It rained yesterday, there are small ponds of collected rainwater all throughout the garden area of our school where we complete biodiversity surveys, investigate plants by maintaining them and different methods of irrigation. The plan for today in the laboratory is to investigate brook trout anatomy which is a small piece of our watershed rehabilitation unit in fourth grade. I was ready to talk about external and internal anatomy, draw and label diagrams, carefully broach “anal fin” because speaking about and referring to anal fins and the anus in general garner giggles, wide eyes, and funny faces from students at the elementary level. Probably all ages of students, but my focus is on elementary grades. I had carefully selected our resources, both print and electronic, provided diagrams ready for labeling and color-coding, curated video content of brook trout for careful investigation, prepared gyotaku materials to practice the ancient art of fish printing, begun in Japan to mitigate fishermen from “the one that got away” and “the fish was THIS BIG” stories, but today my scientists would not use any of these materials. They would do so much more.
My fourth-grade scientists pour into the laboratory and immediately begin clamoring, begging, pleading to go outside, create a field work station, and investigate the rainwater collected in the gardens instead. It was decision time…
How can I say no?
With a smirk on my face, I begin asking them what they need, what they want to investigate, how they will do it, and finally, are they ready to go yet? I have never seen a group of students roundup microscopes, test tubes, slides, Petri dishes, water sample collection devices, water quality probes, field notebooks, pencils, and lab coats so fast in my life. This is what it’s all about.
We ventured out to the garden areas and as a few extremely eager scientists ran to grab samples, a few others screamed for them to stop, they hadn’t organized their field station tasks yet. They knew that although they were all ready to jump in, they needed to know what they were looking for, have a system for organizing their data and investigation, as well as a system to organize who would do each task. They eagerly and impatiently set up tables with space to label what they saw, where the sample was taken, and all associated data values they felt were necessary to know. They brought stereoscopes, dissecting microscopes, and compound microscopes because they weren’t sure which one would be best for their tasks. They even thought to bring the extension cord and a power strip. THAT’S commitment. THAT’S empowered scientists. THAT’S authentic science. While they doled out tasks and rotated through different responsibilities, I sat back, took pictures, and just took it all in. They took their own measurements, made their own data collection protocols, organized their data and teams and only yelled a few times when they needed help identifying what they needed. It was organized chaos at its absolute best. It was authentic fieldwork. It was student-driven. It was everything you could possibly hope for as a teacher. They wanted to share their data with others, especially scientists with whom we had already connected in the laboratory. “Can you send a text to Andres?” Andres Ruzo is a geothermal scientist with whom I work in the Peruvian Amazon. We collected water samples from a thermal river system there. They knew it, they bonded with him, and they wanted him to see their fieldwork. I feverishly sent text messages to him with photos of them working. “What about our parents, can you tell them what we’re doing?” That’s easy too, I had already tweeted to the WORLD about their work and our school’s Facebook page would blast the excitement within minutes. “Can you ask Mr. Mead what these microorganisms are called?” John Mead is a science teacher in Dallas, Texas, who specializes in microbiology and helped us earlier in the year as we investigated water samples with active microorganisms inside. I was already one step ahead of them, I had already sent John a message and he already offered to help us identify our little lifeforms!
What’s absolutely amazing here though is that my second-grade class came in next, followed by my third graders and both of those classes asked to investigate the rainwater pools outside as well. But why? How? Where did they all get this idea? Was there some secret meeting where they told each other what to do, and what to say to swindle me into allowing them to complete this task rather than what I had already planned?
No, silly. They are scientists, and this is what they do. They seek opportunities for investigation and make it happen.
They are scientists.
They have been empowered.
They know what to do.
We need to get out of the way and let them get down to work.
What happens when you empower your students to be scientists? True investigators? True questioners? True thinkers?
They DO things. They investigate. They take initiative. They plan. They implement. They surprise you.
It’s not enough to teach science like a check in the box. It’s never been enough but for some reason over the last 20 years, that’s exactly what it’s become. A check in the box at best.
Do you know how many elementary classrooms are not even teaching science?
Do you know how many middle and high school classrooms have their noses stuck in outdated textbooks as the only or main method for delivering content instruction?
Spoiler alert, ALL science textbooks, by the time they are printed and distributed, are already out of date.
