By Emma Näslund-Hadley
Why is water wet? Why do I have brown eyes? Why do stars twinkle? A group of third-grade students at the Corazón de Jesús school outside Lima, Peru have been staying after school to grapple with questions like these.
The children are part of a science tutoring project that aims to improve test scores and close learning gaps by getting struggling students excited about science.
Most children start school with a natural love of science; they are curious to learn how the world around them works. Unfortunately, Latin American and Caribbean schools focus almost exclusively on memorization and drills, which tends to quickly extinguish any budding enthusiasm.
In Peru as throughout the Region, student scores in the natural sciences on international standardized tests such as the Programme for International Student Assessment are far below those of students in developed countries, and the gap between income groups is vast.
To remedy this situation, Peru’s Ministry of Education designed a new primary education curriculum for science and environmental studies in 2011 that aimed to shift classroom practices from “chalk and talk” to student-centered learning.
To put the new curriculum to the test, the government partnered with the IDB and the non-profit organization Innovations for Poverty Action to conduct a pilot project in both rural and urban areas in the department of Lima which included the country’s capital and surrounding areas.
Instead of asking students to memorize the names and discoveries of long-dead scientists, the pilot project challenged the third graders to roll up their sleeves and participate more actively in their learning.
Activities included everything from building windmills to exploring the sources of water pollution and designing environmental prevention and clean-up strategies.
An initial project evaluation found that the new curriculum indeed improved science skills by the equivalent of 14 additional weeks of instruction, but a closer look at the data revealed that boys in urban schools benefited disproportionately.
Science scores for urban girls did not improve; while the boys loved the science kits and monopolized the hands-on activities, the girls were relegated to being science observers. Scores also did not improve for children in rural areas, regardless of gender, or for students who had started the project with the lowest science skills.
In 2013 the government and the IDB went back to the drawing board. Teachers focused more on building girls’ confidence in their science skills, and classroom teams were separated by gender for some activities to ensure that girls got more time doing hands-on experience. Teachers in rural areas also received additional mentoring and training to help boost the skills of boys and girls alike.
Those efforts made the average gender and rural-urban effect gaps insignificant. The project then took the additional step of adding an after-school tutoring program where struggling students could conduct supervised science experiments.
Low-performing students were given the opportunity to attend 90-minute sessions once a week for 16 weeks, providing them with 40 hours of tutoring, which was the equivalent of a 14 percent increase in total science instructional time.
An evaluation showed that students who attended these sessions improved their science test scores by an equivalent of 13 weeks of additional instruction. The project continues to be refined, with current efforts focusing on providing remedial science instruction models to help struggling female students.
Peru’s pilot program shows that it is possible to improve student achievement in science studies if young people receive additional training and are given the opportunity to conduct hands-on experiments and extend learning beyond the typical classroom lesson.
Science taught correctly can foster children’s innate love and passion asking “why?”. Sometimes just trying to find answers to the simplest questions can lead to eye-opening experiences and extend learning beyond the typical classroom lesson.
For example, on the day project officials visited the Corazón de Jesús school, a group of five students were building a lever to test the limits of how heavy an object they could lift.
“Look,” said one girl excitedly as she pulled the officials over to see the experiment. “My lever can lift this sandbag, and it’s heavier than I am!”
This story is one of the impact evaluations included in the Development Effectiveness Overview, an annual publication that highlights the lessons learned from IDB financed-projects and evaluations.
About the author:
Emma Näslund-Hadley is a lead education specialist in the Education Division in the IDB headquarters in Washington, DC. She is the coordinator of the Bank’s efforts to improve mathematics and natural science education.