Social studies keeping up with math and science

Mary Lou Penn, Heritage School instructor, helps teach the students the importance of Nebraska history.

Story, photos and video by Doug Burger | NewsNetNebraska

During one of the most well-watched sporting events of the year, The Master’s golf tournament, there were several Exxon Mobile commercials.

The commercials stressed the importance of math and science through the words and stories of teachers and students. Such campaigns for math and science interest among students have recently become a trend in society.

“I believe we must do a much better job in math and science education than we’re doing now,” said Robert Evnen, Nebraska Department of Education Vice President.

But, for educators, that begs the questions, “What about social studies? Where does that fit in?” The last time Nebraska’s social studies standards were updated was in 2003.

“It’s not a zero sum here if you do it right,” Evnen continued. “…I also believe it is critically important we have good social studies education because if students don’t understand the history of the country, and if they don’t develop an emotional attachment to the country, then they have no understanding and no reason to protect, defend and advance the interest of the country.”

Nebraska recently updated its reading, English, math and science standards, Evnen said. Social studies is next on the list. He said that transition will take place in the next year and a half.

In recent years social studies education has seen a change. Rather than focusing on chronological history, the curriculum has shifted to a more diverse approach, offering classes like government, geography and economics.

“I think it’s preparing kids for a global society,” said Pat Hunter-Pirtle, principal at Lincoln’s Southeast High School, “because that’s what they’re going to be in.”

Hunter-Pirtle credits the Lincoln Public School district for keeping social studies curriculum on the cutting edge. LPS has its own curriculum specialist for social studies to keep Lincoln up to date with what is happen in education at the state and national level.

“There’s a group of people,” Hunter-Pirtle said, “that’s there main focus to make sure social studies doesn’t get lost in the shuffle.”

Hunter-Pirtle said he likes the direction the district is going. Students in a government and politics class complete 20 hours of volunteer service. Students are starting to move away from textbooks and delving into primary sources and documents.

Students are even participating in psychology classes, Hunter-Pirtle said, a far cry from what a traditional social studies course load used to look like.

“The psychology is really hands on,” Hunter-Pirtle said. “Coming up with an experiment, performing it and then looking at the results.”

At the elementary level, students are taught history in a more traditional style, said Cindy Schwaninger, principal at Lincoln’s Adams Elementary. She added, though, that students have the opportunity to participate in programs like student council and character council.

It’s that kind of hands on activity, educators say, that is keeping social studies up to par with math and science.

At the elementary school level, fourth graders spend a day at Heritage School at Pioneers Park in Lincoln. Each fourth grader gets to experience what life was like in 1892 for one day of the year.

This Campbell Elementary fourth-grader prepares corn for grinding at Heritage School in Lincoln.

Students write on chalk slates, do traditional pioneer home life activities, among other things.

“It’s kids,” Heritage School instructor Mary Lou Penn said. “They need to do. They need to experience.”

Schwaninger said most students cite their time as Heritage School as their favorite field trip during elementary school.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for students to learn about Nebraska history and to have an experience or simulation to feel what it was like in the late 1800s,” she said.

And the 2003 social studies standards are just as diverse as the activities at Heritage School. By the fourth grade must know about culture and heritage, Nebraska history, characteristics of a market system and use of maps and globes, among other things.

The high school level standards are even more rigorous and diverse, including things like international trade and government process. But, still, Evnen said he feels Nebraska has improving to do.

“I think we’re not doing as well as we should be,” he said. “As part of a well-rounded education for citizens of the United States, if we’re going to remain free and democratic, then our citizens have to have an understanding of economics. They have to have an understanding of history. And they ought to have a strong understanding of geography, which I actually think has been neglected.”

On the surface, math and science might be getting more attention, but according to educators, social studies is still just as critical for those teaching it.

“There are just not many kids sitting and reading a textbook the whole time,” Hunter-Pirtle said. “It’s just much more interactive than it ever has been.”

Students at Heritage School participate in many different activities, including orthography, penmanship and
a spelling bee.

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