"Really, you're gonna let me light this on fire right now?” one of my students asked skeptically.
The answer was yes.
In my fifth grade science class we conduct about three experiments a week. Our approach to science goes beyond the rote memorization of terms: students come to grasp concepts by posing questions, conducting experiments, gathering data and drawing their own conclusions — just like scientists in the laboratory or field. They aren’t just flipping through flash cards, they’re getting their hands dirty.
Excellent science classrooms are ones in which students experience curiosity and joy, and make connections between classroom science and the natural world around them. In this case, my students were learning about what causes wind as part of their Weather and Atmosphere Unit. But how do you teach what causes wind when you can't see it? You develop an experiment using average low cost items that parallel the functions of the natural phenomena.
In our case, the wind was represented by incense smoke and the different atmospheric pressures were created with a bottle of hot water and a bottle of cold water. Once the students placed the incense inside the bottle with cold water in it, they discovered first hand that atmospheric pressure causes air movement by watching the smoke travel through a conjoining tube toward the bottle with hot water in it.
Built into every one of my lessons is time for “turn and talk” — peer discussion that allows students to debate amongst each other and grapple with concepts so they understand the “why” behind the experiment. They then draw their own conclusions and share out with the class their findings. In this instance, they were able to conclude that difference in temperature creates difference in pressure, and that creates air movement, or wind.
When students conduct experiments they learn that scientific concepts aren’t simply plucked from the air, but rather arrived at through inquiry, criticism, and verification. It's up to us teachers to provide them with a space to ask new questions and share out their own results — this allows them to authentically think through concepts. Rather than viewing scientific knowledge as etched in stone, they should come to understand that ideas about the world are constantly evolving with new evidence, and that they are a part of that conversation.
Thus, our students need a curriculum that treats them more like potential scientists in the field than sideline observers. The whole reason I teach science is so when my students grow up, they are scientifically literate and able to take action on any issue that may arise — with a scientific approach. It just so happened that the polar vortex that caused the deep freeze in Texas coincided with our Climate Change Unit. Our students had the scientific knowledge to engage in high level discourse looking at whether climate change was the cause of the polar vortex, and what the government could do to prevent the resulting energy crisis from happening again.
Most science teachers would love to be able to teach discovery-oriented science five days a week like me, but many lack a developed curriculum to guide them. Earlier this month, my school published its middle school science curriculum via the Success Academy Education Institute, making it available free of charge to educators across the country and around the world. The curriculum aligns with the new national standards for science education (Next Generation Science Standards, or NGSS), and provides teachers with inquiry-based lessons which emphasize critical thinking and student-led investigation, spanning essential topics in physical, life, and earth sciences.
Rachel Koskelin is a 5th Grade Science teacher at Success Academy Charter Schools.
Success Academy is one of a handful of schools in the nation that teaches discovery-oriented science five days a week beginning in kindergarten. By the time students reach high school, they receive engineering and pre-med courses as well as AP courses in biology, chemistry and physics. About a third of Success Academy graduates — predominantly students of color from low-income families — go on to pursue STEM majors in college.