Science students get their hands dirty
Enter Carol Swink's classroom where students become scientists by conducting hands-on, inquiry-based investigations. By saving the textbook reading and lectures for last and doing experiments first, students master not only science content but math content too.
Yesterday at Hunter Elementary School, Carol Swink’s fifth grade science students engineered rivers and deltas. Tomorrow they’ll be flooding towns.
The students are working with a FOSS landforms kit that provides plastic trays filled with a mixture of sand and clay. Their lessons have been designed to meet the second competency goal for grade 5 in the 2004 Standard Course of Study: “The learner will make observations and conduct investigations to build an understanding of landforms.” Ms. Swink, who has been teaching science for eight years, has developed hands-on, inquiry-based investigations to meet each of the state competency goals.
Students pose the questions
“Yesterday we looked at slope, and how slope affects the rate of erosion and deposition,” Swink explains. Each tray contains an even 20 centimeters of soil. The students propped up their trays on books so their “hills” will have different slopes. “We actually pulled cards for who would have the different amounts of books, because they all wanted to have the most books.” Each group of students measured the angle their pile of books created, and one group member recorded the data. Swink reviewed the concept of slope, which they had learned when making graphs in math class. Before the students poured water down the hills, Swink asked them to predict what would happen based on the different slopes.
Swink doesn’t tell the students what results she expects from their investigations. She allows them to make their own predictions and observations, believing they will learn and remember the concepts better that way. “You don’t want to say, ‘You do it this way, this is how it’s going to be.’ You want them to discover for themselves what’s going on, and you supply the content information at the end.” The theory behind her teaching is a five-step learning cycle elaborated by Anton E. Lawson. These are the five steps:
- Invent the concept/reflect
Students are excited when they walk into Swink’s classroom and see the science materials set out. “It’s easy to engage the students in a hands-on investigation. Instead of reading straight from the textbook and listening to me tell them, ‘A landform is da-duh da-duh da-duh,’ they see the landform being made, they see how a river forms, and they are able to actually put their hands on it.”
For this project, Swink provided a research question. But by the end of the year, students will be writing their own research questions. “It’s kind of like a weaning process,” Swink says. She explains that by the time the last investigation with landforms rolls around, the students will be shaping their own research questions and designing the entire investigation, “so they have to do true inquiry all the way through.”
Conduct a lesson and save the content for last
While the students are working, Swink walks around the classroom taking notes on their procedures and conversations. When the groups reassemble as a class for discussion, she shares some of the observations she overheard that were particularly perceptive. By doing this, Swink instills a sense of pride in her students. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, that was my comment, that was me!’”
After conducting investigations and recording their data, the groups share their information. Once the erosion investigation was complete, students took a “museum walk” around the classroom to see the outcomes of each groups’ experiment. Because each slope had a unique angle, they took notes on the differences they observed. When the students returned to their seats, they took turns calling out their results so Swink could plot the class data on the board.
Next the students look for patterns in the data and discuss their observations as a class. “They didn’t know what a delta was, for example, the first time we did this. They said, ‘Oh, there’s this little thing, it looks like a fan at the bottom! This is so neat!’” When the students share their findings, she gives them the vocabulary (“delta”) to talk about their findings.
They record their observations below the data in their science notebooks. “They have the basics once they’ve done the investigation, you just have to fill in the gaps.”
After the students have contributed their own observations, Swink presents additional content. She calls this stage the content blast. In the content blast for the erosion lesson, she introduced different types of erosion (wind, water, glacial) “that did not come out in the sharing.” In other landforms lessons, the class has discussed how canyons form; how the courses of rivers are determined; and the differences between meanders, streams, and tributaries.
The content is more meaningful once the students have experienced the phenomenon. “I know when I was taught we did content first, and then we did an experiment. But with inquiry we’re doing the investigation and then sharing out and doing content. So, if we are looking at formation of rivers, they’ve seen it. They can visualize and think back to their investigation when I give the content information.”
Swink recognizes that holding back information until the end of the process can be hard. When Swink was in elementary school, she recalls, everyone sat in rows, and the only investigation she ever performed was to take two wires, a light bulb, and batteries and follow the instructions to make the bulb light up. Using inquiry means that she can’t use the way she was taught as a model. “That’s a challenge,” she says.
Swink, who has taught both regular and academically gifted classes, has found that these activities work well with a wide range of ability levels. All of the science classes at Hunter Elementary have inquiry-based lessons. “Inquiry can be easily adapted for different levels of students. So it’s a wonderful way to teach science,” she says. The lessons also engage students with different learning styles. Visual and kinesthetic learners respond to the hands-on activity, while students with auditory strengths learn from the group discussions.
Swink divides her science students into four-person cooperative groups. The same students are in the same group throughout one unit—for example, for all the landforms investigations, or all the ecosystems investigations. Within that group, the roles change for every investigation.
“Each person is assigned a job. One’s the CEO, who is in charge of ensuring that everyone’s following directions and kind of supervising everybody else. That’s the job everyone wants.” The CEO also assigns jobs for the next rotation. Another student is in charge of materials. “They’re the only people that can go get anything. [Otherwise] you have kids getting up and wandering, and that’s just chaotic,” Swink explains. A third student is the “time tracker.” The time tracker is in charge of keeping the group on time, timing the experiments, and ensuring no one is talking too loudly. The final role is data collector who is responsible for recording the data and putting it in a table.
“Everyone gets a chance to be in charge and a chance to do data. So they get to experience each role. But they all work cooperatively,” Swink says. She constructs the groups rather than letting the students choose their own teammates, and she tries to include children in each group who are good at different things: one who’s a natural leader, one with a good grasp of the science concepts.
While the students are working independently, Swink pays attention to what they’re doing and may redirect them to keep groups on task. Her note taking also tends to inhibit misbehavior. “You’re just writing down what they’re saying, but they don’t know what you’re writing. You have to kind of monitor behavior in that way.”
If one group finishes before the others, those students can do the lesson’s reading or use the time to answer questions their research brought up. “For example, when we did the stream investigation, one child asked, ‘Why does a stream want to meander? Why doesn’t it just go straight?’ So they can go and research with the expository text, or research on the computer with some of the websites and try to find the answer. There’s always an extension for those kids who are above and beyond.”
Swink says she hasn’t had problems with the students asking unreasonable questions or designing impossible experiments. “We work on the questions together. You can’t say, ‘I think you should do this,’ because you want them to figure it out themselves.” She suggests using questions that lead them in another direction. “How could we say this in a different way? What are some other ways we could do this investigation? What materials could you use?”
The final, student-designed investigation is based on a real world problem. The students research an issue and develop a case explaining why it is important to find an answer to their question. This helps keep the investigations realistic. Two years ago, students brought in newspaper articles about flooding at a local U-Haul business. Students were enthusiastic about solving a problem in their own neighborhood and conducting research that was relevant to their own lives. “We looked at reservoirs and how to redirect water.” The students designed an entire drainage system and built a pipeline model using straws.
Students’ work is evaluated largely through their science notebooks. For each investigation, a science journal entry includes:
- Predicted answers or possible outcomes
- Materials and procedures used in the experiment
- Data collected
- Learning section (summary of what was learned)
- Next steps
The learning section is weighted most heavily in the grade. “Their learning section, I tell them, is like the meat,” Swink says. Under “next steps” the students record changes they would make to the investigation, what they’d like to know more about, and unanswered questions. “A lot of times they have more questions when they finish the investigation.”
Under the record of their group’s experiment, the students draw a line. The line is called LOL, or Line of Learning, “which they like, because a lot of them use instant messenger [in which LOL means ‘laugh out loud’].” Below that line they record anything they learn from another group during the sharing session.
“The notebooks are pretty comprehensive,” Swink says. “It’s a lot of writing.” This both helps reinforce language arts lessons and prepares the students for writing reports and keeping lab books in advanced science classes. The notebooks also enhance scientific thinking and behavior. “They’re very serious about acting as scientists. When they come in here, they know that they are the scientists, so they have to be serious and find out something more about their question.”
Swink also uses assessments developed by, the North Carolina Infrastructure for Science Education, to match each objective in the state curriculum. Support documents developed by NC-ISE provide embedded assessments, assessment questions based on real life scenarios, and rubrics to aid assessment.
Covering the science curriculum
Wake County purchased the kits Swink uses in her science classroom last year. It was “science adoption year,” and a committee, of which she was a member, decided to use their allotted textbook money to buy new kits rather than books. They had already been using kits to teach science for about seven years. “We were one of the pilot schools for Wake County that did the kits and we loved them.” Of course, different materials could be used to conduct similar investigations.
During the first nine weeks, students focus on landforms. The basic setup for the landforms investigations is a tray filled with soil, which can be used for several different investigations. “Next week we’ll be looking at the effects of flooding,” Swink says. The students will plug the hole at the end of each tray to allow the trays to fill with water. “We have the centimeter cubes, and we have those represent houses and that kind of thing. Houses, fences, whatever they want to have. They make up their little city, and then they get to look at the effects. We can tie that directly into current events, too,” she says, referring to the catastrophic floods caused by Hurricane Katrina. “So that ties right into our social studies curriculum. Science is something that really can be integrated into any subject area.”
In the second nine weeks, the students observe the interdependence of plants and animals. “We take two-liter bottles and actually make an ecosystem. We have the gravel and the ellidea [a green leafy plant found in aquariums] and the algae and the mosquito fish and the snail on the bottom.” This aquarium is connected to a terrarium formed using another, upside down two-liter bottle. The bottles are connected at their necks, and the bottom is cut off the top bottle. “We have a little screen, and we put the potting soil in, and we plant grass and mustard and alfalfa in there. We have an earthworm , a cricket, an isopod, which is a roly poly like you find underneath your stairs.” The students can watch water from the aquarium evaporate, condense, and fall back: a simple model of the water cycle.
Motion and design
The third nine weeks is devoted to motion and design, “which is actually my favorite one,” Swink says. “Students get to build the cars from the ConnexTM pieces.” The car, which is called a standard vehicle, is constructed from a bucketful of small pieces. The class also makes propeller vehicles during the motion and design unit.
Swink suggests using a Nascar theme and providing a real-life scenario. “There’s a gas shortage and you can’t power the Nascar cars with gas anymore. Here are your rubber bands! Try to win the race with the rubber bands.”
Sometimes leading questions can help the students figure out a solution. “They say, ‘I want to do a slingshot.’ And I say, ‘Well, how does a slingshot work?’ You have to keep asking, and they’ll figure it out.” After the students have figured out how to power their cars, they conduct an investigation in which different groups twist the rubber bands different numbers of times (5, 10, 15, 25) and measure the distances the cars run under that tensile power.
Another decision they had to make regarded rubber band width. “You want to have thinner ones, because the thicker ones you can’t get as much tension on. A lot of them figured that out pretty quickly.”
Technical drawings are used to construct the propeller vehicles. “They had to look at the drawing–it’s a top view, a side view, and a front view–and visualize it and put it together, which was challenging. The kids really like doing that.” The first time the class used technical drawings, they color-coded them to make them easier to interpret. Swink says this is particularly helpful for children who aren’t visual learners.
Swink teaches both math and science, and she uses the hands-on science investigations to teach and reinforce math concepts. During the erosion investigation, she introduces distance = rate x time by talking about how water runs more quickly down a slope, just as a child riding a bicycle moves faster down a hill. “I always try to relate it back to their lives so they can understand and so they can see the relationship between the landforms investigation and a real-life example.” The distance formula is reinforced later during motion and design, as it relates to the speed of the students’ cars.
Landforms investigations also provide practice in measuring angles, while motion and design investigations provide practice in measuring distance. Swink is able to teach the graphing and measurement units completely through the model car kit. “And they got it so much better than they would have if we had just done a couple of days. When it was over an extended period of time, and they were having to measure again and again and again, through the repetition they were able to master the concepts.”
Swink is clearly an advocate of hands-on, inquiry-based methods for teaching science and math. She hopes that some of her students may be inspired to pursue careers in science, but in any case, they enjoy mastering the requisite material. “They’re more engaged in the learning process,” Swink says. “I mean, if I pulled out a textbook now, after we’ve done all this, they would be like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I can’t stand that!’”