“Open your science books to page 37 and Billy will start by reading the first paragraph all about ecosystems,” said one of the many science teachers I had back when I was in middle school school many years ago. The teaching of science seemed to be focused on conveying the content and concepts way back then. I rarely did science in my science classes. For me, it was all about memorizing or understanding the information. I had to memorize the periodic table and the many different types of biomes. When I was a student, I used to hate science because I found it so conceptual and boring. Who wants to read a bunch of information and then regurgitate it on a test? Wouldn’t it be a lot more fun to complete investigations about various elements on the periodic table to find out what group they are in? Exciting experiments like those I would remember. I would have been a lot more engaged in science class had my teachers made me DO science instead of passively absorb information.
As a science teacher, my goal is to get my students excited about the topics we learn about. I want my students engaged, curious, and more than anything, I want them DOING science. My students may not remember the six different types of simple machines, but they will certainly remember using simple machines to build a working pinball machine and catapult. Having students DO science allows them to foster a sense of inquiry and curiosity as they learn to independently solve problems encountered. The boys learn to think critically about concepts and apply that knowledge to various projects and activities. Building a space rover that actually works and solves a problem is a lot more fun and engaging than reading about rovers in a book or on a screen. The brain-based research on education tells us that students are better able to remember information that is interesting and relevant to them. If you connect concepts and skills to engaging projects and activities, that information will be saved to the long term memory more easily because of the stronger neurological connections being formed in the brain. DOING science is the only way to make the knowledge and skills tangible and real for students. In fact, it’s also the only meaningful way to teach a science course.
Today in STEM class, I introduced the concepts of speed and velocity to the students. I wanted them to begin to see how they are similar and different. Rather than just provide them information and test them on that information in written form, I wanted them to apply it to a hands-on task. After discussing the two vocabulary terms, answering clarifying questions that the students had, and introducing how to record and calculate velocity and speed for various objects, I had the students complete an activity to assess their ability to solve problems and coexist with a partner. The students, working with their table partner had to create a marble track using only the piece of foam insulation I provided them with in order to maximize a marble’s speed. They had to then measure the marble’s speed and velocity. The boys were so excited when I introduced this activity. I was barely able to hand out all of the materials before they got to work. The students manipulated the foam piece in several different ways until they found a form that was successful for them. They completed several test runs before calculating their final speed and velocity. Some of the groups even had a chance to experiment with other track set ups for fun. While two of the groups struggled to calculate the speed of their marble, every group tried to complete the task. After seven minutes, I debriefed the activity with the boys by modeling how to find the speed and velocity for their marble based on data the students collected. I even introduced the concept of finding the unit rate for their speed. This helped the two struggling groups understand how to find the speed of their marble. Although the boys will not be formally assessed on speed and velocity, I wanted to introduce the concepts to the students in a fun and engaging way so that when they get to physical science in the eighth grade, they will have a good foundation on which to extend their learning and thinking regarding these basic concepts. So, while they may not remember exactly how to calculate the speed of an object when they get to eighth grade, they will remember the basic conept and idea of speed because they’ll remember the engaging hands-on activity we did in the sixth grade.
As a teacher, I find it far more fun and interesting to teach science concepts in a hands-on, project-based manner compared to the old-school method of rote memorization. Sure, there is a time and place for memorization, but a middle school science course is not one of those places. We want our students to love science and be so curious about the world that they want to further their knowledge and understanding of the concepts covered. I have worked with several students who leave the sixth grade telling me how they now want to be an astronomer or geologist because of what they learned and did in my science or STEM class. And that folks, is why it is so important to have our students DO science in science class.