A Path We Need to Navigate
We all know how curious children are about their world and how natural phenomena fascinates them. Testing ideas and observing the world to try to figure out how it works is something our children begin to do as infants. Unfortunately, our children’s innate curiosity and drive for learning are not always supported in elementary schools. Science in elementary school is often considered unimportant and only included if there is extra time in the day. That needs to change. High-quality science education in elementary schools is necessary for building a strong foundation for learning science as well as supporting children’s fascination and natural drive for learning. Being in a classroom where students are encouraged to share their ideas and investigate things they find fascinating is inspiring.
Stellar Questions: The Beginning
Space Science is something that many people find fascinating and young children are no exception. Children question: How far away is the sun? How big is the sun? Who turns on the sun? Who turns on the stars? All of these questions present possibilities for helping students develop a strong foundation in space science. They are full of questions and this curiosity drives their learning.
Curiosity Leads to Infinite Possibilities: An Elementary Framework
In our elementary classrooms, students are encouraged to ask questions and share ideas. After generating a list of questions on a given topic, the class holds a discussion to determine which questions are testable in our learning environment and which questions require learning from an expert. As the teacher, I use questioning to help guide their thinking. Once the class chooses a testable question, we begin a discussion on how the investigation could be designed to test the question. It is important for me to give them opportunities to figure things out for themselves rather than just telling them how they must design their investigation. This is an important part of the learning process. As they proceed with their experiment, they begin to notice some students coming up with very different results. At that time, we stop and students share observations of things they noticed about how different groups are doing the investigation in different ways. Over time, in this student-centered, inquiry-based environment, students’ observation and communication skills grow.
Elementary Science: Specific Examples That Shine
Kindergarten students begin to learn about sunlight warming the Earth’s surface. The students decide they want to measure the temperature of the playground surface every day for a week. We record the data on a class chart. At the end of the week, students look at the data we collected and notice the playground surface temperature changed day by day. As I guide them with open-ended questions, the whole class engages in the discussion to explain the changes in temperature. One student comments that grass feels cool in the summer even when the sidewalk is hot. They wonder if the surface temperature is different at different times of the year and on different surfaces. The class agrees there are more questions they need to investigate.
First grade students begin to learn about patterns in our universe. They have questions such as: Does the sun always rise from the same side? Does it always set on the same side? What direction does the sun rise and set? We make a list of questions and decide which are testable. The class decides to make observations about the location of the sun at certain times of the day and to record the data. At the beginning of each day for a week, students look outside to see where the sun is and we record the direction on a class data sheet. At the end of the school day, students do the same. They begin to notice a pattern that the sun is in the east when school starts and is in the west at the end of the school day. As they continue to make observations of the sun, someone notices the moon is also in the sky. This generates additional questions for the class to investigate and the study of science continues.
Fifth grade begins to learn about shadows and how they change throughout the day. They decide to work with partners to photograph their shadows at different times of day. One student notices people are taking photographs from different spots and wonders if that will make the shadows look different. Through discussion, students come to consensus that the photographs need to be taken from the same direction by everyone. As they share their photographs, they begin to notice patterns. This inspires new questions: What causes shadows? Why do their shadows change during the day? The next sunny day, students go out to look at their shadows while also noting where the sun is located in the sky. This activity inspires a discussion about the sun being a star and why it is so much bigger than the other stars. They wonder about the planets and how scientists investigate the planets. Their curiosity leads to investigation questions which leads to more questions and the foundation for science continues to be strengthened.
Lisa Chizek is an elementary science teacher at North Tama in Traer.
Here are some resources:
- A resource illuminating the importance of elementary science education (the National Science Teachers Association Elementary Science Education Position Statement)
- Learn more about the Sun: A NASA site about the Sun for children
- The United States Naval Observatory Astronomy Site
- Learn more about the Moon: The United States Naval Observatory Astronomy Site
- A NASA site about the Moon for children
- Lunar Planetary Institute site with information about the Moon: