Saturday, December 10, 2011

Science For Six-Year-Olds: The Butter Experiment

This semester I took a multimedia journalism class, and decided that it would be great to get my blogging buddies from Mrs. Podolak's first grade class involved in my work. So, I paid a visit to their classroom to document just what goes on during a science experiment, and what makes science in the classroom so important, even for the primary grades.

From Liquid to Solid, First Graders Learn The States of Matter

In the elementary school classroom science lessons showcase the ability to engage students through different types of learning.

The first grade students at Lincoln-Hubbard Elementary School in Summit, NJ are optimizing their opportunities to learn by participating in a hands-on educational experience. If you ask them though they will tell you they are having a fun, and tasty, time. The students are learning the states of matter by making, and then sampling, butter to exemplify the transition from a liquid to a solid. Science is a core subject for students at all levels, but it holds special significance for students in the primary grades. 

“Starting at the primary level, teachers are immersing their students in the scientific process and encouraging their role as scientists,” says Matt Carlin, Principal, Lincoln-Hubbard Elementary School. “As scientists, students develop an understanding of the elements and relationships in the natural world. They engage in observations, form a hypothesis, and test through experimentation to arrive at a conclusion. These experiences are invaluable at the primary level because they establish a foundation of learning that will develop through a child's academic career, and in many cases beyond as they enter the work force.”

According to Carlin, the basis for any curriculum design is to provide students with a learning experience that is both meaningful and engaging. Carlin cites Howard Gardner’s 1983 theory of multiple intelligences, which states that there are various aspects of intelligence, to explain why for some primary students, science lessons are particularly useful. Gardner’s theory includes the naturalistic learner, a student who feels a greater sense of connectedness and understanding with the environment. Carlin says this is an area of strength for some students that can be optimized during scientific experimentation.

“A hands-on approach to science instruction immerses our students in the role of being a scientist and also attends to the different learning styles and preferences that are so highly evident in our classrooms,” says Carlin.

The inherent hands-on nature of science experimentation has known benefits for young students. For well over a decade educators have been tying knowledge of childhood brain development into educational practices to create learning environments that are optimized for each level of schooling. According to Kenneth Frattini, Vice Principal of Milburn Middle School and former elementary curriculum facilitator, the hands-on nature of scientific inquiry and experimentation is precisely what children at the elementary level need to help improve their absorption of information.

“Children have an enormous and natural curiosity regarding the world around them. In educational terms; students who have learning experiences through experimentation and self-discovery appear to retain and apply more information,” says Frattini.

In Susan Podolak’s first grade classroom at Lincoln-Hubbard, it can be surprising just how much complex information primary students can understand. In their liquid to solid experiment the children were able to grasp that on the molecular level there are “air bubbles” that help cream keep its form as a liquid. When these air bubbles are removed, in the case of their experiment by shaking the cream, the liquid will change states and transform into a solid.

This complex idea was still approachable for six-year-old students due to what Principal Carlin describes as the student’s ability to figure things out on their own, within the confines of the right curriculum. Appealing to different types of learner, and reinforcing information through hands-on experiences aren’t the only things science lessons have to offer primary students. According to Carlin, science lessons also have value for primary students because they make learning fun.

“In all likelihood, these are the experiences that students will retain, transfer, and use in future learning situations,” says Carlin. 

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