Their excitement was contagious! Was it the simply act of putting on those really super stylish goggles or the fact they were getting ready to pop popcorn in a test tube that had their faces full of smiles? As an observer, both acts seemed to be equally as important and just being around them made me feel incredible honored to work with them. But what was really special about today’s lesson was working with a longtime friend who is a media specialist in Chesapeake City Public Schools. Yep-you read correctly, I said media specialist. See today’s science lesson took place in the school library.

IMG_0873After spending a week with me this summer, my friend Peggy approached me with the idea of doing science lessons in her library. We both agreed it was a fantastic idea! Why couldn’t the library not only be a place were children checked out great books, but also a place where they came to conduct research through hands-on experiences!

This week is her big kick off!  Third graders are exploring the question “How many books can an egg hold?” while fourth graders are studying the question “How does popcorn pop?” The 5th graders are exploring how various substances prevent an apple from decomposing.

So how does she make it work when library time in elementary usually lasts for 45 minutes? Simple. She has taken a lesson plan and chunked it into 4- 20 minutes sessions. Last week she opened the lesson by going through the experimental design process using rice krispies. Today’s lesson opened with reading a short passage from a book before popping some test tube popcorn. Next week students will get to design their own experiment to answer one of the questions they generated. During the last week, students will debrief and present their findings. All done in 20 minutes, one day a week for 4 weeks.

The key to making it work comes down to organization.  For the lesson today, she had all the materials in a pie pan and I took one group and she took another group of students. But everything was there. It was obvious she had talked to the students the week before and set some ground rules, because they knew exactly what to do and when. The cool part was we finished exactly in 20 minutes (discussion time and all) and the children still had time to find and check out their books!

What I loved most about today, besides getting to see the children’s faces when the popcorn actually popped, was to hear their excitement about the activity. One little girl spent five minutes telling Peggy the question she was going to explore with her mom when she got home! If you have any doubts about how a 20 minutes experience can get kids curious, check out the questions they raised from today:

  • What happens if you change the amount of oil used?
  • What happens if you use more than one candle?
  • What happens if you heat up the kernel before you pop it!

If we want our students to get excited enough to make science their career choice, then we have to engage them in experiences like the lesson today. Sadly, however, in many classrooms across America science is being squeezed out of the curriculum to make more time for reading and math instruction.

A study three years ago ranked American 15-year-olds 21st in science and 25th in math compared to peers worldwide.  President Obama called this bit of news “unacceptable” and challenged scientists and business leaders to find new ways to engage young people. If we are going to get serious about finding new ways to engage young people, then we have to remember this-

  • Engaging students has to begin in elementary school. Waiting until high school or even college to try to get students excited about science is really too late. By 5th grade, students have set ideas about career choices.
  • Engaging students does not begin with just reading a science textbook to find answers to the end of chapter questions.
  • Engaging students does not begin with flashy demonstrations that do little to teach children to persist when the research gets tough or does not come out like they planned it.
  • Engaging students does not begin with worksheets masquerading as a science experience.

Engaging students begins with–

  • The elementary teacher who understands vocabulary is built through context and experiences.
  • The teacher who throws away the worksheet in favor of allowing children to ask five people if they think a magnet can attract a paper clip through 10 paper plates and then using that experience to teach them how to visually show data using a graph.
  • The teacher who designs instruction so students begin to imagine themselves as a scientists because they see themselves doing science every day.
  • The administrator who understands science will be noisy because real scientists collaborate through discussions and arguments.
  • The understanding that through a science lesson, a child can learn vocabulary, learn how to find the mean, median, and mode in order to analyze data and then write about it; as well as learn to read through books filled with science ideas and facts.

I believe there is still hope for our students and for the thousands of budding scientists that enter our schools everyday. But it will take more teachers like Peggy who refuse to give up and give in to what is easy. Teachers like Peggy, who choose instead to take a different path that is a little harder and more challenging in order to do what is right for children. Thanks to Peggy and test tube popcorn, budding scientists were reborn today! I can’t wait to see what they do next!


Published by Jenny Sue