It’s 1:00 in Mr. Rodriguez’s 4th grade classroom at Tonti Elementary School on Chicago’s Southwest side. “Who’s ready for science,” he asks in a booming enthusiastic voice. Eager hands shoot up. Bright yellow shirted children smile and sit up straighter in their seats. Math time is now over, and the kids are raring to go — literally.
Their current science activity involves working with racing cars that the children designed and built themselves. Today they will test what difference the size of the wheels makes in the distance the car will travel. After some basic directions for the session, Mr. Rodriguez asks his students to clear away desks in the middle of the classroom so they can construct their track. Desks are quickly (but quietly) pushed aside, and the kids set to work.
Several lay meter sticks end-to-end spanning the length of the classroom. Sections are held together with clear heavy-duty tape. A ramp at one end of the meter sticks serves as the launch pad for the unique vehicles the children made with various snap together pieces: wheels, frame pieces, and Lego-type shapes.
“Measure the distance your car travels in centimeters,” Mr. Rodriguez tells them.
The children each do three trials with their cars and in the context of this playful science learn how to find an average for the first time. “Three trials. Divide by three. Ten trials. Divide by ten,” their teacher tells them. The lesson takes because averaging is connected with figuring out how well you designed your car for traveling the greatest distance, something that matters to the children.
Bert Rodriguez has a background in gifted education and now uses the same strategies and activities with his regular classroom . . . and his students are all meeting or exceeding in math. He took to inquiry science like the proverbial duck to water, “because it works with kids.” I sit at a table where four boys earnestly debate how they might make their cars better. 4 wheels? On one axel?
“Which would make it go farther, a larger wheel or a smaller one,” Mr. Rodriguez asks a girl, as I walk by and snap a picture of their animated discussion.
“So, what did you think of science class today?” Mr. Rodriguez asks the kids. “Double thumbs up,” one boy proclaims.
All children should be having this much fun learning.
Without much ado, engineering, math (gathering of data, measurement, and averaging) and science are all rolled into one, fully integrated. And literacy as well, because children explain their inventions in writing.
And while it’s part of a unit on force and motion, it could easily be a unit on electricity because you can almost harness the electricity in the room to power the cars. I ask a boy if he likes science. He answers yes and adds, “I like that we get to experiment and do things I’ve never done before.”
This is alive! There isn’t a single discipline problem in Mr. Rodriguez’s class. When kids are engaged and learning, when they have agency, they don’t need to act out, to demand attention.
Defining inquiry, Mr. Rodriguez says, “I just think of it as we just find out what we can find out, we learn in the process of doing these neat things. And the kids come up to me and ask me questions . . . like about how to find the average, and I answer them or send them to a child who has already learned how. They can teach each other.”
And the same can be said of teachers.