Soon-to-expire federal funds offer chance to invest in innovative science programs

It makes sense that school districts across the country are careful about spending money. Dollars are hard to find, and school administrators are rightfully in the habit of planning and justifying every expenditure.

But when school districts have spent, on average, only 15 cents of every federal dollar they’ve received in emergency relief as a deadline to use it or lose it approaches in September 2024, it may be time for urgency to overtake caution.

The money I’m talking about is the most recent outlay of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, commonly known as ESSER funds. This $122 billion of pandemic relief money, made available in March 2021 as part of the American Rescue Plan to help reopen schools, addresses mental health and gets kids caught up on learning they had lost. This money is a rare opportunity to not only help kids bridge the learning loss gap, but also help them vault forward.

Science education, particularly at the elementary level, is one such area. Despite the attention spent at the secondary level on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), science teaching in many U.S. schools has been an afterthought. On average, elementary school students get just 18 minutes of science education a day, and fewer than 4 in 10 elementary schools have science labs or facilities. Two out of 3 elementary school teachers say they don’t feel prepared to teach science.

Like Out Teach, the organization I lead, some California organizations, including the collaborative California Schoolyard Forest System, have pushed for outdoor learning spaces. Some, but not all, have taken the important second step of building an associated science education program to go with those spaces. Districts are understandably wary of spending one-time funds on initiatives that would require ongoing costs such as staffing. But there are other ways to engage young minds in science and to train teachers how to do that with this money.

The permissible uses of ESSER funds are broad enough, for example, to invest in educational robotics, to make computer science and engineering enticing. Outdoor labs let young students get their hands dirty while exploring how life itself functions. Capital improvements and training for teachers to use these new spaces are costs that won’t recur and will pay lasting dividends. Washington, D.C. schools, for example, see the value of that and are spending ESSER funds to design outdoor learning spaces for 64 of its schools.

The pandemic further shrank the already minimal time allotted to elementary science education. A National Academy of Sciences report found that 88% of teachers said students spent less time on science during remote learning than they did in class, even as the crisis itself made scientific literacy more crucial than ever. The fundamentals of science — testing and repeatedly validating a hypothesis — teach us to understand data and evaluate evidence.

This same report urged educators to teach science to all students in a way that resonates with them. “One of the recent innovations in science and engineering education is the central focus on having students figure out puzzling phenomena and solving real-world problems,” the report said. “With this focus, students learn ideas and skills because they realize they are missing some knowledge or skill that would allow them to answer their own questions — to satisfy their curiosity.”

It would be satisfying for teachers, too, at a time when teacher retention is a crisis. Igniting the sense of wonder within students is what most teachers want to do. When the money is there to catch up to the former status quo and surpass it, and when that money will fade away if not used, it seems obvious to find a smart use for it, like elementary school science education.

As a rule, school officials are wise to spend cautiously. But it’s unwise to be so cautious that money evaporates. Evaporation is best studied in an outdoor laboratory, rather than in a school district budget.

Jeanne McCarty is CEO of Out Teach, a national nonprofit that brings outdoor science education to students. She wrote this for EdSource.