by Middle School teacher Ed Santella
“Science, by its own definition, doesn’t give us meaning. It just provides us with facts…” —David Steindl-Rast
One of the most drastic ways in which elementary science education has changed since I was a child is the migration away from asking students to parrot specific facts back to the teacher. The days of content-driven curricula and extensive note-taking are on the wane, and the days of problem-solving and critical and creative thinking activities have arrived. Most elementary science teachers would prefer to see their students learn how to think like scientists, rather than be a storehouse of factual information. At the heart of thinking like a scientist is the ability to use information, observations, and experiences to make meaning.
In the fifth grade at Pike, one example of this different approach to science occurs on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. The students arrive in the morning to find their science classroom dark and blocked off with crime scene tape. After wandering around throughout the morning, occasionally trying to peek through the windows to see what awaits, the students are ready to begin. After a brief introduction regarding the process and responsibilities of a crime scene investigator, the tape is removed and the students enter the crime scene and begin the process of solving the mystery of Felix Navidad.
They immediately find a spot from where they can view the crime scene. The students take pictures. They jot notes. They make and narrate videos of what they see and what they notice. The students will come back in smaller groups to collect and identify the evidence from the crime scene for later analysis. The fifth graders have begun gathering information and observations which they will need in order to be successful.
Over the next several weeks, the fifth-grade students will go from crime scene investigators to forensic scientists. Every piece of evidence they collected will be re-examined. Some evidence will be fingerprinted, or pH tested, or chemically analyzed. DNA samples and handwriting samples will be analyzed. Footprints will be identified and liquids will be tested. Throughout the process, students are given information to help them understand what they are doing and why they are doing it, but they are mostly gathering information and having experiences.
Finally, as the unit draws to an end, students are required to put on a third hat. As detectives, they are asked to put the pieces of the information they have gathered together to create a story. A story that explains all the information they have gathered; all the tests they have completed; all the observation they have made. This is where thinking like a scientist begins. How is an observation different than an inference? How is one used to make the other? Can they support their claims with specific evidence from their work?
It doesn’t really matter whether they remember the four main categories of fingerprints or how to use the pH scale. It doesn’t even really matter whether they decide if Gene Poule, Vera Cruise, Alfredo Fettucini or Kendra Goode did it. What matters is that each student has creatively and critically derived meaning and her or his own version of Felix’s demise from the facts science has provided.
The Pike School is an independent, coed, day school for Pre-K through ninth grade in Andover, Massachusetts. Visit pikeschool.org to learn more about Pike – and visit our blog for more thought leadership. To learn more about admission to The Pike School, visit our Admission page.