Around the Mall & Beyond

To teach science, says the ten-year-old National Science Resources Center, there is nothing better than getting young hands on simple experiments

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

I recently attended a conference sponsored by the Smithsonian and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), and it reminded me of Miss Wells, my fifth-grade teacher at the Utica Country Day School in Utica, New York.

We were studying ancient Rome, and Miss Wells told us about the aqueducts with their stone arches. She actually got us thinking: What made them stay up? Why did they need a keystone?

Books didn't tell us much, so Miss Wells had an inspiration. We would build a Roman arch.

It took all fall. We constructed little cardboard boxes and poured in plaster of Paris to make our bricks, and piled them up in a somewhat rickety arch.

Halfway through, I decided I knew all I needed to know about arches, so went off and built a working guillotine. "A guillotine?" said Miss Wells in a tone of admiration and panic. "Yes. Well, all right, Michael."

It was one of those Thirties progressive schools, you understand. The guillotine was displayed without comment alongside the arch at the school fair.

So. Back to the conference, and none too soon. It is called the Elementary Science Leadership Institute, and it is run twice yearly by the ten-year-old National Science Resources Center (NSRC), a jointly operated Smithsonian and NAS program. The NSRC's mission and the purpose of the Institute is to help American students catch up with the world in science. Scott Stowell, a curriculum coordinator from the Spokane, Washington, public schools and a member of the Resource Team, put it this way:

"One of the United States' eight national education goals is being first in the world in science and math. The only way is to have a strong kindergarten through 12th grade program. Computers are just one tool. To understand the ideas of science in a meaningful way, you need to do experiments."

"Hands-on" is the magic word here. Having discovered that the regular old textbooks were not exactly thrilling, the education industry for some years now has been trying in a systematic way to let children all across the nation — especially in the first seven grades, K-6 — do some simple experiments, get their hands on rocks and wires and small living things. A number of companies and nonprofit organizations have put together kits for teaching them.

The problem, as with any new idea, has been to interest the people who run the schools and control the way things are taught. And this is what the Institute is about. Its initiators are way ahead already.

"We haven't bought a textbook in 21 years," said Susan Sprague, a pioneer in the program and the director of science and social sciences for the Mesa, Arizona, public schools.

To date, some 300 districts, covering from 3 to 78 schools each, have sent delegates here, leaders whose decisions influence at least four million students. This year, in two summer programs, 36 districts were represented, plus one school district each from Mexico and South Africa.

After a breezy introduction featuring a lot of talk about what to wear to dinner, the group, 140 strong, settled down to lectures, demonstrations and some powerful networking.

As many as three hands-on workshops were scheduled at once, with such titles as "The Human Body" for grades three and four, "Lifting Heavy Things" for the second and third grades, and "Food Chemistry" for grade four. The only thing that wasn't hands-on was the language. For example, the Institute's goals for "systemic reform" include: "Construct a model for leadership development in elementary science education that can be used to cultivate other leaders in their communities," "develop strategic plans," "identify and assess," "implement inquiry-centered elementary science programs" and so forth. It's the jargon of the boardroom, full of Latinate words with plenty of suffixes and short on action verbs.

But to my surprise we got on fine just the same. It was amazing how much everyone could agree on. Asked to list their goals, the group came up with almost exactly the same priorities as in previous years: to get the children to relate concepts to the real world; to see science as a wonder; to learn to use technologies, including libraries; to know what questions to ask; to know when to take risks and to communicate their discoveries.

For me, the heart of the weeklong conference was the "Making Change Game." This is a board game, incredibly complex, that everyone plays, each of the teams working as a unit. Its purpose is to demonstrate that "change is not an event, but a process."

There are 24 tokens representing teachers, school superintendents, parents, school board members and local business people. The idea is to progress from wanting "Information" to expressing "Interest" and on to a total commitment to the program — in this case, hands-on science.

