Opening the Door to Science: Changing the Student Experience
By Annick Gillot-Salmon
Science had traditionally been seen as the domain of the hyper-intelligent student. It was known for its specialized terminology, complicated methods, and abstract theories attempting to solve life’s great mysteries. The stereotype of the spectacle-wearing genius working at a laboratory bench became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The scientist was, of course, male.
In my fifth grade classroom in Vista, California, that is luckily not the case. Gone are the boring textbooks, and with them the idea that science can be learned just by reading about it. When you remove the notion that science knowledge is strictly reliant on reading comprehension of grade-level texts, you open a world of possibilities—one that can awaken excitement and passion in our most underserved populations.
No one likes to feel incompetent, least of all a ten year old. Some of our students have met with very little success in school, as a difficulty in one area ‘follows’ them to other academic content areas. By the time they reach fourth or fifth grade, many have come to believe that school is just not something they can excel at. A well-planned science curriculum aligned to the shifts called for by the NGSS levels the playing field for kids. How do we get from students who are tuned-out to those who are fully engaged? Careful lesson planning, pedagogy, and empathy is the answer. I know because I’ve had it happen in my classroom.
Student teams competed to see who could create the best device to pull water out of the air. Part of the unit on matter and its interactions.[/caption]
As we are all too aware, students like to talk. A lot. It’s possible to turn that inclination into an asset - if you can get them to talk about the right things. In my classroom, students are asked to talk; encouraged to talk; required to talk. I know I’ve done my job well if I cannot get them to stop talking. When planned correctly, it is possible to have students who will not stop researching animal tracks and the eating habits of animals in your local ecosystem—even when it is time to go to recess. This happens when students feel connected to the material—that it matters to them and the world they live in. Ask students to identify animal footprints found around the campus. What animal is it? How do you know? What do they eat? Students love to solve a mystery.
Begin with what will excite your students. What will make them want to know more? Pick something that will surprise them and disrupt their equilibrium a bit. This is known as your phenomenon, and its value should not be underestimated. It can be something small that drives a single classroom lesson or something bigger that drives a whole unit and is referenced over and over during the course of that unit. In a 5E lesson plan (Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, Evaluate), this is your ‘engage.’ Ideally, students interact with the phenomenon in a hands-on way in the engage phase, but when this isn’t possible, I have found videos to be very useful. Right from the start, you grab their attention and make sure all students have a fair and equal chance to participate in the lesson. Ask a simple question: What do you see? What do you notice? What do you think caused that to happen? What patterns do you see? Some students will have more book knowledge about the topic because of outside reading, but others will have different life experiences that allow them to see connections that are not readily apparent to their classmates. Don’t give them the answers yet. The rest of the lesson or unit is designed to explain and flesh out the ideas and suggestions of the students. An example of this (from a sequence I’m currently teaching on ecosystems), is to show a video clip of Biosphere 2 as a unit phenomenon (Anchor). For lesson phenomena (Investigative), I use a video of a fox hunting in the snow and a self-contained aquatic biosphere in a bottle set up in the classroom.
After you have their attention, foster it by letting them explore the topic. Ideally, this is something hands-on that leads them to a better understanding of what they saw and talked about with the phenomenon. In the ecosystems unit, my students play a game—taking on the role of different organisms that live in our community and gathering matter ‘chips’ from each other. This stage is vital to developing the understanding of students. Hands-on learning allows all students, especially those who are English learners, a chance to understand the material in a deep way. It can also help to level the playing field between those students who have been exposed to a rich variety of experiences and those who have not. As always, students are encouraged to talk about what they are doing, connections, and observations.
Students are getting matter “chips” from one another in the ecosystem game.[/caption]
The label, the academic vocabulary, comes only after students have had some sort of experience with the material to allow them to build conceptual understanding. This is the explain stage of the 5E lesson plan. Only after students have had the opportunity to engage in sensemaking and explain what they are understanding do you introduce informational-texts that go more in-depth into the topic to address student ideas and questions. In the ecosystem unit, this is when you would introduce reinforce ideas with terms such as producer, primary consumer, secondary consumer, and decomposer. With the vast number of sources available online, you can easily find texts at different reading levels to meet the needs of all students. Strategies that are already used in the ELA classroom are always appropriate in the science classroom. Students should use the vocabulary learned in this stage to describe what they saw and did in the engage and explore stage.
The elaborate stage asks students to take what they have learned and use it in new ways. In this ecosystem unit, the students have to design a self-contained Mars habitat. This requires them to think back to the Biosphere 2 unit phenomenon, put in place the knowledge gained from the ecosystem game, specifically how the matter moves through the different trophic levels, and use the vocabulary learned from the articles. Ideally, the elaborate stage allows room for creativity. Students should be encouraged to leverage their own experiences and interests at this stage.
The final stage of a 5E lesson plan is evaluate. Although the teacher was formatively assessing students all along, this can be a more formal summative assessment stage. The assessment should be based on a Performance Expectation from the NGSS bundles. Assessments should go beyond multiple choice and matching. Students who have truly mastered the content should be able to apply it to new situations. For example, my ecosystem final assessment has students predict what would happen to our local ecosystem if a new animal was introduced. We introduce a raccoon into our ecosystem that already has the sun, grass, clover, rabbits, gophers, and coyotes. The students pick from a list of claims--for example, raccoons will make the population of coyotes decrease—and have provided evidence-backed reasons to support it.
Students are setting up devices they designed to heat water using the sun. Part of an Earth science unit focusing on people’s effect on the environment.[/caption]
One of the most powerful ideas in this style of learning is that the teacher and textbook are not the sole sources of knowledge; the students themselves are the most valuable teaching tool in the classroom. Students who have read widely contribute a lot of background knowledge, but there are many other ways to add valuable information to classroom discussions. Three girls I have had over the last several years come to mind. All have struggled with math, and all have had low self-esteem when it comes to school. The first girl came in from fourth grade with very negative feelings about school and herself. By the end of fifth grade, she was excited about science and even presented her group project at our district STEM fest. She designed and built a device to heat water using only the power of the sun, with the end goal of sterilizing unsafe drinking water. The second girl came to me after a rough fourth-grade year. She became one of the top science students because of her ability to connect with what we were doing in class with real-life experiences. She now happily considers science one of her strengths. The third girl, a shy, quiet English learner who still struggles with addition and subtraction with regrouping, shows a strong understanding of science. She was the first student out of the 120 I have taught life science to this year, to make a connection between an increase in secondary consumers and the growth of plants in an ecosystem.
Science does not have to be dull and boring. It shouldn’t be taught using textbooks and worksheets. Real science is centered around the Practices and involves investigation and iteration. It involves seeing patterns, thinking about cause and effect, and understanding different systems. Students need to learn to think like a scientist, not just memorize facts.
Annick Gillot-Salmon is a 4th and 5th-grade teacher at Monte Vista Elementary School. She is a Teacher Leader in the CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative for Vista Unified School District and a member of CSTA. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org