Scientific Discovery: Engaging With and Teaching Science to Elementary Students
by Graham Van Schaik
Polyester lab coats breathe about as well as aluminum foil. The humid 98 degree South Carolina heat makes my situation worse as I carry boxes of supplies from my car to the classroom where, in one hour, I would teach. The year: 2006. The month: June. The time: 11:00 AM on a Monday. Teaching is something completely new to me and I feel nervous -- petrified is probably a more accurate word. In my first two years of high school, I had competed in endless science fairs and answered questions from Nobel laureates without breaking a sweat, but now, the summer before my junior year, I have decided to do the craziest thing I have ever done -- stand in front of a class of 25 elementary school students armed only with a curriculum I developed over the last six months.
Back in January, this project seemed like a great idea; I am pretty decent at science and South Carolina elementary students consistently rank below grade level in standardized scientific testing.1 Maybe I could give back a little and do some teaching; I like kids and I like science. Simple, right?
I will begin class by sitting underneath an oversized cardboard dishwasher box making various animal noises on cues...
Carefully entering the room, I unload my supplies for the first lesson--The Scientific Method. I will begin class by sitting underneath an oversized cardboard dishwasher box making various animal noises on cues that a friend outside the box will give me while she asks the students what they think could possibly be under the container. I look out the window and see children approaching. Quickly I kneel down and lower the dishwasher box over my head. Class has begun.
Flash forward nearly 45 minutes and I am still sitting underneath my box, drenched in sweat. My only judgment of time comes from the Jolly Rancher candy that had now melted to a puddle on the floor at my feet. Apparently even hard candy melts in South Carolina during June. Finally I hear a scratch on the side of my box. It is my signal for show time. First, a cat noise--"meow", then a dog--"woof", and later a snake -- "hiss." As the lesson progresses, I can feel the students' excitement. Finally it is time to reveal myself to my new students and confirm their hypotheses. Leaping up from under the box amid shouts of excitement, I see the joy on the students' faces and realize that it matches my own smile. I introduce myself and continue with the lesson.
Students at Killian Elementary School excited to guess what is in the box on their first day of Science Captivates Minds, my hands-on Science Camp.
Photo Credit: Graham Van Schaik
After an exhausting day, I start to pack up my materials and carry them back to the car. I cannot help but reflect on how the first day of class had progressed. Some students expressed that "before [they] hated science but now [they] enjoy[ed] it," and that they couldn't "wait for the next experiment." Most saddening, though, was that others told me that "science during the year is never fun" and that they "didn't see the need to learn science." Quickly I have become aware of a problem much more acute than poor test grades -- the lack of engagement and motivation to learn.
Children, especially in elementary school, are generally natural scientists, true inquisitors who will ask anything about everything: "How come when I jump I come back down?" "Why do I need to eat?" Why are spiders good for the environment?" This is the way it should be. Posing questions is the first step to learning. Without asking, how is one to find out about the world? But what I was hearing from my students seemed to be a complete apathy about science. Determined to figure out the cause, I began to teach my classes with a vigorous conviction. As the classes flew by, we demonstrated the power of electricity by making electric lemons out of lemons and copper wire. We magnetized copper nails by running an electrical current around them, and explored the ways in which chemical reactions take place with Mentos in Diet Coke and baking soda in vinegar. I was pleased to see that, with each new lesson, the students seemed even more excited to come to science class. It did not take too long to learn that these students were quite bright and only needed to be taught in a more hands-on environment to reach their full potential.
Graham Van Schaik '12 demonstrates how to test that a lemon is a source of electricity by feeling the tingle of electrons on your tongue as they flow through a copper wire.
Photo Credit: Graham Van Schaik
Through that first scientific method presentation and each subsequent lesson, my own sense of direction and ethics began to take shape. No longer could I merely shrug off other students' poor test grades because I thought they had not worked hard enough. After that first summer, I immediately went about revising my program to incorporate all I had learned through my teaching experiences. Science education for elementary students became my new passion. I voraciously dug into standardized testing statistics and compared them across elementary schools to see where I might have the largest impact. According to the 2008 South Carolina Palmetto Achievement Challenge Test (PACT) results, more than 40% of all elementary students failed standardized science tests (South Carolina Department of Education) in that year. These numbers did not improve into middle school, where still nearly 35% of students failed science and math (South Carolina Department of Education). These students would be ill prepared to tackle some of the simplest tasks associated with getting a job and making a living. My conscience spoke; I could remain idle no longer.
The next year flew by and I eagerly anticipated the day that I could start my science classes again. On this first day I had no fear, but excitement, no apprehension about how I would connect with and engage students half my age, but a dilemma about which teaching style and experiment I should use first. I quickly learned, however, that what I thought to be an easy task would not be so effortless.
That summer I had decided to teach at Windsor Elementary School. Windsor had historically done well on standardized tests, but over the past few years had fallen below every other elementary school in its district. I knew one of its major problems--lack of engagement in the science classroom, and thought I knew the perfect solution--bring on the directed fun. However, I did not seriously account for factors outside the classroom that would contribute to some of my students' apathy.
