When I began teaching, I focused exclusively on reading, writing, and math, without the know-how or courage to delve into science. Since then, I’ve incorporated more and more science into my teaching, and I’ve become hooked on the joyful sense of exploration it creates. My students dash into the classroom each morning, hoping to see science on the schedule. Yes, science activities involve more preparation than a reading lesson. But the payoff is deep engagement, cross-curricular connections, and rigorous learning.
If you’re just starting to teach science, my advice is to jump straight into experiments. While managing the materials and mess may seem daunting, allowing your students to do science, rather than just read about it, builds curiosity, excitement, and the motivation to investigate the world.
Experiments are great for brushing up on direction-following skills—a scientific procedure is really just a set of directions. To begin, we read procedures together as a class and discuss each step. As students get used to following detailed instructions, I provide less support, until they’re able to do an experiment entirely on their own just by reading the steps. If they struggle to follow elaborate procedures, I ask them to create a pictorial set of directions in their notebooks, illustrating each step. Drawing the procedure ensures they think about each step before diving in.
My school doesn’t provide materials for experiments, so I’ve had to make do with what’s available. It turns out you can explore almost every elementary science topic using supplies from the supermarket, drugstore, or hardware store. Before each unit, I send out a request to families, asking them to donate an item or two from our list. My requests, which include recycled items like empty cans and storage containers, allow all families to contribute something. I use plastic food containers for nearly every experiment to organize supplies into “kits.” I set out a container for each group, and then quickly distribute the rest of the materials into each container. Kids return their materials in the same container, which simplifies clean-up as well.
Balance serious scientific work with messy scientific fun! Frozen water balloons, cornstarch “oobleck,” and pendulums are some of the ways my students “play” with science. As Ms. Frizzle says, scientists “take chances, make mistakes, get messy!” Bottom line: Serious science lessons go so much better when students have previously had a chance to squish, pour, and throw around science materials.
Photo: Alycia Zimmerman