Science is that one field where kids can explore, innovate and create all at the same time while they learn about the world around them.
It’s funny how other people decide who we are. During my career, I was known at the science guy. Can I not teach math? Can I not teach history? Can I not teach literature? Prospective parents to our program would me meet and say, “Oh, you’re the science guy.” I always found that a bit offensive. Don’t get me wrong, I liked being the science guy, especially as science was disappearing little by little out of primary classrooms. But, I would have put all my other programs against anyone else’s programs, too. I loved teaching all subjects. I felt a master at literature discussions. The ideas that a room full of 9-year-olds and I could conjure up from our reading would impress adult book clubs I always thought. The way kids could see numbers in my classroom and how to manipulate them to arrive at answers had to be at the top of any good classroom, right? And when it came to history, social studies we called it, I dug hard to find the backstories to our studies, delivered them in context and then dropped just the right question to make my charges stop and think about the information we were investigating. Then, of course, we had to connect the events of the past to the events of today. That’s what great teachers do, isn’t it? But, nope, I’m the science guy. I was so much the science guy that people who hadn’t met me before, sometimes recognized me as “the science guy.” How did that happen?
All through grade school, I did not like science. That’s an understatement. Science, as I’ve written before, consisted of reading the very thick science book and answering questions, questions that I did not understand because my interest in comprehending the material was quite low. I read the passages in the book. Let me rephrase-I read the words, but I did not read the passages. To read a passage, I needed to follow it and understand it. I did not do that. Therefore, science was boring, it was hard, and I was not good at it. But it wasn’t science at which I was not good; it was reading comprehension at which I was not good. I went through all of elementary school and probably seventh grade without actually doing science. I don’t remember “doing” science until Mrs. Mastrolia in eighth grade had us working on science investigations. I remember teacher demonstrations of science in sixth grade, and maybe there were some investigations in seventh grade, but if there were, I don’t recall them. When I was finally in a class where I was performing science, I already had the idea that science was difficult and I was not good at it. I was right-I had never been taught how to think scientifically, so it was hard for me to understand. I tried though, but I had no interest in the subject.
High school science was a blur. Did I take it? I must have; I graduated. I do remember dropping out of chemistry as a junior because I had absolutely no idea what was going on. That is the only class I ever abandoned. I made it half of the year, and at the semester, I quit. I just quit. I am not a quitter, but I was wasting my time, and I knew it. The topic was so foreign to me. And that is all I remember from high school science. That is not exactly a resume to be “the science guy.”
To get my college degree, I was going to have to take science. I found the most innocuous, least “scientific” classes I could take to fulfill the requirements. I found myself choosing classes that had no science, but instead, they had reading. I could read and answer questions and fulfill my college requirements. That seems ironic, but it is the science I knew and by that time, I was much better at reading and answering questions. It was all going to work just fine, and I was going to be able to dodge science for my whole academic life! Then, I changed my major.
It seems that if one is a liberal arts major with the intent of teaching elementary aged kids, one has to learn science. I wanted the major, so I became motivated to learn science. I was immersed in classes that reeked of hands-on investigations. I approached them as any other class that I took: I would do my best, and my goal is an A. I was finally going to do science.
I have to admit, I enjoyed it. I think I enjoyed it because I was understanding it. Figuring out how the world worked wasn’t so bad after all. By the time I got into the classes for my major, I had a required chemistry class. I think it was called “Chemistry for the Liberal Studies Major” or something like that. It was fun, and I want to say I got an A, but that was 40 or so years ago, so maybe not. I think I did, though. I finally made amends for dropping out of high school chemistry. Was I on my way to becoming “the science guy”? I don’t think so, but at least my kids would learn science because it wasn’t so horrible after all. Besides, I would be required to teach science to children.
As I began my career, I used the district adopted materials. Of course, hands-on science wasn’t in the curriculum, and I was not well-versed in writing my own programs-yet. I was a new teacher after all and there were so many aspects of the profession to juggle; writing science program would have to wait. Thus, we had “read the book and answer questions” science. I remember trying to to do the suggested activities with the class, but there were no materials for us to use. I would have to purchase the materials myself, and honestly, I wasn’t making enough money yet to do that for class sizes of 34 kids. Sorry kiddos-teacher had bills to pay. I taught science as I was supposed to, and I did it each day, but was I the science guy? Not by a long shot.
