116 The 3 Biggest Reasons to Skip the Intro to Science Unit

December 11, 2022

Let’s talk about those back to school activities. Despite the many shifts we’ve seen teachers making in their classroom, we’ve seen several teachers continuing to use old practices. Even if they’ve ditched the scientific method, many teachers are still teaching an intro to science unit. In this episode, Erin discusses some of the reasons why you should skip this intro unit. Instead, teach skills in context.

If you’d like to learn more about this topic, check out Nicole’s Bringing Wonder Back series. You’ll learn why teaching topic-by-topic is crushing your students curiosity. And, you’ll build your understanding of explorations and discovery based teaching. And finally, she’ll help you take the first steps to turning your students into scientists.

The Intro To Science Unit

When Erin started teaching in 2006, she was working at a school that was on a 4 x 4 block schedule. One of the benefits of this schedule is that she got to teach a full year within a semester. This allowed her to review anything that didn’t work in one semester and make adjustments during the second semester. So, she got twice as many opportunities to try different things to see what worked with her students.

Surprisingly, she found that many of her students were lacking basic lab skills. For example, many students had difficulty using a ruler. She was shocked that high school students lacked this skill. She talked to her colleagues and found that many were doing an intro unit at the beginning of the semester to alleviate this problem.

So, the next semester, she decided she was going to try it. She borrowed activities from her fellow teachers to build an intro to science unit. This unit lasted about two weeks out of the 18 week semester.

What types of things are covered in an intro to science unit?

Within this unit, Erin taught her students basic science skills. For example, she taught her students how to use a ruler and other measurement tools. She taught her students the scientific method and even build a lab activities that included several of these practices. But, she quickly noticed problems with teaching this way.

The Problem with the Intro to Science Unit

There were several problems with the intro to science unit. However, Erin admits that she didn’t recognize the problems right away. She acknowledges that she wasn’t a very effective teacher. So, she didn’t know what her classroom could look like. And, she didn’t know what to do instead.

So, she used the introduction unit in her class for many years before she realized the problems that it created.

Problem #1: Low Rigor and Front Loading Tank Engagement

One of the major problems with having an introductory unit is that the activities are generally very low on engagement. For example, teachers spend a lot of time going over procedures and things that students WILL need to know. However, there isn’t a context provided. For example, as Erin did, teachers show students how to do various measurement techniques. But, students are asked to do these activities without providing them a context in which these skills are necessary.

Student falling asleep on a pile of books.  Text reads "front loading science skills often tanks your engagement."
The intro to science unit is a way to front load science skill. However, these aren’t always the most engaging or rigorous activities. As a result, your students might check out early in the school year.

This practice is an example of front loading. Front loading is when you teach a skill, term or idea before it is seen in context. While this practice might be beneficial in other subject areas, it can be detrimental in science.

And, many of these tasks are incredibly low rigor. In fact, many measurement activities cover skills that students should have learned in elementary school. So, students are working on skills that are far below their current ability.

What about the intro to science lab?

In order to alleviate some of these problems, teachers create an intro to science lab. For example, students may grow plant and measure them over time. Through this activity, they will learn the skill that they’ll use later in the school year.

This does help with some of the issues. However, the context of these activities generally doesn’t have a strong link to what students learn later in the course. So, the context that is provided is weak or irrelevant.

What to do instead- Teach skills in context.

The best course of action is to introduce or review skills in context. If your students need to measure, do a quick review of the skill. Or, better yet, provide them with a video that reviews the skill. Then, they’ll be able to access the video when it’s convenient for them. And you won’t have to

Problem #2: There is never enough time.

One of the biggest problems with this practice is that teachers rarely cover all of the material for their grade level. However, they often spend two weeks to a month on an intro unit. Then, they are scrambling to cover all of the material at the end of the year.

There is just no way for me to cover it all.  So, adding this intro to science unit further tasks away time I could be using for grade level content.
If you don’t feel like you have enough time in your school year, getting rid of the intro unit is a good way to find it.

What to do instead: Start content (almost) right away.

Jump into your first real unit as soon as you comfortably can. This doesn’t mean you start content on the first day. But, you might start content at the beginning of the second week.

When you actually start your content depends on several factors. The first is that is generally takes a few days to balance classes. So, students are likely to shift to different sections.

Also, establishing norms and routines is incredibly important.

Problem #3: Not all of your students need the review.

It’s easy to over estimate the number of students who lack necessary skills. But, teachers often over estimate the need. Most likely, students skills will vary greatly. And, if you are teaching your students things they already know, your engagement will tank.

What to do instead – PreAssess Your Students

Don’t make assumptions. Create a quick pre-assessment to determine your students actual skill level.

One way to do this is to create a quick assessment the day before a skill is needed. Erin suggests pulling one or two questions from a worksheet and giving it to your students the day before they will need to use the skill. Then, use it to determine if your students need a refresher or if you can just pull a small group of students to show them the skill.

Or, listen to this episode to find out how to utilize stations to teach students skills.

Quick Tips for Skipping the Intro to Science Unit

There were several ideas discussed here, but we know you’d like a few quick takeaways.

  • Have a playlist of videos available for students to watch if they need help with a given skill.
  • Create a class data set. Then, have students write their results on the data table. When there is data that doesn’t fit the pattern, students will quickly realize they have a measurement error.
  • Pre-Assess students to determine which skills they are missing. Then, pull small groups to reteach the skill instead of teaching it to students who already know how to do it.

Episodes to Help You Skip the Intro to Science Unit

Don’t let your listening stop here. We’ve got several other episodes that will help you. Check these out!