Researcher: Science class funding ‘appalling’

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A Wilson County native who just earned her doctorate in science education says her nationwide survey found that funding for science teaching materials is woefully inadequate.

Emily Cayton, a 2003 Beddingfield High School graduate, taught math and science in Wilson County Schools for eight years.

Cayton is an Alfred “Pee Wee” and Myrtle Owens Scholarship recipient who earned her undergraduate degree from East Carolina University in middle grades education with a concentration in math and science education. She earned her master’s and her doctorate at North Carolina State University in science education with her dissertation on science materials.

“About 40 percent of the teachers in my nationwide survey reported receiving $100 or less for science materials,” Cayton said. “We usually teach at least 100 students a year, so $1 per student is rather appalling when you think about it.”

It’s hard to keep up with the national standards when science is poorly funded, she said.

Cayton’s nationwide survey included answers from 650 to 700 teachers. She conducted interviews with 24 teachers, six in each region of the United States. That included two urban, two rural and two suburban teachers in each region.

Cayton found about 95 percent of the teachers reported spending money out of their pockets with an average amount of $450. Cayton estimates she spent around $500 out of pocket each year as a Wilson County science teacher.

“I surveyed science teachers, teachers who stated that they were fully funded in their science classes, yet still paying out of pocket for some materials, and then teachers who said they receive nothing from their school system or their school and have to pay for everything out of pocket,” Cayton said. “Some teachers told me they spent $2,000 out of pocket when others said they only spent $50 because they were well-funded.”

Teachers in suburban areas reported about two and a half times more funds than teachers in urban areas, Cayton found.

“It was about 1.3 times more funds than rural areas, so suburban teachers reported receiving a lot more funds,” she said.

Cayton taught sixth-grade math and science at Elm City Middle School and science at Beddingfield High.

Wilson County is classified as a rural school district, according to U.S. Census data.

“Nationwide, 73 percent of my rural teachers reported that they did not have adequate funding for instructional materials for science,” Cayton said.

According to Cayton, the National Science Teachers Association standards say 40 percent of science teachers’ instruction should be hands-on lab experiences.

“That’s really hard when you have limited materials because you have limited time because of testing and the limited time you have in a semester,” Cayton said.

Cayton said it’s difficult for students to grasp concepts when they can’t experience the inquiry, and teachers don’t have the materials to let them do that.

“I know there are a lot of grants that teachers can apply for, but grants usually want you to purchase things that are reusable, instead of strawberries and rubbing alcohol for a DNA extraction lab or eggs for an osmosis and diffusion lab — things that can’t be reused,” Cayton said. “That’s what teachers are spending out of pocket for.”

Teachers told Cayton that when they don’t have the materials, they switch to a paper lab, where students are working experiments out on paper rather than actually measuring the eggs and doing the calculations.

“We want students to choose careers in STEM majors in math and science, so being exposed to hands-on math and science courses is going to improve their motivation and their self-efficacy and their ability to think they can do well in those courses,” Cayton said.

Cayton said policymakers at the local and state level need to understand that financial commitments to science labs are ongoing because experiments involve consumable materials that need to be replaced.

“You are talking about high school and middle school students,” Cayton said. “Just because you buy a set of beakers and test tubes doesn’t mean the glassware will always be there. Glassware has a shelf life, so that needs to be incorporated into the budget. I don’t think our policymakers really consider that.

Cayton said it’s almost like having a contingency budget for a construction project.

“Chemicals also have a shelf life in the chemistry classes,” Cayton said. “You have to make sure that you are not using up all of the chemicals and that they are being disposed of properly. They are also expensive.”

Cayton talked with teachers who had bought balances for their classrooms and hardware materials.

“But overwhelmingly it was plates and eggs and things that you can run to the store and get,” Cayton said. “Grants won’t cover balances and beakers and glasses and that kind of thing. And also you have to think about the time it takes to go to businesses and find the materials that they need. They could be planning better instruction if they had the resources at their disposal.”

Cayton said schools nationwide need to bolster their STEM education offerings.

“There is a growing STEM workforce, so we really need to change, and it starts with out policymakers so our people at the local level are able to have better policies to help science educators,” Cayton said.

Cayton’s research was featured in an article in The Conversation recently. She also discussed her findings on the season finale of the National Science Teachers Association’s Lab Out Loud podcast.

“We had a great conversation about my research and implications for science instruction.”

Cayton was recently hired at Campbell University as an assistant professor, a position she will begin in August. She will teach teachers how to more effective.