Young `Scientists' Bubble With Discovery

A math-science camp in Chelsea, Mass., gives kids - and teachers - time to explore and experiment

CHRISTOPHER KENNY doesn't want to be interrupted.

His 4-foot-plus bubble sculptures are getting longer and lasting longer. He runs to the bucket, plunges his hands and a homemade bubble blower into the soapy liquid, pivots, and bolts for open space in a schoolyard now slick with expired bubbles. With one sweep of his arms overhead, he leaves behind one long, tremulous shape that shimmers liquid rainbow, then pops in the air. Just before the bubble bursts a quick ``aahhhh!'' comes from other five-year-olds not too caught up in their own bubblemaking to notice the triumph of a classmate.

Christopher pauses for a moment, ignoring a question about his winning technique. ``The best day of the summer was showing my brother how to make bubbles,'' he says. ``We were trying to count the size of the bubbles. It was a game, and I did the biggest bubble.'' Without waiting for the follow-up question, he shoots back to the bucket.

For these students in the Chelsea, Mass., school system's math-science camp, bubble ``explorations'' are more than a game. They are an excuse to ask questions, estimate, count, measure, report, and discuss. Examples:

* Do large bubbles last longer than small bubbles?

* Can large bubbles travel farther than small bubbles?

* Does the shape of the bubble change after it leaves the straw?

* Does the size of the blow pipe determine the size of the bubble?

* Do different shaped pipes leave different shaped ``bubble footprints?''

Some experiments require a ruler or a stop watch; others, just paying close attention.

Five-year-old Sameer Rassi likes bubbles class because, ``It makes you smart.''

The Mary Burke School where these children are students doesn't look like a hotbed of innovation. Built in 1881, it is the oldest school in Chelsea. Its wooden steps creak, windows won't open, and in winter the furnace quits periodically.

New schools are coming. The city broke ground for a $113 million school system on June 26. A new high school, two middle-school buildings, and a new elementary school complex are expected to be completed by 1996. But a new approach to education has already begun.

The Chelsea School Committee invited Boston University (BU) to take over management of city schools in 1989, when city budget woes had driven the system to the point of collapse. School buildings were crumbling, teacher salaries were among the lowest in the state, and there was no set curriculum. Math and science were taught by the book - literally.

``We used to teach the problems on the left side of the book and ask students to compute problems on the right,'' says Janice Fields, who has taught mathematics in Chelsea since 1976. ``Until BU, we'd never had professional development.''

In a move to boost mathematics and science teaching, BU offered professional training to a group of volunteers teaching in Grades 4, 5, and 6. Boston University professor Suzanne Chapin met with teachers every two weeks for a year to teach how to use ``manipulatives,'' give model lessons, observe classrooms, and comment on lesson plans. Four ``lead teachers'' from the group went on to teach model lessons to other teachers in the Chelsea system.

``In the past when we received new math material, it was just dumped,'' said Donna Matrinko, one of four lead teachers in mathematics. ``Now we have regular access to professional help. Dr. Chapin gave us her home phone number.''

``Teachers want to do better,'' Ms. Matrinko adds. ``Now we're way beyond just asking students to open to Page 27 and do 50 problems.''

The summer-school program is supported by a Standards-Driven Reform Initiative grant from the United States Department of Education. It helps update teachers of math and science and ``gives children an opportunity to behave like scientists,'' says Carole Greenes, associate dean for research and advanced academic programs in BU's School of Education, who wrote the grant proposal to support the program.

``We developed investigations or explorations where students would be working in pairs or small groups and conducting a variety of experiments and organizing and analyzing data they collect,'' she adds. ``Children learn to observe as they never have before.''

The program this summer includes explorations of bubbles, bridges, lenses, logic problems, and computer simulations. More than 100 students spent four hours a day in the program during July.

``What we're discovering is that learning to acquire knowledge isn't as useful as learning to complete a task,'' Ms. Fields says. ``We try to keep learning objectives in mind and focus on solving problems. We think of classrooms as mathematical communities''

Fifth-grade teacher Pam Goulston loves the relaxed atmosphere of summer camp. ``It's nice to teach in this atmosphere. You can really experiment and prove things.''

Inside the Mary Burke School, seven- to nine-year-olds build geometric shapes out of toothpicks, marshmallows, and gumdrops.

``This is a cube and a triangle prism and that's a hexagon,'' says a seven-year-old scientist, who seemed incredulous that the questioner didn't seem to know. She adds, as if to soften the blow: ``We get to eat them when we're done.''

The exercise helps prepare students for geometry class, Fields says. ``They learn parallel lines, perpendicular lines, skew lines, line segments, vectors, angle sizes. They also learn to relate these to class-room lines and shapes.... I think kids in Chelsea are beginning to love math.''

The classroom's walls testify to other experiments. A chart recording ``thumb relay data'' hangs in one corner. Students measured how long it took to complete a task with thumbs and with thumbs tied down. ``With thumbs'' is faster.

Alongside the thumb chart is a white board with the question: ``How can you become a great thinker?'' Students have supplied the answers: ``study, read, figure things out, try, observe data, think, record carefully, smart, listen, quick, discuss.''

Mari Palian turns from her marshmallow tetrahedron. She's still thinking about the bubble problem. ``You know,'' she says, ``before it pops, it's the color of the rainbow and it has black dots. Then it pops. I think it's [because of] the sun, but I'm not sure.''

The expression on her face supplies the last word: ``yet.''

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