the baby get out of the mommy’s stomach?

v     Why does your mother say, “no jumping” when she bakes a cake?

v     How does the thermometer know you’re sick?

These questions clearly illustrate that African American students do have an interest in the scientific world. Their questions cut across a variety of science areas—biology, astronomy, chemistry, and physics. Yet, we are led to believe that inner city, urban students of color have little or no interest in science.


How Science Could Be

            If the students continue to come to school with interests in science, how can we maintain and invigorate their interests? From my research with teachers who are effective teachers of African American students I argue that science could be different. Science could incorporate what I have termed “Culturally Relevant Pedagogy.” [slide] This pedagogy incorporates academic achievement, cultural competence, and sociopolitical consciousness.

            Academic achievement is in someway a misnomer for what I mean theoretically. I am not referring merely to student performance on standard measures. Rather I am focusing on student learning as a much broader construct. Thus, when it comes to science education I am referring to what it is important to know. Those of you who have worked with the 2061 project know that science educators have wrestled with this question. Is it necessary to study dinosaurs at every elementary grade level or are their some science concepts and knowledge that students should learn or at least experience at different grade levels?

            In the classrooms I studied, teachers demanded that students study and learn to high levels. One teacher taught the students from the graduate curriculum she was studying to obtain her master’s degree. In her classroom there were posters of the brain and its various parts. Students use neurological terms and queried their teacher each Thursday morning as to what she studied the day before. In Barb Brodhagen’s classroom her students discussed the earlier questions—“what do I want to learn about myself and what do I want to learn about the world?” The students settle on a small set of questions that become the basis for the curriculum. One semester the students decided the question they wanted answered was “Will I live to be 100?” That question provoked study in family and genealogical histories, actuarial charts, environmental effects on life span, investigation of genetics and genetic diseases. What both of these classrooms had in common were knowledgeable and skillful teachers who were unafraid of deviating from prescribed curriculum and challenging students beyond conventional course materials.

            The second aspect of culturally relevant pedagogy is cultural competence. This refers to the degree to which student culture is logically and meaningfully incorporated into the curriculum. The typical science attempts at this involve a list of famous African American scientists and inventors. The students rarely see the relevance or connection of these scientists—particularly when they only show up in February—and find their presentation no more meaningful than anything else in the curriculum. Instead, culturally relevant teachers take the time to “study” the students, their habits, and behaviors. In one classroom of African American students a teacher asked, “How many people don’t like to drink milk?” About 1/3 of the students raised their hands. “What is it about milk that you don’t like?” Even the way she phrased the question—not “why don’t you like milk”—invited the students to participate. Her question indicated that there was something about the milk that might be problematic. Some students talked about not liking the taste of the milk. Others talked about not minding the taste but getting sick soon after drinking it. As the students shared their problems with milk some of the others who were milk drinkers shared stories of siblings and other family members who had trouble drinking milk. The teacher then asked the students what would they think if they learned that in a classroom of White children almost all of the students drank milk. “Wow,” exclaimed one boy, “you mean white milk is for White people?” That comment brought a nervous laugh among the students but the teacher said, “Well, I don’t know that white milk is for White people, but it is true that it is difficult for some people of African descent to digest. This conversation moves the students into a school-wide survey of milk drinkers. It also gave the teacher an opportunity to teach the students about genetic characteristics, lactose intolerance, and food allergies. The science that most students want to engage in is science that helps them answer their questions. While middle class students may acquiesce and tolerate the science the school curriculum offers them, many of the students who are struggling to engage with school need a curriculum that engages them.

Cultural competence is important because it helps students understand the strengths and limitations of their culture. In Lee’s study of standards based science teaching, she learned that although the teachers taught exactly what the curriculum asked of them, students’ world views are shaped by powerful forces outside of the classroom. In the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew teachers tried to determine how much of the science learning helped students to understand the weather disaster. Unfortunately, Black and Latino students reported that the hurricane was the result of the wickedness and evil that pervaded the south Florida region. The hurricane was God’s way of punishing them. The teachers did not know what to do with this world view and students left the school experience with the notion that school and home and strictly separate worlds. The fact that the students experience more success in the world of their home galvanizes their feelings of alienation toward the school.

            The third component of culturally relevant pedagogy is socio-political consciousness. In my mind, this is the “so-what” aspect of schooling. How many times have we heard students ask the question, “Why do we have to learn this?” only to be told, “…because some day you’re going to need this.” We all know how much we ALL need the periodic chart of elements in our daily lives. Socio-political consciousness helps students understand the way citizens in a democratic society need scientific knowledge to make informed decisions. Maria Torres-Guzman studied a group of high school students in an alternative school. The students’ major project at the school was investigating a dumpsite in their neighborhood. The students learned that the site contained toxic materials and ultimately raised questions about the way poor communities of color are vulnerable to environmental racism. The students’ passion for this project was fueled by the fact that they understood that what they were doing had a payoff for the here and now, not the “someday” that teachers often promise.

            There is a science out there in which African American students desperately want to participate. This is a science that explains the epidemic of diabetes or AIDS in their community. This is a science that challenges social constructions like race. This is a science that people can mobilize to fight social injustice AND intellectually empower people. This is a science that allows students to do something rather than sit passively while something is done to them.

            My focus has been on African American students but I have begun to see how improving schooling for them is likely to improve schooling for all students. If, we begin to strengthen science teaching for those who are most vulnerable in our system, we are like to strengthen it everyone. We are no longer in a society that can afford for people to be scientifically illiterate. We are no longer in a society that can afford to weed out students or push them through arbitrary sieves called biology, chemistry, and physics. We are no longer in a society that can afford to send some students to a course called general science that actually would better be called “reading about science.”  We need every student to leave our schools excited about and engaged in science so that they can have more career and vocational choices open to them and so that they can actively participate in the decision making that democracy requires. We need to turn school into a place where our students can continue to like science. (And in case anybody knows Ms. Mowbray, please tell her that I’ve made my Cartesian diver).