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Labs at Elementary Level Help Bring Science Alive

By Sean Cavanagh — June 03, 2008 7 min read
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How do you judge the power of a simple science experiment? Step inside a 4th grade classroom—and behold the near-total silence.

One recent day, elementary teacher Jamie Curbow achieved just that, as she organized her students into teams for a competition to see who could build the strongest possible miniature bridge, using plastic straws, tape, and scissors to span the distance between lab tables.

Ms. Curbow moved from bridge to bridge, testing the strength of each one in turn. She tied a tin can to a string and hung it from each bridge’s center. Then, she began slowly loading the can with golf balls.

The first bridge held three balls, the second one, nine. The higher the count, the quieter the children got.

The teacher at Prairie Creek Elementary School, just southwest of Kansas City, captivated her elementary pupils through a core science-class activity—an easy experiment—that educators and advocates say is vital to building enthusiasm and understanding for the subject in the early grades.

State and district science standards typically call for students to take part in hands-on labs and experiments in the elementary grades. The 1996 National Science Education Standards, which were written by the National Research Council and serve as a reference for many states, emphasize similar activities.

Yet the use of even simple labs and experiments in early grades varies widely, say many observers, largely because of the pressure to devote time to other subjects, but also because elementary teachers lack experience and confidence in setting up those lessons.

Teachers here at Prairie Creek and other elementary schools in Kansas’ 1,900-student Spring Hill district are trying to give science labs and in-class experiments more weight. The district, with the financial assistance of a grant, is carving out more time for those hands-on lessons and using science “coaches” who meet regularly with teachers like Ms. Curbow to help them craft those activities. The elementary school even sets aside a room—a lab—specifically for science.

In the bridge project, Ms. Curbow, with help from Linda Sullivan, the district science coach, is teaching a basic lesson on the scientific process, from conducting research to running an experiment, and examining the results to see what did or did not work. And her charges are taking it very seriously.

After testing several bridges, Ms. Curbow kneels beside Group Five’s creation and begins adding golf balls to the tin can.

The record now stands at 13 balls, but Group Five is making a big push.

“Ten. Eleven. Twelve,” Ms. Curbow says, pausing after each new ball to see if the bridge holds.

Boys and girls silently mouth the count with her, or whisper to each other. Some squeeze below the two tables, as the bridge begins to buckle and sag.

The count reaches 14—and the bridge stands. The students erupt in cheers for the new record holder. Finally, at the 15th ball, the structure collapses with a clatter.

Science Comeback?

Before beginning the experiment, Ms. Curbow reviewed different bridge designs the students had discussed in class, such as arch, beam, and suspension models. Now, she asks the class to review the experiment. What were the features of the bridges that held up the longest, she asks?

Their straws were bunched together, one student says. Metallic scissors were used as anchors, another adds.

And the weakest bridges? “One of them was way too spread out,” a boy tells the teacher, “one straw here, one straw there.”

Unlike students in many elementary schools, Ms. Curbow’s 4th graders are conducting science in a room reserved solely for that subject. A sign on the door says “Welcome Scientists.” Photos of students doing science decorate the walls. The room includes eight long lab tables, more common in high schools than in those serving early grades. It is available throughout the day, and students are encouraged to come to monitor their investigations, involving earthworms, plants, and other living things, Ms. Sullivan says.

Those efforts would probably hearten scientists and science educators, who have complained in recent years that science has been pushed out of the curriculum, particularly in the early grades. Many blame the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which requires annual testing in reading and mathematics and mandates that schools raise scores in those subjects or face increasingly stiff penalties.

But Linda Froschauer, a former president of the National Science Teachers Association, believes science labs, and science overall, are now gaining ground in elementary schools as a result of more recently implemented mandates in the federal law that apply to science.

During the 2007-08 academic year, states for the first time were required to start testing students annually in science in the 3-5, 6-9, and 10-12 grade spans. Still, schools do not face the same penalties for not raising science scores as they do in math and reading, unless states voluntarily attach such weight to science.

Many of the newly created state tests are attempting to evaluate students’ skills in scientific “inquiry”—generally speaking, their ability to acquire knowledge through the activities and processes used by actual scientists, Ms. Froschauer said.

Labs are an obvious way to instill those skills in students of all ages, she said. “You have to participate in science to do that,” said Ms. Froschauer, an elementary math and science curriculum leader in the 2,500-student Weston, Conn., school district.

Even without having separate rooms to conduct experiments, many elementary teachers find ways to lead students through basic hands-on activities involving plants and insects in their traditional classrooms, Ms. Froschauer added.

An obvious benefit of elementary-level hands-on activities is their ability to boost children’s enthusiasm for science, said Michael Lach, a former science director for the Chicago public school system. But teachers also need to use labs to challenge young students and connect activities to important science content, added Mr. Lach, now the officer for high school teaching and learning in the 409,000-student district.

The challenge is to move from labs that are not only “different, fun, and engaging,” Mr. Lach explained, to those that are “developing [a specific] kind of scientific idea.”

Readying Teachers

A big barrier to conducting effective science labs in elementary schools is finding teachers who are skilled enough to make them work. Ms. Curbow, 27, acknowledges that she was stronger in reading and math than science, when she graduated from college with a degree in elementary education.

But over the past two years, her confidence and skill have grown. Beginning in the 2006-07 school year, she met regularly with Ms. Sullivan, one of three science coaches in the district’s three elementary schools, who helped her plan science lessons and led those activities at first. In the academic year now ending, Ms. Curbow took the lead in those in-class activities.

“It’s very beneficial,” Ms. Curbow said of the coaching. “What’s great about this program is, if [teachers] don’t know the answer, we admit it.”

The Spring Hill district’s venture is supported with a three-year, $280,000 grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, based in Kansas City, Mo. The foundation has awarded $15 million in grants to 13 districts across the Kansas City region, all devoted to improving math and science education.

Districts are using that money in a variety of ways, but paying for science coaches and elementary science labs is a common strategy. (The Kauffman Foundation also helps support coverage of science education in Education Week.)

Staying on Task

Science labs came more easily for Cindy McGrew than for some elementary teachers. Ms. McGrew, who works at New Central Elementary School in Havana, Ill., used to be a middle school science teacher. For one of her labs, she collects, treats, and germinates prairie seeds, using a small prairie garden maintained by her 500-student school. She tests physical and chemical reactions, using household ammonia, laundry material, and Epsom salts.

Next year, she said, her school will begin using the Full Option Science System, or FOSS, a Berkeley, California-based curriculum that offers hands-on experiments for elementary students.

Ms. McGrew sympathizes with teachers who worry about their ability to keep youngsters focused—and even safe—during a science lab. She said she tries to seize on students’ enthusiasm for experiments to get them to take those lessons seriously.

“I explain that there are two ways to do science,” said Ms. McGrew, referring to hands-on activities and reading about science in a textbook. “What do you like best?” she asks them.

“Then let’s make sure we do what the teacher says, and stay on task.”

Coverage of new schooling arrangements and classroom improvement efforts is supported by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation.

A version of this article appeared in the June 04, 2008 edition of Education Week as Labs at Elementary Level Help Bring Science Alive


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