Continuing this blog’s riff on Science Fairs, I want to tell you about my recent visit to Fulton Elementary School in Chicago, headed by an outstanding principal, Cherie Novak. Fulton has been one of Golden Apple’s Inquiry Science Institute Partner Schools since 2012.
I was there near the end of the school year to judge yet another Science Fair. This one was different, however. It was a Science Fair for the primary grades, and the scientists were all less than 3 feet tall. They were adorable, of course. But this was serious business. Having outside judges, setting up displays in the primary grades hallway, and inviting parents made it so and made it special. (A special shout out to teacher Tracey Walker-Hines for organizing the Fulton Science Fairs this year and doing such a great job!)
These little scientists from Pre-K through 3rd grade worked together as teams on a classroom project, rather than on individual science fair projects. A little team presented each class’s project, rather like grownups would do a poster session at a conference. Just like adult scientists, they functioned as a collaborative community, both supporting and challenging each other.
Their topics were simple but significant because the experiments they conducted gave the children practice in the skills and practices of real scientists. For example, when the children in Mrs. Grantham’s Pre-K class did their Balls and Ramps activity, they were investigating the effect of raising the height of the ramp on the distance a sphere would roll. More important, they were “analyzing and interpreting data.” Simple data … the distance the object would travel against the number of wood blocks high the end of the ramp was raised … but data nonetheless.
When Ms. Winfield’s Pre-K class put colorful Skittles in water to find out what would happen, they were “planning and carrying out an investigation.” They were also observing the results of their actions and communicating them to others.
And when Ms. Schmidt’s Kindergarten class asked the question “Which blueberries will mold first?” and tested washed and unwashed berries and berries in the air versus berries in plastic bags, they were “engaging in argument from evidence” to arrive at their conclusion.
You’ll recognize, of course, three of the eight Science and Engineering Practices of the Next Generation Science Standards in these class investigations.
In Exemplary Science in Grades PreK-4: Standards-Based Success Stories, edited by Robert E. Yager and Sandra K. Enger, the authors note that “elementary students start with skills and curiosity about the objects and events in the world in which they find themselves. The sadness is that this natural interest and curiosity declines the longer students study science in a traditional way – with teachers giving directions and determining what will be studied and how.
Elementary teachers know their students and how eager they are to learn. However, these teachers’ reservations about their own abilities in traditional science make them less likely to spend even minimal time on science. Too often the science class focuses on vocabulary in the belief that students need a special vocabulary before they can do science. A focus on vocabulary, unfortunately, does little to encourage students to pursue their own interests and questions and leads students to believe that science is strange, with complicated terms that are never used except in science classes.” In other words, primary children are far too often not approaching the challenge of understanding their world as scientists actually do. And they should be doing so from the very start of their schooling.
Marginalizing science in the primary grades when children are most eager to learn about their world, when they are most curious and most observant, even (especially?) of the tiniest things, when they already have formed ideas about how the world works, ideas that may be incorrect or only partially correct, is a big mistake and fortunately not one that the teachers at Fulton Elementary are making.
Waiting until 4th grade to devote any significant time to science … because 4th is traditionally a grade in which science is tested … is a mistake. It wastes one of our most precious natural resources, the unbounded curiosity of young children and their eagerness and ability to engage as scientists in studying and understanding their world. To inspire the next generation of scientists, principals and teachers would do well to tap that resource as soon as possible. Primary grades science fairs, done well, requiring collaboration and the collection of data, pursuing topics children are excited about, and engaging them in the same ways that scientists engage with the world, are one way to do that. And while you’re at it, why not make it special for your little scientists?
You can learn more about Golden Apple’s Inquiry Science Institute here.