Israeli program helps the world’s students hone their science skills

Creators of the ‘Learning Skills for Science’ (LSS) program – Drs. Zahava Scherz and Ornit Spektor-Levy, of the Weizmann Institute’s Science Teaching Department.Israeli scientists have developed an innovative new science education program designed to help junior high school kids learn …

Creators of the ‘Learning Skills for Science’ (LSS) program – Drs. Zahava Scherz and Ornit Spektor-Levy, of the Weizmann Institute’s Science Teaching Department.Israeli scientists have developed an innovative new science education program designed to help junior high school kids learn the skills they need to study chemistry, physics, and biology successfully.

The ‘Learning Skills for Science’ (LSS) program, which was developed by professors in the Department of Science Teaching at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, has been successfully adopted by schools in Great Britain and is now being examined by educational experts in the US, The program teaches school children aged 11-15 how to study independently and navigate through the vast ocean of scientific knowledge now available at the touch of a button.

Youngsters are trained on how to find, critically evaluate and present information to increase their scientific knowledge. They learn how to take notes in a lecture, evaluate the reliability of a website, interpret data in a graph or table, and prepare a presentation. They are also taught browsing skills to help them read and evaluate long scientific documents quickly.

“For years teachers assumed that their pupils intuitively understood how to study independently,” says course creator Dr. Zahava Scherz, from the Department of Science Teaching. “They thought that it was enough to tell students that they need to study by themselves and to use various sources of scientific information, for them to find their way. We discovered that not only do youngsters not understand how to do this, but also that lack of these scientific literacy skills causes many to fail science courses when they reach university. If you throw non-swimmers into deep water, only a lucky few will figure out how to stay afloat. But if you first teach these people how to swim, they will all survive.”

Scherz developed the LSS learning and teaching program in the 1990s for children aged 11 to 15 years old. She worked with Dr. Ornit Spektor-Levy, a Ph.D. student at that time. The program was part of the MATMON science education project sponsored by the Israel Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport and headed by Prof. Bat-Sheva Eylon, of the Weizmann Institute. It became popular throughout Israel in the 1990s.

In 2002, the Gatsby Foundation, a UK charitable trust set up by the Sainsbury family, began a collaborative project between King’s College, London and a group from the Science Teaching Department of the Weizmann Institute. The project developed innovative methods for the professional development of science teachers. During this period, members of the trust came across the LSS program, and were impressed by the initiative.

The following year, Scherz, Eylon and Spektor-Levy won a grant from the Gatsby Science Enhancement Program (SEP) to adapt, expand and update the LSS material for the UK educational system. The learning and teaching materials were then published by SEP in collaboration with the Nuffield Curriculum Centre, an organization that supports the development of innovative science curricula in the UK.

In 2005, the LSS program was successfully piloted for the first time in 10 schools across Britain. It is now being followed with a larger trial of 40 schools across the country.

The new trial includes 80 teachers, two from each school. The teachers took part in LSS training workshops funded by SEP in January and March this year. They are now introducing the program to their Year 9 students, and will continue using the material throughout the new GCSE science course that is being introduced in September.

After the pilot has been evaluated, organizers expect to distribute the program more widely throughout the UK.

The popularity of this new program is growing fast. “Things are moving far more quickly than we expected,” Sally Johnson, national coordinator of teacher development projects at SEP, told ISRAEL21c

Over the last two years, Scherz and Spektor-Levy have conducted a number of workshops for both teachers and teacher trainers at the University of London, and in Manchester. There is strong teacher demand for the program.

Later this month, Scherz and Spektor-Levy are to hold a two-day workshop for teacher trainers in London. Thirty teachers and consultants are expected to take part.

From September, LSS training courses will be held across Britain at the nine regional Science Learning Centers.

One of the reasons why interest in this program is running so high is that it fits well with changes that are taking place in science education in Britain’s secondary schools. In September, new science GCSE’s will become mandatory.

The curriculum, for 14-16 year olds, seeks to increase public understanding of science by getting children involved in how science and scientists work. It also relies more heavily on individual learning.

“LSS is seen as a helpful preparation for students following the new curriculum,” says Johnson. “There is a gap in student skills, and this program fits the bill efficiently. Teachers undergoing the training have greeted the program with great enthusiasm. They must now change teaching methods that they have used for the last 20 years, and this new learning program helps them enormously.”

Certainly children have responded well. “The activities are cool and challenging,” says Scherz. “The students said it was a lot of fun. They liked it. It was something quite new for them.”

Interest in the LSS program is also growing abroad, with science teaching experts from India, Ireland, Brazil, South Africa requesting more information about the scheme.

“This program helps prepare children for the 21st century,” says Scherz. “Today we are overloaded with information from so many different sources. What we need in this society are the tools to deal with it. Our program gives children these tools. It allows them to steer their way through all this information to find out what they need. It enables them to be less dependent on their teachers and more dependent on themselves. The LSS program offers school students a way to develop the skills for life-long independent learning.”

About Nicky Blackburn

Editor and Israel Director, Nicky Blackburn has worked extensively as a journalist and editor both in Britain and Israel for a range of national and international publications including The Cambridge Evening News, London News, Travel Weekly, Israel High Tech Investor, and The Times of London. She was the Associate Editor at LINK Israel’s Business and Technology Magazine, and the High-Tech Correspondent for The Jerusalem Post.