A teacher was doing an experiment with his students where he held a cup of water up high with a string trailing down to the second cup lower and to the side of the first cup. As seen in the video:
The teacher asked his students to describe what was happening with the water and why it was able to go from one cup to the other without spilling onto the table.
“Newton’s third law!”
He just kept shaking his head saying, “Nope. Nope. Don’t think so complex. Just tell me what’s happening.”
And then a quiet student in the back chimes in,
“The water is sticking to the string as it travels from one cup to the next.”
She described what was happening. The teacher wasn’t looking for the scientific terms for what the water was doing or how it was happening, he was looking for an explanation. The water was simply sticking to the string.
They observed, they took it in, they learned, and the lesson moved forward.
Later in their readings when they came upon the definitions of adhesion and cohesion, each student made the instant connection to the water “sticking” to the string in the earlier experiment.
Science can quickly become a list of definitions to memorize, there is a whole new language out there of scientific jargon that can easily turn into a class of “learn new vocabulary” instead of “learn about science.”
But if you want kids to know science, to really internalize it and get excited about what science has to offer, let the definitions come later.
Introduce them to the world of plants and animals, chemical and physical changes, rocks and clouds, and stars and chemicals. And then when they’re excited and see the world change and create in front of their eyes, taking in everything going on, then give them the word to describe it.
Toddlers don’t learn what grass is by looking at a picture in a book and saying, “That’s grass!” repeatedly. They learn what grass is by sitting in it. Feeling it. Probably taste-testing it. And then hearing their caregiver say to them, “The grass is so soft! Don’t eat the grass, yucky! Do you like the grass?”
Let’s change science classes from memorizing definitions and writing out vocabulary sheets into watching, seeing, observing, and getting excited about what science can offer. And then once they’re ready for the definitions, let those come with time. And they will come if you give them that time.
In college, I took a course called “Teaching Science” where we spent class time creating our own scientific journals and carrying out experiments that our teacher created and that we created ourselves. While these were happening, discussions happened of how we can apply this to teaching our students about science, and how we can incorporate science into different aspects of our curriculum such as writing or math in order to see more of it in our school year.
My professor for the course was truly one of my favorite professors throughout my entire college career. He reiterated over and over as often as possible that the goal with science was to be so influential that students picked it up and continued to use the scientific method on their own, beyond school. He told us that if we were teaching science correctly, students would be excited by the subject and want to know more, their learning would go well beyond the walls of the school.
While I respected him greatly as a teacher, I never believed that I could be the type of science teacher to instill this in my own students. My emphasis for my degree was in language arts, and I had a hard time choosing between that and reading. Math and science were so far off of my radar. I knew it was something I would have to teach, but science wasn’t a subject I saw myself being so excited about that it shone through to my students.
One day in class we were studying our long term science experiment, a flower we had planted. A colleague of mine brought up a childhood story of her sister and herself planting popcorn kernels made for air popping in their sandbox, and how they would grow tall enough that their mom would rip them out of the sand. My professor looked at us with a confused look and told us this was impossible. He said that the popcorn kernels we buy from the grocery store is processed and wouldn’t grow in soil, let alone sand. He claimed she must have been given corn seeds or some other type of seed because having any result from popcorn kernels was not possible.
Maybe it was the stubbornness in me, maybe it was my growing love for science, but whatever it was, there was a burning fire in me to prove him wrong. That night I went home and found a bag of popcorn kernels in my pantry, planted them in a pot of soil, and left them in the kitchen window. I didn’t tell him about it at first, because obviously I wasn’t about to be embarrassed if he was right and the popcorn seeds didn’t yield anything. Days and weeks went by with no sign of improvement, but I continued to water them and wait for the day they grew into something.
One day I woke up to one little green leaf sticking out of the soil, it was incredible! It was actually working! I continued to take care of my plants until they grew bigger and stronger, strong enough to take a trip up to campus with me during my class.
I walked into class that day holding my pot of popcorn seeds that had turned into real plants with the biggest smile on my face. I plopped it down on my professor’s desk and after he looked down at the plant, he looked up at me waiting for an explanation of what this was and why it was on his desk.
“You told us popcorn kernels wouldn’t grow anything, you claimed that they were processed enough that they wouldn’t turn into anything when planted. Well, here you are, this is what happens when you plant popcorn kernels.”
Immediately his eyes lit up and I distinctly remember him jumping up out of his chair in excitement. I was waiting for his praise on what a great plant caretaker I was and how right I was. I was also waiting to hear those precious words come out of his mouth, I was wrong. But that’s not what happened next.
“You get it! You did it! You see what I’m saying now, this is genuine science, this is the ultimate goal as a teacher! You wanted answers about popcorn kernels and instead of going to the internet or accepting my answer, you conducted an experiment using the scientific method yourself! You did it!”
At the time I was somewhat dissatisfied with his reaction, I wanted him to admit how wrong he was. But later on, when I looked back, I realized the full impact of what had happened. He knew from the beginning that popcorn kernels would grow, he just wanted to test us. He wanted someone to prove him wrong all along, and that ended up being me.
That semester I may have planted popcorn kernels, but a seed was also planted inside of me. A seed that helped me understand why we teach science and how we teach it. I grew up thinking science was memorizing vocabulary and mixing vinegar with baking soda once in a while, but now I know that teaching science has evolved into inquiry and wonder of the world around us, how it works, and why it works the way it does and putting it to the test when we want to understand something deeper.