I think the evolutionary step toward being “the science guy” came when my principal told me that I was going to be my school’s science rep for the upcoming new adoption. I think he wanted to see me doing something in the way of leadership, and I think he saw some potential in my science abilities. I mean, I taught science regularly and not everyone did. That’s all it took back them to move toward becoming “the science guy”.
I went to all the adoption meetings, I took notes, I piloted new materials and I reported the news of the adoption to my colleagues. I was also put in charge of the science materials at my school. I inventoried them, organized them, created a check-out sheet and kept tabs on where they all were. I was even given money to order the district suggested materials. I made sure that I got them all! The program I was piloting had a magazine-like format for the material, and there were some hands-on materials to use, not many, but some. Thus, I could do reading and discussing, but also have the hands-on aspect to go with it. In the end, the district did not choose that program; they went dramatic on us! The adoption teachers chose a program that had no written material for kids. The entire program was hands-on. Teachers were going to have to lead activities and then create meaning out of the activities. The district was trying to be on the forefront of hands-on learning, but would teachers take on the challenge? Hands-on science is time consuming and there is no real control over what happens. It was Constructivism at its finest. I had no idea that Constructivism would be the way I would teach gifted kids for the final 19 years of my career. This was my introduction to that philosophy, and I didn’t even know it.
As a pilot teacher, I had to lead a district training on the new program. This was really stepping out for me. I introduced a module called “Water” to the group who came to see my session. It went fine, and I enjoyed it. This was a revolutionary method in the district for the teaching of science, and there were grumblers, no doubt. Largely, people wondered where they would find the time to put the program together and manage all the materials. Sciencing was launched, and even if other teachers had reasons for not doing science religiously, I was not going to be one of them. The kids were having a great time learning science, they loved when we had science on the schedule, and I was learning science. It was fun, and I was hooked. I was becoming “the science guy”.
In an effort to show the community the new science program and have them understand what we were doing in the classroom, we needed a showcase. The parents learned science how I learned science, and they figured a book was necessary to learn science. We needed to show them that the opposite is actually true. Science is learned by doing, not by reading. Oh, I know, reading about science is important, too, but reading about science as the entire program is not science; it’s language arts.
We decided that each class in our school would put on a display of the science they were doing. The kids would be in groups of 3-4 and they would learn a science activity. We would bring the materials to the MP room, the students would set up their stations to showcase the science, and the community would come in and DO the activities that the students lead. The kids would be the guides for the parents to learn science. I created a program for the entire school to distribute to the parents as they entered, and we held the event over two nights. One night was for grades 1, 3, 5, and the morning kindergarten class, and the other night was for grades 2, 4, 6 and the afternoon kindergarten class. My class added a laser disc presentation of science to the mix as one of the potential adoption programs involved laser discs as the method of science delivery. Whereas that program wasn’t selected, the district supplied all the schools with the laser discs. I jumped on that, and my classes put multi-media presentations together before multi-media was a thing. I was trying to have my kids access and teach science ideas in as many modalities as possible. The nights were hugely successful, and we were even covered by a local television station on their newscast. I was interviewed, and I got to give my philosophy of science, or I guess I should say, sciencing. The entire school scienced for the community those nights. We did a repeat the following year as well.
In the midst of my teaching years, I was also teaching summer school enrichment. Over time, I took on the science classes. I taught science to summer school kids for five week sessions. I dug out as many different activities that I could find. That expanded my repertoire for my classroom during the traditional school year. I was finding so many resources for my classroom, before the Internet, and that was one of the big steps in becoming “the science guy”. I put my science night together for one of my summer schools. I was the only science teacher, and I had to assemble hands-on science activities that could be displayed for all the grades for all the parents. It went well, too. It did make quite the mess to clean up though. But, that’s part of becoming “the science guy”.