More importantly, do you know how many scientists are using these methods to learn?
So why, oh why are we neglecting science and why are we using outdated instructional methods (if we are teaching science at all)?
It’s not okay and it ends now, with this page of my book. No more excuses. We are going to face them all head-on and blow them up, and transform the science classroom starting at the elementary level and following all the way through high school. We owe it to our students and ourselves to do it, so let’s get going.
Our classrooms are filled with scientists. We are all scientists, we just don’t know it. Humans are innately curious, innately explorers, innately scientists. We are all natural scientists, we explore, discover, try, fail, and try again. This is literally what science is. In fact, you are practicing science right now. There is a reason you have this book in your hands, maybe you are searching for something (exploration, research, curiosity), maybe you are trying something new (experimenting), maybe this isn’t the first thing you have tried (trying again). If we are natural scientists, especially at a young age, why then do we not see students as scientists? Why do we not see ourselves as scientists? Chances are, somewhere along the line, science was squashed for you. You were turned off for a variety of reasons or in a variety of ways. Your inner scientist died and that most likely happened in elementary school.
We want to change this completely. We want our students to thrive in science, enjoy science, and DO science.
How do we do it, though?
How do we create and foster that natural curiosity in order to empower future change-makers?
What if students did real science?
What does that even mean? Real science is not repeating baking soda and vinegar year after year because it looks cool. While on this topic, adding food coloring to the vinegar does not make it a better experience, by the way, at most, it just makes it “look cooler”. Is that real science though? Are scientists around the world hanging out in labs with baking soda and vinegar? Nope. Don’t get me wrong, baking soda and vinegar is a great way to illustrate and familiarize your scientists (yes, scientists) with chemical reactions, but what would be more authentic? Can we use baking soda and vinegar as a jump-off point rather than the entirety of our chemistry labs with students? What can we do that’s even better? Can we look at the world around us for chemistry and make it relevant to students? How can we see chemistry at work in our lives and connect our young scientists to that rather than fabricated experiences that “look cool”. I know there are many classrooms where this is a step above what they experience already, which needs to change as well. How can we possibly expect anyone to understand scientific concepts if they haven’t experienced them? After all, how did you learn to walk? Did you read about it to exhaustion and magically were able to do it? Did you have someone explain it to you, draw a diagram, and off you went, a walking pro?
You tried some things, you failed frequently, and eventually, it worked out for you. How did you learn to read? You tried, you failed a lot, you eventually mastered it. At least I hope you did, or this is just a bunch of gibberish on pages to you. You see, our scientists need to do science, not receive it, not hear it, not look at it. They need to do it. I can’t wait to share investigations with you that will authenticate your practice.
What if students collected authentic data?
A follow up here is, what kind of data is authentic? What kind of data would be useful and relevant? What makes it authentic? The fact of the matter here is that all data they are collecting in order to answer a question is authentic. There’s the catch though, it all starts with a question that begs to be answered. Not a yes/no question, a question that requires some heavy lifting, some investigation, some data, and some critical thinking. Don’t get scared here, it sounds intimidating, but I promise you, it all comes together beautifully. Let’s look at some options of things they can investigate. If you aren’t quite ready to allow for open student voice and choice, consider having a few options from which they can choose. Perhaps the entire class votes on one of them to investigate together, or you allow different students or groups to investigate different ideas from the list, either way, this is a great start with authenticity. You can start incredibly simple — how many times a day does the class sharpen their pencils? Maybe by the pencil sharpener is a sheet where students place a mark each time they sharpen a pencil that day. Maybe you even extend this to, what day of the week does our class sharpen the most pencils? Now you’re jumping into a longitudinal study, that’s amazing! Could you even break this data into males vs females? Who sharpens the most pencils? On what day do females/males sharpen pencils most? I know what you’re thinking, this is great but it’s not connected to any content standard I have to teach. Fear not, my friend, it actually might, and even so — there’s a lot more we can do here, just hold your horses.
Now, once you have a foundation for collecting data, we need to find out how scientists are doing it. What are their protocols? (How do they collect data?) And maybe even more importantly, what do they do with the data?
