Sunday, December 2, 2012

Checking in on the Science Front

I figured I would give an update on how our experiment with the science format is going.  In a phrase: beyond my best expectations.

I have been using the Prentice Hall Science Explorer series as an organizing spine, and for occasional inspiration to add to our labs and hands-on illustrations of concepts, and I am very pleased with these books as a spine for my logic and upper elementary stage sons.  As outlined in my prior blog post, we are organizing our science classes, held daily for 1-2 hours every other week, as follows: 

  • Monday: Mom-led discussion/lecture
  • Tuesday: Assiged reading with outlining/notetaking
  • Wednesday: lab day.  May include additional videos or internet resources, depending on time
  • Thursday: Additional reading
  • Friday: Student chosen projects-- each kid choses one idea or topic that caught their interest during the week, researches it or does an additional experiment, makes a presentation to teach the family about what they learn by the end of the day.
I was not really sure how well this plan would work out, or how well I would feel we had covered biology as a discipline-- it is my former professional field, so I feel passionate about it-- but thanks to our rotating math/science  history/language focus schedule, we only get 20-21 weeks to spend on it, and this plan allows us to only really cover about 16-18 topics, with the expectation that a few topics will require more than one week, but most will only get one week.  I could easily spend all year on any given topic.  My hope was that the Friday projects would catch some of what we have to leave out-- permitting the kids time to explore some of the bunny trails that catch their eyes and building in time for them to go explore.  But really-- only 16-18 topics?  That really makes me nervous.

We are now a few months into this experiment, and here is a glimpse into how our week worked:

Monday:  I prepared a discussion based on the Science Explorer text on the topic of mollusks, echinoderms, and arthropods.  We discussed the increasing complexity of body plans that we were encountering (previous weeks were devoted to worms, cnidarians, sponges, protistae, bacteria, etc).  We are adding more complex kidneys, starting to develop hearts, the segments of the body are starting to specialize, we are encountering organisms such as the squid that have some intelligence.  We experienced life without jointed appendages by casting our arms in cardboard and attempting to write, scratch our tummies, and punch our brothers.  We got out great-grandma's collection of real starfish, conch shells, seahorses, and other preserved sea life, and discussed exoskeletons vs endoskeletons, and chitin made of polymer chains vs calcium based endoskeletons.

Tuesday:  Lots of additional reading happened.  DS9 read selections from Lab of Mr.Q, Real Science Odyssey, Basher Biology, and Holt textbook.  He noted facts about each phylum and filled in body plan diagrams, noting the differences between arachnids and insects, and labeled snails and starfish.  DS11 read and outlined selections from Usborne that led him to  think about past lessons as well as this week's lesson, reading about different types of feeding, locomotion, and appendages.  He also had additional things to read, and kept up with his daily assignments from our trial run with Plato Life Sciences.  The goal for him, as a logic stage student, is to draw more connections between our lessons and see the bigger picture on one hand, but also to dig into more details and be more specific about what he is learning.  He also labeled diagrams of the different organisms, with a focus on the defining characteristics of each group.

Wednesday: Lab Day!  We grabbed the dissection kit for the first time, and finally ready to really wrap our heads around a discussion of body plan comparisons, we carefully worked our way through an earthworm, clam, grasshopper, crayfish, perch, and frog.  We finished just before lunchtime.  DS9 was ready to eat.  DS11 waited a little bit first.  

Thursday:  Extra reading day!  This day has proven to be pretty fun.  We watch videos on Discovery Education Streaming, and have extra reading.  This week, because of the variety of organisms we discussed, we opened up a National Geographic book on migrations.  DS9 read about monarch butterflies (insects are part of phylum arthropoda) jellyfish (a past topic) red crabs, army ants, and other creatures that migrate long distances.  DS11 had his own additional reading about the guys we've been discussing all week in our reference books that we stock in the house and the extras I had picked up from the library.  Both boys picked a topic to research for their independent topics on Friday.

Friday:  This week was really special.  Both boys have been really good at finding their topics to research each week, and that has been really exciting to see.  DS9 has always needed a bit of hand-holding, which is neither surprising nor inappropriate.  DS11 has been pretty independent about his projects, and picked a nice variety of topics.  This week, however, the boys just rocked it.  DS11 became interested in starfish digestion-- a cool example of finding a detailed item to dig into.  DS9, however, held our big surprise for the week.  He chose his topic--the red crab-- read our books on hand about it (starting with the migrations book) then went to the computer, where he figured out how to google his topic and filter out the appropriate links.  He made his way to two or three different articles about the red crab, read them and actually took notes on paper.  He then made his oral presentation, using only keyword notes from his paper, giving great details about the migration, feeding, reproduction, and nesting habits of the red crab.  I was thrilled.  

This far into the year, I am pleased with how the year is going.  No, we will not cover every topic I can think of-- we could study nothing but biology until they get married and still not manage that.  The two of them read different things, and they end up discussing their readings with each other, something I never schedule and they just do spontaneously, increasing the material covered, and the depth.  The Friday projects are giving them time to dig up more information, and better yet, related the lessons to things that they find interesting (can you imagine your school life, if one day per week was dedicated to letting you go explore topics that interested you as they related to your lessons?).  DS11 still thinks dissection is unbelievably icky.  That's okay.  He survived doing it (poor kid- wait until later this year when we cover anatomy and deal with the sheep's brain and heart, and the cow's eyeball . . .).  He's also learning there is a lot of other cool stuff to biology, so the course is not the nightmare he thought it would be, and he's actually enjoying himself (when we're not dissecting anything).

Best of all, I can see evidence before me that they are truly learning how to learn.  They are not merely passively accepting what I dump into their brains.  They are figuring out how to go find information, organize it, digest it, and give it to others, independently.  If we can keep that skill going all year, this year of biology will be a huge success, no matter what topics we exclude.  We simply cannot teach them everything, but if we help them figure out how to go learn and evaluate information for themselves, while still building a strong foundation, and help them develop a strong curiosity about the world, they will be well set.

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