Even though science curriculums vary greatly from district to district, your 3rd grader may see more of an emphasis on it this year. She may now have a specialized science teacher who rotates among classrooms, and/or a textbook just for the subject. Even if your child has a more traditional classroom with one teacher who covers all academic subjects, that instructor may start putting more time and effort into teaching science due to federal education mandates. Beginning in 2007, 3rd graders are now required to take yearly standardized tests in science, along with math and language arts. That has served to put a spotlight on the subject.
Say Good-bye to Dinosaurs
Third grade science curriculums remain as flexible as they were in the earlier grades. Teachers can still generally decide, sometimes with the help of a science coordinator or other administrator, which science topics to tackle, with one main difference: They tend to take on more heavy-duty areas of study. Topics such as butterflies and dinosaurs, often overdone because of their popularity with children, now take a back seat to more challenging subjects such as the solar system, rocks and minerals, water cycles, and properties of matter. Even if these subjects have been introduced to students in earlier grades, teachers delve deeper this year.
Children continue to do better with complex topics, however, if they are able to see real-life examples of scientific phenomena. At Wardcliff Elementary School in Okemos, Michigan, new material is always introduced with some sort of “hook” to grab students' attention — for example, an experiment with unexpected results (called a “discrepant event”) causes students to question what happened in order to understand the underlying scientific principle. “Kids this age can grasp much more than parents give them credit for,” says Robert L. Stephenson, the 3rd grade teacher at Wardcliff and Michigan’s 2005 Science Teacher of the Year. “It just has to be introduced in a meaningful way.”
When studying the solar system, Stephenson transforms his classroom into a spacecraft near Jupiter with the help of slides, video- and audio-cassettes, black lights and strobe lights. “None of us has ever been to Jupiter, yet my third graders will swear to you they’ve been there,” he says. “Kids have to actually experience something concretely. They have to do it to get it.”
It’s not enough for students to simply look at such a dynamic presentation, however — they need to be active participants in order to absorb scientific concepts. When studying the solar system, students might be asked to write travel brochures to entice visitors to their respective planets, or even produce a “commercial” on videotape advertising the assets of the planet to intergalactic travelers. This requires kids to actively learn about different atmospheric conditions, temperature, and terrain of various planets. After their “trip” to Jupiter, Wardcliff Elementary 3rd graders are divided into four groups of “colonists,” one for each of the planet’s moons. After learning about the conditions on each moon, each group must construct a space station that can survive in those conditions. For example, they might decide to import ice from another moon if there is no drinking water available, or harness volcanic heat if it’s too cold. “It’s a challenge and they love it,” says Stephenson. “It shows me a lot more than a test ever would that they really understand.”
Learning to Think
Despite the growing national emphasis on standardized testing, education experts applaud this type of interactive approach. They maintain that science teaching should train young minds to think in terms of systems, such as the human body system, ecosystem, animal or plant system and space system, rather than a dry recitation of facts. When they understand the basics of these systems, children can fit their observations resulting from experiments and other projects into that context. If the observations don’t fit, they can start questioning. “The worst thing teachers can do is focus on getting kids to memorize science facts,” says Susan Sclafani, Ph.D., assistant secretary of education and a leader of the U.S. Education Department’s math and science initiative. “That’s hardly what’s important in this day and age — you can get facts by Googling. Kids need to learn how to make observations, and to understand how to hang these observations on a framework of knowledge.”
Another important scientific skill 3rd graders need to develop is the ability and courage to try, and fail, and try again. When Wardcliff Elementary 3rd graders study electricity, they learn by doing, as young electricians-in-training. They are required to draw up blueprints accurately, even down to using the proper electrician’s symbols — then each child must singlehandedly wire a miniature house. “Nine out of ten times the plan doesn’t work the first time,” says Stephenson. “I ask the kids, `Have you done some trouble-shooting?’ They have to go back in and figure it out.”