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Thinking Like Scientists: From Kindergarten Labs to T School and Beyond

I came to Success Academy five years ago under the impression that I knew how to teach inquiry-based science. I held a B.S. in biology and a master’s in secondary science and education from SUNY Albany, and I arrived with experience teaching and designing science courses. At the time, I truly believed in the importance of hands-on learning in the classroom, but I could never have expected just how revolutionary the Success Academy approach to science really is.

I heard about Success Academy from a friend who worked here as a science teacher. She told me how SA adults develop the best methods for helping kids learn, and it became apparent that this was where I wanted to be. I entered a new world here, and realized I would be learning an entirely different way to teach. As I launched into the SA teacher training program, or T school, I saw just how much I could challenge myself to implement science by focusing relentlessly on scholar-led discovery. Our scholars don’t memorize facts and blandly spit back information. We want to teach scholars to think like scientists. We want them to understand the big ideas.

We want to teach scholars to think like scientists. We want them to understand the big ideas.

I remember the first time I taught an electromagnetism unit to SA fourth graders. I handed out a battery, a wire, and a lightbulb, and asked: How do you light the bulb? My scholars undertook a journey of trial and error as they attempted to bring that light bulb to life. They often became frustrated, but I urged them to never give up. And then: Someone lit the bulb! We all rushed to the carpet and peppered him with enthusiastic questions. Then I revealed that, actually, there are eight different ways to light the bulb. The scholars were a little shocked, but ready to get back to their wires to discover exactly how those eight ways work.

Restructuring my approach in the classroom would have been slightly overwhelming, if it weren’t for the immensely collaborative and passionate environment at Success. All science teachers take training together, and we remain in constant communication throughout the year. If a school leader observes incredible teaching in one classroom, we’ll film it and send the video to everyone in our school, as well other SA schools. We are a community of learners. While we strive for excellence each day, we are humble in our awareness of the potential for growth.

We also build support structures into the daily practice of teaching. Many teachers started with Success through our Teaching Residency Program, where they co-taught with a lead teacher who encouraged their development in the classroom. I grew from a lead science teacher to a science associate and upwards. Today, I oversee all aspects of science at Success. I’ve remained inspired by and dedicated to implementing a rigorous, inquiry-based curriculum at all levels; we believe in our scholars’ immense capacity to be innovators and researchers at any age.

We believe in our scholars’ immense capacity to be innovators and researchers at any age.

We put all of our efforts into making science lessons wildly engaging. When our kindergartners graduate to first grade, they will have explored over 100 experiments! We launch into physics in kindergarten, and start computer programming in first grade. We consider human impact and natural disasters in third grade, and explore household chemistry in fourth. You might see strange sights in our classrooms: Scholars climb on chairs, stand steady for a few minutes, and then release colorful paper helicopters. As the bits of paper spin crazily towards the ground, the scholars contemplate variables in aerodynamics: Does the length of the helicopter’s wings influence how fast or slowly it falls?  

In observing our middle school classrooms, you might be surprised to stand aside with the teacher as scholars confidently lead each other through lines of questioning akin to a high school science lab. And our high school comes equipped with a 3-D printer and digital weaver; our MIT-inspired fabrication lab looks like the inside of a sweet shop, with reams of brightly colored plastics lining the walls — soon to be transformed into sophisticated designs conjured by our scholars’ imaginations and scientific precision.

Science at Success is truly progressive, which is what makes developing as an educator here such an incredibly fulfilling opportunity. As we continue to grow our teams and innovate our curriculum, the scope for visionary individuals to contribute only continues to expand. I can’t wait to see where we will be in the next five years!   

Written by Claire Bartkus April 24, 2017

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