It took until my senior year of my undergrad education before I could grasp this concept, so my only hope is that I can inspire students to learn it much younger than I did and to plant the seed in them as well.
Having grown up in an area where the change in seasons was not particularly pronounced, I can’t stop geeking out about it where I live now. Every day is like a treasure hunt that never disappoints: a new variety of blossom budding here, a new nest built there.
Spring is a particularly lovely time to observe and celebrate the abundance of our earth & to visit our responsibilities toward it, not least because it includes Earth Day (coming up on April 22). Here are some of my favorite picture books that will be sure to enhance the celebrations.
The Earth Gives More by Sue Fliess & Christiane Engel. This beautiful read shares not only the changing of the seasons, but the abundance of the earth through time. Pleasant rhymes without becoming overly didactic.
Luna & Me by Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw. Follow Julia Butterfly Hill’s conservation efforts as she made an ancient Redwood named Luna her home for two years. Our students may not be able to live in a tree for years, but they will be inspired by the action of one.
One Plastic Bag by Miranda Paul & Elizabeth Zunon. Speaking of the impact of one, this is a powerful story of the difference a person can make to their community and the earth. Your students will love the unique collage illustrations as well.
When Spring Comes by Kevin Henkes & Laura Dronzek. Though this book doesn’t come back specifically to conservation efforts, it’s a lovely representation of spring’s unpredictable arrival and nature’s lovely, winding course.
The Curious Garden by Peter Brown. Students who may have a harder time connecting with nature in their urban environments will especially love this story as Liam finds a way to unfurl Nature’s abundance in the middle of the big city (also see High Line greenway).
All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon & Marla Frazee. Lyrical poetry and gorgeous illustrations that will truly get students celebrating the abundance of this beautiful world.
I seem to have an unquenchable thirst for curation. I’m always squirreling away bookmarked videos; reorganizing my photos in a way that family can really enjoy; searching out connections among picture books that I can compile into lists for future students.
Perhaps that’s the next challenge of living in an era of almost limitless information and content? To learn to sift, connect, and extract what matters most to us. And while this particular post is perhaps broader in concept than my inquiry provocation posts, I found myself drawn to sharing anyway.
So, nearly 3 years after my first “7 Videos that Will Prove Science Rocks” post, I’m sharing a few more that I find inspiring. What are ones that you love? Which ones might fill your students with awe and wonder?
#1: Gravity by Clemens Wirth
#2: Seasons – in a Small World by Beauty of Science
#3: Look Up! The Billion Bug Highway You Can’t See by NPR
This is part of a series of provocations on learner identities. Discussing what it means to be a scientist certainly lends itself more to inquiry, but it’s still a valuable step to purposefully take. After all, as long as we insist on rigid science fairs, some students may feel that they only qualify as scientists if the Scientific Method is in play (complete with a tri-fold board).
Use the following resources to provoke thinking and discussion on what it really means to be a scientist!
Resource #1: Why I Study Physics by ShixieResource #2: Insight: From Migrant Farming to Mars via The Kid Should See ThisResource #3: Patterns in Nature by National GeographicResource #4: Photography by Sebastião Salgado
This photo series is awe-inspiring. Compilation via Ted-Ed.
Resource #5: Tiny Perfect Things by M. H. Clark & Me…Jane by Patrick McDonnellProvocation Questions:
What does it mean to be a scientist?
What is the impact of seeing ourselves as scientists? (on ourselves, on our world?)
What is our responsibility to be scientists?
How does being a scientist relate to citizenship?
What is the connection between exploration and being a scientist?
There’s a reason that our first lessons on bringing detail into our writing often revolve around the 5 senses. There’s a rich, visceral connection we all make with our senses of touch, taste, sight, sound, and smell.
In this way, this week’s provocation can be a wonderful application for a writing unit, or else perhaps for science concepts such as adaptation, human development, etc.
I hated science as a kid. I got tangled up in all the instructions. I could never seem to keep all the “-osis” lingo straight. My biology course was the worst grade I received in college (though I still blame that on my husband since that was the semester we met…). Most of all, I just found most of it to be, dare I say it, boring.
Then, I became a fifth grade teacher. Our science curriculum included chemical/physical changes, geological changes in earth’s surface, genetics/adaptation, magnetism, and static/current electricity.
And for the first time, I LOVED it.
I geeked out over our chemistry experiments.
I discovered just how unique the geology of our state is and told my students that geologists all over the globe are jealous.
I played with our magnet sets.
I found myself fascinated by the survival traits and adaptations of animals everywhere I went — actually paying attention to those little plaques at zoos and aquariums.
I started thinking about lightning and static-y socks in terms of electrons.
The very thought of my students missing out on the wonder of it all was more than I could stand. So I shared that wonder every chance I could; but I also told them it wasn’t always that way for me. Why?
Because I wanted them to understand that love of learning is intentional. I wanted them to see what a shift in mindset looks like. And I wanted to let them know that if they found the subject matter dull, we could uncover the wonder together — because I’d been there, too.
Ultimately, helping our students connect with curricula is as much a matter of vulnerable relationship-building than anything else. We need to help them see us in our honest learning journeys if we are to show them how to navigate theirs.