Science Becomes Elementary Fun

A low-budget learning center in Needham, Mass., is a leader in putting a friendly face on science education

`SMUDGY the Polluter, that's my name. People call me that, 'cause pullutin's my game."

Kindergartners through fifth-graders start snapping their fingers.

"I dirty up the earth and I don't care, but my favorite thing to do is to dirty up the air!"

So raps Cindy Wankowicz, animal curator of the Needham Science Center, as she helps teach a science lesson on the atmosphere at the Elliot Elementary School in Needham, Mass. This Air Rap is part of a 45-minute program the Science Center is presenting throughout the school district.

The Science Center is the chemistry, physics, biology, and ecology hub for all of Needham's elementary schools. Director Larry White and assistant Dan DeWolf use an entertaining approach for teaching students as well as educators to love science.

"We are concerned about process, not concept teaching," Mr. White says. "We want to teach [children] how to discover and to want to discover.... We don't want to just open up their heads and pour in scientific names."

The discovery method is phenomenal, says Rosemarie Greene, a fourth-grade teacher at Elliot, "The children get so excited. They will go out on their own and find things in newspapers to bring in to class, or build their own models."

This approach to elementary science is not new. Many individuals and schools in the United States have made valiant efforts to make the subject lively.

The Needham center, which has been open since 1964, served as an exemplary model for a bus load of science teachers, administrators, and counselors from the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) national conference held in Boston last week.

Today "hands on, hearts in, heads up, total involvement" teaching is getting more of a national focus, says Lynn Glass, president of the NSTA and professor of science education at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. More emphasis is also being placed on better teaching in elementary schools.

Elementary science was neglected for a long time, Dr. Glass says. Grade-school teachers usually are prepared in language arts, and many avoid science, he says.

In Ms. Greene's case, that was especially true. "I was a new teacher in Needham. I went to them [the Science Center] and said, 'Look, I don't feel comfortable teaching science, I don't like science. It was my worst subject in school,' " she says. So the center advised her on innovative teaching methods, gave her equipment and kits for the classroom, and encouraged her to ask questions. "And now I love science and my kids love it too," she says.

"This is the perfect age [kindergarten, first and second] because they are so curious," says Elizabeth Fitzgerald, director of the Magic House at St. Louis Children's Museum in St. Louis. With funding from the Monsanto Company, the Magic House sponsors "kitchen chemistry," hands-on science-teaching workshops for elementary school teachers.

"Research shows that if you wait till third or fourth grade, the children have already closed their mind to the subject. They hear from brothers or older kids on the bus or playground that science is boring or hard," she continues.

Historically, the focus has been on college-level science programs, says Dr. John Mason, president of the Monsanto Fund, the corporate grant-making arm of Monsanto. "But we realized that if we don't pay attention to pre-college, there won't be any college students to teach."

The Needham Science Center has tried hard to keep science from being boring or hard. And it offers more than special programs for children. The directors show teachers how to get across difficult topics.

"I wanted a way to show my students the size of the planets and the distance from each," Greene says. "I went and asked the center what I should do."

"We turned Great Plain Avenue [in Needham] into a giant solar system," says Mr. DeWolf. The first student in the "human" solar system held a 15-inch diameter sun. "We had another student stand 18 yards away holding Mercury. Jupiter was 1/8 of a mile farther.... A person had to drive a mile and a half to see the last student holding this little speck representing Pluto.

"The kids love this, and remember it too," says DeWolf. "I had one come up to me when he was in high school and say, 'Hey Mr. DeWolf, remember me? I was Saturn!' "

The center maintains a 35-acre conservation area with a boardwalk through swamps, pine tree groves, fields, and deciduous forests to teach children about animals, where they live, and how they use camouflage to hide. Live animals as well as mounted ones, ranging from a tiny field mouse to a mountain lion, are kept and loaned out to teachers for their classrooms.

In the center's Discovery Room, children can play with gadgets, including a power-generating bicycle that runs a little TV and a build-it-yourself dinosaur.

"And we do all this on a $7,000-a-year budget," DeWolf tells a group of teachers visiting from the NSTA. "We scrounge a lot of our equipment from the local garbage dump or it's donated by the community.

Other schools across the country are trying similar hands-on approaches, though on a lesser scale than the Needham center. One in Madison, Wisc., is 95 percent animals. "We have hundreds of animals and birds ranging from South American cockroaches to African snakes," says Gloria Boone, science materials specialist of the Madison program. "We make 120 deliveries each week to 47 different schools."

Another project, sponsored by SAE International, brings engineers and scientists to the students to show applications of simple physics. Called "A World in Motion," the six- to eight-week program is designed for fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders.

"We don't teach and don't present. An engineer gives the students a mechanical problem, then lets the students ask questions," says program manager John Boynton.

Fifth-graders build milk-carton racers and experiment with how much weight to use and what type of traction is best. It makes them think critically, says Mr. Boynton. Plus they love it, he adds. The address of the Needham Science Center: Needham Public Schools, Newman Bldg., 1155 Central Ave., Needham, MA 02192.

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