Being an elementary school teacher is hard for many reasons, not the least of which is you have to be a master of every discipline (as well a psychologist, caregiver, etc.). One discipline that seems especially tough for people is science. I often hear from colleagues that they feel like they lack the background knowledge they need to be effective science teachers. Many colleagues who have science kits teach only those lessons, and colleagues who have less well-defined programs aren’t sure where to start.
There are good reasons to feel this way. First, many of us had few experiences with science (and probably none with engineering) when we were in elementary school. I remember hatching chicks in first grade, and that’s about it. Second, women, who make up the vast majority of elementary teachers, have historically been discouraged from pursuing the sciences. Third, while many of us read and write as part of our daily lives, fewer people see science the same way. And if you live in an urban area, it may feel like opportunities for experiencing the natural world are few and far between.
I want to share some very simple, but profound ways to get started with science in your elementary classroom. Or, if you teach from a science kit (I do too — there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel), I want to share some ways to get back to fundamentals and do science with your kids outside.
The simplest way to start is with observation. Scientists carefully observe the world around them. These observations lead to questions, which lead to hypotheses, which lead to experiments and discoveries. But let’s just start with observing — truly sensing the world around you. You don’t even have to leave your classroom. All you need is something for kids to draw. Last week, in my second grade classroom, I started with plastic bugs because our first unit is on our local habitat in Massachusetts. But if I was teaching geology, I could have them sketch rocks. For the water cycle: water droplets and ripples. For plants: flowers, leaves, seeds. It’s the process that matters most, not the subject.
I pull out my magnifying bug boxes (totally optional, but it’s fun to use magnifying lenses) and fill them with realistic-looking plastic spiders I’ve collected. I also get out my shell collection for kids who felt a little worried about even plastic spiders. Then I model how to sketch like a scientist.* With my own blank nature journal, I begin to draw at the demonstration table, where all the kids can see. As I draw, I think aloud: “I notice the body is two parts. There’s a big back part that looks like an oval, and there’s a front part that’s a smaller circle.” I draw these parts, sketching quickly with many light strokes, never a single hard line.
“Actually, now that I look at it, that back part is more like a teardrop. I’m going to change the shape in my drawing without erasing it. I just draw right over my original drawing.” I don’t allow kids to erase when they start sketching. It’s much easier to adjust your drawing by sketching over it than it is to erase and start over. Think of it as drafting, then revising.
“Now I notice the spider has little pinchers or horns at the front. I wonder, what are those for? Maybe for spinning webs? Or do they eat with those?” I wonder aloud as I sketch, modeling how scientists ask questions. “Now the legs. How many legs are there? One, two, three…” I model counting carefully, not taking for granted that the spider has eight legs. We want kids to draw what they actually see, not what they think they should see based on their background knowledge.
“Eight legs. And they are all coming out of the circle part of the body. That’s interesting. I thought spiders had legs coming out of all the center parts of their body.” Model correcting your thinking based on evidence. Scientists always keep an open mind. “Let’s see: the first part of this leg is kinda shaped like a rectangle. But then there’s another part, like a joint in my finger. How many joints are there? One, two, three…” I sketch about half of the spider, moving around the body, adding details as I notice them: hair, markings, shading, etc.
Then I send the kids off to work. When kids have trouble, I encourage them to look at the shapes rather than to try to draw a spider. One student was really struggling until I drew right on top of his drawing, showing how he could revise what he already had on paper. It all suddenly made sense to him, and he dove into his work.
So often, kids draw from memory, trying to recreate the idea of an animal. It is liberating for them have the animal in front of them and just draw the shapes. As you circulate around the room, you can easily spot the kids who are drawing from memory rather than observing because their drawings will be spider-like rather than of the spider they have in front of them. That’s where you intervene. As long as kids are drawing what they see, it doesn’t matter how polished or accomplished-looking their final drawing is.
In fact, it doesn’t matter how polished your drawing is. In a lesson like this, you are modeling scientific habits of mind, not amazing drawing skills. As long as you draw what you see, the kids will get it. And some kids will be better artists than you — some of my second graders are better than me, for sure! — and that’s ok. Use their work as exemplars so everyone can learn from them.
For the next lesson, I borrowed my friend Beth’s real, dead bug collection. If you don’t have a friend like Beth (I am very lucky!), you could also use bones, leaves, rocks, shells, flowers, feathers… really, anything from the natural world. This time, instead of sketching, I modeled labeling my original spider sketch. I noted the parts of the spider I thought I understood and recorded the questions that the spider made me wonder. When the kids created their new sketches, I required that they add 2-3 questions next to each sketch.
Why start with plastic bugs? Because they are flatter and simpler in design, plastic bugs (or other animals) are much easier to draw. When you have real creatures, they are much more complex and (of course) completely three-dimensional. Kids will naturally choose one angle from which to observe their creature as they flatten it on their paper. That’s what you want to see, even though sometimes, it will produce awkward-looking drawings. What you don’t want to see is kids drawing their idea of the animal. Always keep their focus on careful observation.
Then, with two nature sketching experiences under their belts, my second graders were ready to sketch in the forest. You could just as soon bring your kids to your playground, to a local park, or to an Audubon Sanctuary. We’re lucky to have our town forest just down the road. This will be our second forest walk of the year; the first one is simply about enjoying the outdoors (with new experiences, always start with play). But on our second walk, we took our nature journals and each found one thing from the forest habitat to sketch.
Don’t expect student sketches in the field to be nearly as detailed as the ones they do in the classroom. There are just too many exciting things to look at and do outside! Being able to settle down and sketch in the field takes time and practice.
If you start your elementary students observing and asking questions like scientists, you are well on your way to having them use the scientific method. I do a unit on birds (part of our study of animal classification in third grade) in which kids observe, ask questions, and create hypotheses in small groups. Then, each group designs an experiment to test their hypothesis. We gather data and share our conclusions in a presentation to the rest of our school.
Observation is an easy way to start your kids working as scientists without you needing to have a great deal of scientific background knowledge. But don’t stop there! There are many painless ways for teachers to learn more about science:
- Get outdoors! Go hiking or beach combing, or just stroll through your local park and look up in the trees and down at the ground. If you live in a city like I do, watch the pigeons and the house sparrows. Urban animals are fascinating (talk about adaptation!), but we almost always ignore them.
- Check out your local nature sanctuaries and Audubon Society. Many places offer science courses for teachers.
- Become an ornithologist! Bird watching is a terrific way to develop observation skills and learn about animal classification, adaptation, and habitats. Plus, there are birding groups everywhere.
- Take advantage of teacher memberships and “teacher nights” at your local aquarium, zoo, or science museum (like the Teacher Partner Program at the Museum of Science, Boston).
- Listen to Science Friday on NPR and other science programs.
- Read Talking Their Way Into Science: Hearing Children’s Questions and Theories, Responding with Curricula (my favorite book about science pedagogy) by Karen Gallas.
When we teach science in elementary school, the most important thing we can do is teach kids the habits of scientists. Starting with the easily observable world — the things that kids can readily see, smell, and touch — gives them a solid foundation on which to build more abstract scientific ideas. To teach about the interdependence of plants and animals, start by looking at looking at plants, by looking at animals. To teach about locomotion, start with feet. To teach about engineering, start with pencil design.
As teachers, we are sometimes intimidated by science because we find it complex, confusing, or esoteric. But it doesn’t have to be. You could teach this lesson tomorrow and take a small, but meaningful step towards being comfortable with science and inspiring a classroom of future scientists.
*Many thanks to the fabulous artists who taught me: Bree Curtis, Beth Altchek, James Armstrong, and my mom.