Some of the 24 token figures are described in the accompanying handouts as gung-ho from the start; others are born resisters. Each team works independently, taking as many turns as it wants. First, the team decides on one of several options: to chat up individuals, to hold a special assembly, to approach the school board, to attempt a film fair or demonstration. Then the team's runner takes its proposed strategy, along with the required fees (from a supply of plastic coins representing the budget), to the judges. The judges send back a response that has been worked out from a formula, translating the proposal into so many moves on the board for one, several or many tokens. For example, a school assembly, if called too soon in the game, might prove a bust, while the same tactic later on could move everybody ahead. Gradually the 24 tokens, or most of them, move across the board — elementary teachers and business people usually in the lead, naysayers lagging behind — to produce a final score measured in student benefits.

"It's about persistence," said Sally Goetz Shuler, the NSRC's deputy director for development, external relations and outreach, and a key leader of the Institute. "It shows you what you have to do to bring about change. Also, you learn that the object is not just to convert staff but to benefit students."

Certainly the team members seemed to get the message as they worked feverishly against the clock to gain the backing of administration leaders, varying their approach when necessary, trying to reach the critical mass of opinion that means an idea's time has come.

The game is fascinatingly realistic, and more than one player remarked that it should be computerized and adapted to city government and other situations where one person's bright idea is not enough because it requires the approval of a whole apparatus of administrators, elected leaders and assorted defenders of the status quo.

To me, one of the game's most interesting points has been the perception, early on, that administrators and community business leaders should be added to the process.

"In '89, when I was a participant," said Scott Stowell, "they didn't have anyone from the central office of administrators as part of the team. We had just the principal from Spokane, myself and another teacher. The districts are structured with a hierarchy of authority, and it was hard for us to get quickly the level of support that we needed."

So the Institute started inviting superintendents and scientists and business leaders from the community, making them part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

Today, Stowell said, the Spokane school system "is in the process of a major implementation at the K-6 level." It is even working up its own set of hands-on learning kits to go with the commercial ones already in use.

The kits on the market are rigorously tested for reliability and teaching value. The Full Option Science System, for instance, put out by the University of California and the Encyclopedia Britannica, has modules in four areas — life science, physical science, Earth science, and scientific reasoning and technology. The kits involve such basic scientific studies as levers and pulleys, magnetism and electricity, air and weather, water, insects, and the physics of sound. They are telling both the students and the teachers that learning can be fun.

We had a demonstration workshop in "Floating and Sinking" — one of 24 curriculum units developed by the NSRC. Each team was given a kit that included little cylinders of wood, metal and plastic, a mystery cylinder, a scale and a pail of water. We were supposed to find out what we could.

Right away our team determined that the wood floated and the metal sank. One cylinder was hollow, a tiny bucket, and this obstinately stayed erect on the water because, as we determined, it was light and had a large air space inside it.

We took bets on the plastic one. I said it was Teflon and predicted it would sink. Everyone else said no, it was nylon and would float. It floated. Turned out it was polyethylene.

Anyway, we turned next to the mystery cylinder. What to do? We tried weighing all of the candidates and learned, first of all, that the scale measured, not in ounces or grams, but in paper clips. There was a lesson right there: weight units are arbitrary; they can be dimes or horseshoes or eclairs, as long as you use them consistently.

We found that all the cylinders that sank weighed more than 7.5 paper clips (we had calibrated half-paper clips on our scale). And the mystery cylinder weighed 10.5 paper clips. Therefore, we predicted, it would sink. It did.

By this time, most of the teams had completed their experiments and were going on into new investigations by themselves. Our bunch, curious as ever, subjected the hollow cylinder to a test for floatability limitations.

It stayed up even when nearly full of water and sank only when, with water being added drop by drop, its rim slipped below the surface.

You could read a textbook all day and not find out something like that. Around us, people were getting noisier. Some were roaming from table to table. Some were laughing. Some were looking as if they might start throwing cylinders of water at any moment.

"They're out of control!" muttered Sally Shuler. And she sounded just like Miss Wells.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus