N.A.S., Smithsonian Curriculum To Help Students ‘Learn Science by Doing Science’

By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong — March 13, 1991 3 min read

With their dead bees, green plants, and electrical gear in hand, elementary-school pupils joined scientists at the National Academy of Sciences here last week to help introduce a new science curriculum designed to help them “learn science by doing science.”

Twenty-one students attended a news conference for the public debut of the first three units of the “Science and Technology for Children” series, developed by the National Science Resources Center. The four-year-old center is a joint project of the national academy and the Smithsonian Institution whose goal is to foster improved science education.

Dealing with plant growth and development, electric circuits, and scientific observation, the three units are the beginning of what is designed to be a complete science curriculum for grades 1 through 6. At least 24 units are expected to be ready by 1995.

“Because it is important to start early to improve science education in order to develop an interest and aptitude for science in young children, one of the nsrc’s priorities has been to improve the teaching of science in elementary schools,” said Douglas M. Lapp, the organization’s executive director.

“One important element in this effort is the development of innovative science instructional materials that will bring ‘hands on’ science into elementary-school classrooms,” he said. “That is why we initiated the Science and Technology for Children Program.”

While learning important science concepts and skills, children using the system will also learn to solve problems and “to think for themselves,” Mr. Lapp said.

Thinking has too often been downplayed in science education, said Paul H. Williams, professor of plant pathology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Mr. Williams, who also directs the university’s Center for Biology Education, helped devise the curriculum.

“Science too often is a prescription with an answer at the end,” he said. “There really isn’t any science being done in our classrooms,’' where the inquisitive nature of the learning process often is replaced by the promulgation of specific answers, he said.

“The real response in science is, ‘I don’t know. Let’s find the answers,”’ he added. In classrooms, he noted, “the quickest way to turn [students] off is to give them the answer.”

Stealing the news conference from the experts, the 3rd graders from Watkins Elementary School here soon got to ask--and answer--their own questions about plants, bees and pollen.

As part of the unit on plant growth, the students had grown seedlings, some of which were blooming in tiny pots. “We haven’t seen our plants in a day, so let’s take a look,” their teacher, Pat McGlashan, told the students. A former District of Columbia classroom teacher, she is now on the staff of the nsrc and a visiting teacher of science in Washington schools.

The children commented on their observations.

“My leaves are curling and buds are sprouting,” said Darlene Smith. “Here’s one sprouting right now.”

Stephen Mitchell noticed more buds, too, while April Tuttle found the “prickles” on the leaves had changed.

They next turned to their bees, which had died from natural causes and been fixed to small sticks in the interests of science. After they had examined the creatures, a discussion of how bees and flowers interact ensued. “Oh honey, honey,” one child called out to the insect.

“It makes you not want to put honey in something,” suggested another after studying the bee.

“The lady [bee] does all the work,” another student remarked. “What does the man do?”

“Act like a lazy man,” one suggested.

“Deliver the babies ...” another student proposed.

“I think we need to do more research,” said Ms. McGlashan, beginning to wind up the lesson. “I think we don’t know the answer.”

A class of 4th graders from Hutchinson Elementary School in nearby Herndon, Va., proceeded in similar fashion to demonstrate a unit on electricity by asking and attempting to answer questions about circuits.

JoAnn DeMaria, their teacher, said later that the new curriculum’s focus on questioning and its integration with other classroom subjects make it particularly strong. “And that helps the teachers a great deal,” she said.

A sound hands-on curriculum “has to have good questioning,” she said. “That’s as important as the hands-on part of it.”

The new units were field tested in 1989 and 1990 in 27 school systems across the nation and in Department of Defense schools in the Philippines.

It was apparent during the trial that “the children are clearly learning,” said George Hein, a Lesley College evaluator who is measuring the program’s success.

Available from the Carolina Biological Supply Company, of Burlington, N.C., the units sell for approximately $150 to $260--enough materials for a teacher and 30 students.

A version of this article appeared in the March 13, 1991 edition of Education Week as N.A.S., Smithsonian Curriculum To Help Students ‘Learn