Inquiry-driven science classrooms in elementary grades are rare, says John L. Rudolph, the author of How We Teach Science: What’s Changed, and Why It Matters and a professor of science education at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Most schools focus on factual content, he told me. You might see elementary students asked to memorize the parts of the eye, for example, and draw diagrams and write reports to supplement their learning. It’s less common, Rudolph said, for students to get the chance to engage in intellectual dialogue around questions such as “Why do humans have eyes?” or “How are the eyes of various animals different and why?”
The latter approach requires more teacher training, funding, and complex assessments, but the payoff is worth it, Rudolph said. Not only do students learn critical thinking and communication skills, they also develop an intimate understanding of and appreciation for how scientists come up with evidence and develop conclusions, which Rudolph views as a largely neglected part of science education. A lack of such understanding, he thinks, contributes to scientific illiteracy—from skepticism about climate change to growing opposition to vaccination.
The impact of Blissfield’s Environmental Life Lab has been huge: The rural district consistently outperformed state averages on standardized science tests between 2002 and 2015, and some years Blissfield Elementary scored near the top of the state, according to Linda Mueller, the school’s principal. More of the district’s students are going on to major in STEM fields in college, including alums like Jim Raines, a climate and space scientist at the University of Michigan, whose research helped send a solar orbiter into space this year, and Jodi Sterle, a swine geneticist at Iowa State University. According to several Blissfield teachers, more parents are choosing the district’s schools for their children, including the current supervisor of the lab, Kim Gray, a seventh-grade teacher who moved there with her family in 2003.
For dozens of current and former students I interviewed, work in the lab was the highlight of their time in Blissfield’s schools. “I learned that even though hamsters are the same species, they all need and like different things,” the fifth-grade zoo keeper said. “Every day feels like a field trip day,” a seventh grader told me. “The lab is so awe-inspiring in our little town,” said one high school senior, who applied to several colleges to study computer science. He credits the lab with making science and math his favorite subjects.
Even in retirement, Koppelman still came to the lab every day until the pandemic hit, but he was spending more of his time speaking at science conferences and in front of policy makers to advocate for what he views as a more meaningful way to teach science. If reading, worksheets, and standardized tests were the best way for kids to learn and show their knowledge, he told former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and state board members at a gathering in 2017, he’d never have even had a chance to go to college, much less create a STEM lab that has been used by thousands of rural students over the past two decades.
“It’s hard to explain to people who are not teachers what it looks and feels like when something in nature or science touches a child’s sense of awe and wonderment,” Koppelman said. “But my colleagues and I see it every day. That’s the payoff. There is nothing else like it.”
This article is part of our project “On Teaching,” which is supported by grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Panta Rhea Foundation.