Honestly, they are doing it the same ways you might imagine; the ways you are doing it with your students. Charts, tables, graphs, pictures, drawings, videos, pictures, camera traps…okay, maybe you aren’t using camera traps…yet. Oftentimes though, they are lower-tech than we imagine. Paper and pencil are king in the field and when they absolutely cannot be in the field at the times they want, that’s when tech comes in to play (camera traps!). This is a fairly new concept; which means there are many people with whom you can collaborate, opportunities to write grants to use this type of data collection, and room to grow as well.
What if students connected with scientists?
Where do you even start here? How do you even get connected with scientists? The good news is that scientists know the power of social media and connecting with citizen scientists (anyone not a full-fledged scientist who wants to be involved in science) that they are willing and WANT to connect. They want their message, their passion, their data out there and used by the public. That exposure is what makes their own work relevant, known, and accepted by the world. This is great news for the world of education where access to resources is often limited. Social media and the internet are monumental in helping get these meaningful and important connections to the world of science. There are organizations such as Explore by the Seat of Your Pants, Explorer Classroom, and Skype a Scientist that specialize in connecting classrooms with scientists all over the world and from all disciplines.
What if students worked side-by-side or in collaboration with a scientist currently in the field?
This is just stepping up your game with the last question. In addition to wanting to connect and educate the world about their work, oftentimes, they are willing to connect and even have students collect data for and with them!
Each Spring, National Geographic releases two “all-calls” to teachers who want to complete an Explorer Challenge. A pre-selected set of Explorers is chosen within a specific theme. Classrooms are assigned to one of the Explorers and set to task researching their work and creating a project to “tell the world” about their assigned Explorer. In exchange for their hard work, their assigned Explorer then creates a video response to the project. Some classrooms even have in-person sessions with their Explorer based on location and availability. This often leads to a special connection between classrooms and scientists which prompts collaboration and fieldwork opportunities.
BioBlitz events are another way to connect and complete fieldwork alongside scientists. You may even have a local or state level event already in your area. BioBlitz events bring together community leaders, scientists, students, and anyone who wants to participate, to complete biodiversity surveys in a selected location. These can be held for your school, city, state, or even a region if you want. If there is already a BioBlitz event, you can tag along. If not, you can work to create one. There are many resources out there to help you. A great starting place is any state or national park nearby, local environmental agencies, or even National Geographic. Each region of the United States has a Geographic cohort and coordinator assigned to help involve educators with National Geographic’s mission. By the way, have you checked out their online resources and courses? You are in for a treat.
What are you waiting for? www.nationalgeographic.org
If you are looking for something less formal and time-consuming, consider Skype-A-Scientist, Exploring By the Seat of Your Pants, and Skype Classroom. ADD MORE DETAILS
What if students studied LIVING scientists?
Oftentimes the scientists studied and, let’s be real, memorized by our young scientists, are dead. Long gone. Why do we focus so much on dead people? I do not in any way, shape, or form mean that we should ignore them completely, they are historically relevant to the world of science, and we need and depend on their foundational work, but there are so many scientists in the field NOW that we could and should study. When students see that scientists are real, ALIVE, and are doing big things currently, our young scientists begin to see themselves in the field too, being relevant, important, and integral to the world of science. It’s an added bonus if you can connect with those scientists, speak with them, and even help them collect and analyze their data. There is power in the here and now; let’s take advantage of the opportunity. Not sure where to start here? I mean, how DO you find scientists in the field now? One great resource is the National Geographic Explorer program which I mentioned previously. Explorers and their work are incredibly diverse, covering an incredible span of topics. The best part is that they are ALIVE and ACTIVE now. You can follow their work in real-time and they are willing to connect, especially with educators.
What if students WERE scientists?
Using all of the answers from our other questions, and taking action, our students will be scientists. They will want to be scientists, they will be engaged in the classroom and alive with ideas to investigate. Isn’t this what we want for students? To be empowered?
This type of teaching takes time, energy, and commitment; all good teaching does. It might not be natural at first, it might be difficult. You may only be able to incorporate one true field experience per semester for your students for a variety of reasons. It will take commitment and a change in mindset. I am not here to tell you it will be easy, it will not. What I am here to tell you is that it is worth it in so many ways.
It all begins with a change in thinking, a shift in pedagogy, complete rewiring of what teaching science looks like. I know you are up to it, so let’s get busy — on to the next one.