A week into the program, one boy, Brandon, came into class much quieter than normal. Brandon and I had established a great rapport over the first few days and I enjoyed having him in my class. He proved to be a great teacher during the magnetism lesson. In that unit, the class was extremely excited, making it difficult for me to get around to every student and instruct them. Seeing his classmates needing help, Brandon took the time to get up quietly and show his fellow students one by one how to wrap a copper wire around an iron nail and attach it to a battery to magnetize the nail. He was intelligent, kind, and always helpful to others. Today, though, Brandon seemed distant and unengaged. After a lesson on engineering, while students were building bridges out of marshmallows and toothpicks, I went over to talk with him. Brandon looked unkempt and distraught, so I asked if he was all right. "I'm fine," he mumbled. He did not seem to want to talk. Rather than push him, I returned to the class and continued to instruct.
Soon, Brandon stopped coming to my lessons and I became worried; had I done or said something to make him not want to attend anymore? When I questioned the school principal, she informed me that Brandon had an older brother who was a member of a gang. Despite anti-gang education provided by the school, Brandon, who had just recently finished fifth grade, was succumbing to pressures to join the gang. Apparently the past weekend had been especially hard, as he had been "initiated" into the gang. I was stunned. I felt like I had failed. Here was a student who seemed to enjoy my class thoroughly and now had stopped coming because he joined a gang. If I had had a moment of realization the summer before, it paled in comparison to the reality that hit me now.
It took me some time to come to terms with what happened to Brandon, as I never was able to learn what became of him after he left my class. No longer was the formula so simple and no longer did my moral compass just have the directions "North" and "South"; now it included every single degree in between. I came to realize that lack of quality teaching was only one of many problems plaguing my students. Through all of this, I continued to teach my science camp and as each day passed, my hope began to return. Although I had lost one student, I had retained 150. By merely sticking to what I knew how to do, I could still make a positive impact on the lives of these students. No, I could not prevent them from joining a gang, getting pregnant, or trying drugs later in middle or high school, but I had to focus on trying to help however I could.
I now understood that one science camp over a couple of months would not bring food or create safety for my students, many of whom lived in poor, single-parent households amid drug and gang influences. Yet seeing how they could laugh and enjoy a scientific lesson was a crystallizing moment for me. One day, one of my students, Tiffany, gave me new hope.
...I approached Tiffany and asked if she was enjoying science more. She looked at me, smiled for the first time, and replied, "Yes."
Tiffany, a third grader, was the youngest child of a single parent; she had three older siblings. Her initial attitude seemed very negative towards both me and my science lessons. Tiffany never hesitated telling me "I'm only here because they make me," and "I'm never going to use this; why are you telling us this?" At first her attitude frustrated me, but eventually I saw it as an opportunity. Tiffany, despite her sometimes loud protests, always grabbed for experiments before anyone else had a chance. Since I had enough experiments for each student, she didn't need to compete for materials. It soon became apparent that in Tiffany's family, however, she never got anything all to herself. After realizing this, I gave Tiffany her experiments before anyone else. One day during the electricity unit, when I passed out a lemon, paper clip, and copper wire to Tiffany, she surprised me by giving it to the next person at her table. Then I handed her another set of materials, which she then proceeded to pass to another student. She continued until everyone at her table had received their materials, and then took a set herself. After class that day, I approached Tiffany and asked if she was enjoying science more. She looked at me, smiled for the first time, and replied, "Yes."
Interactions with students like Brandon and Tiffany reminded me that I was no longer simply trying to improve the scientific knowledge of these children, but was rather becoming a part of their lives. Though I could not keep them from the many negative influences that they may face, I could give my students positive experiences when they were with me and leave them with a confidence in their abilities that they could apply later on in their lives. No longer did these students dislike science, but were engaged, active scientists with a renewed curiosity.
It is now four summers later and the same stifling humidity closes in on me and my polyester lab coat still does not breathe. Walking to the classroom to teach the scientific method, I realize I am still terrified. Five summers of teaching may not have dulled my anxiety about standing in front of 25 elementary students, but it has given me an indefatigable sense of optimism about the resiliency and intelligence of the children I teach. I set up my materials and glance out the window. The students are coming. Walking to the front of the room, I pick up a dishwasher box and scramble underneath. This time I make sure there are no Jolly Ranchers on the floor.
A group of students experiment with a Van De Graff Generator.
Photo Credit: Graham Van Schaik
1. According to the 2008 South Carolina Palmetto Achievement Challenge Test (PACT) results, more than 40% of all elementary students failed standardized science tests (South Carolina Department of Education) in that year. These numbers did not improve into middle school, where still nearly 35% of students failed science and math (South Carolina Department of Education).
South Carolina Department of Education. "Richland 2 2008 PACT Scores." 2008, 3 July 2008.