I made a career move and left my school to teach in a gifted education program. That is where my introduction to Constructivism accelerated, and I eventually became a Constructivist educator for all subjects, even math, literature and history! I was teaching hands-on science without books, I was learning how to bring meaning to the activities we did through questions and exploration. I was learning how to pique the curiosity of my young scientists, and there was no activity that I would not do. We even filled a wading pool of Oobleck and had people trying to avoid sinking in it! That was at my previous school though, but we got in the "GEMS Network News" for our activity. My kids were sciencing, and we were exploring the world. It was the best!
My new school required that the teachers in the gifted program put on a night program for our community. I was not a “get on the stage and sing and dance” kind of a guy, not at all. I was, however, “the science guy”. I put my science nights on each year with my classes. We would get as many as 150+ people coming to do science on those nights, and it was all led by my fourth graders. Fourth graders can teach science, I’m telling you! We had so many different activities over the years, and all the students had a fun time. They had to master their activity, learn the science behind it, be able to answer their guiding question and explain the science to the people who came to their station if they could not ascertain the answer from the investigation. The kids had to manage all their materials and engage their audience. And, they did. Before newspapers were cut back, I could always count on a reporter coming to Science Night to cover our event. We were in the newspaper for several years, complete with a photo or two and quotes from some of the kids. Eventually, we began practice sessions during the day with other classes. My kids were able to practice their activities and delivery, and we were spreading science to more and more kids. I was so proud of my kids for putting that event on year after year.
When the next adoption was implemented, it was the same program we had before but now updated, I was selected to be part of a team that would learn about the program in depth and then teach my colleagues back at our school. There were three of us from our school, and we met for week-long institutes in various places around the state. I was fortunate to be part of this group as there were only fourteen teams from our district. I was enveloped in science pedagogy and was extremely excited to bring it back to my school. Sadly, the school was not as receptive as I had hoped. Our team gave staff development sessions, but did we move the needle on science instruction? Probably not much. The hands-on program required a lot of preparation time, and the district was really moving toward an emphasis on math and reading. Our school’s population was changing, and we were receiving more and more students from challenging home situations. Therefore, more time was put on literacy, both in numbers and reading, and less on science. What people could not understand was that science opened up avenues of thought and new ways of thinking and truly developed thinking skills in their kids. Those skills could fully help their students in all other subjects. Plus, kids love science and they are more motivated in the classroom when they get to do activities that they love. The big secret that we said out loud, but was rarely heard, was that science was a key to turning kids into students. Science guys know that.
Toward the end of my career, our school began participating in the elementary level Science Olympiad. We assembled a team from our school comprised of eighteen kids from grades 3-6. We organized the teams, recruited the parents who taught the topics to pairs of students, and oversaw the running of the entire event. There were a lot of hours invested by the kids, the parents, and my co-captain; the teachers coached the Science Bowl team. In the end, during my three years of involvement, we won first place each year. The school was becoming known for having a strong science program. It was so fun to see our kids work so hard on learning science, and then be able to win so many of the competitions. Competition days were great days as the whole Science Olympiad community came together as one huge, cohesive unit. The kids won so many medals, and we have three shiny, first place trophies in the case in the front office now. Thank you kids and parents for your dedication toward this event. You made us proud beyond words. The trophies and medals are nice, of course, but that kids were motivated to learn science was the real prize.
Covid knocked my final Science Night event off the schedule during the last year in my classroom. I wished I had known that my final Science Night the year before was my final Science Night. The event was always a lot of work, but it was one of the greatest things I ever did in my years as an educator. Kids from previous years would come back to be part of the audience. It was incredible when my former students who were in high school would walk in and say that they wanted to see Science Night. Somehow, they heard when the event was going to be held, and they came. People from other schools brought their kids because they had friends in my class. We had toddlers to grandparents doing science on Science Night. I hope that some science careers were launched on those nights. If nothing else, I hope that kids enjoyed learning science, that their curiosity was raised, and that they approached science classes with an attitude of fun, anticipation of what was to happen, and a desire to figure out the world.
After I retired, I helped the teacher who took my place stage her own Science Night. Covid still existed, so the event had to be done during the day, but in the next year, her plan is to have the whole community come in and enjoy Science Night. I am more than excited that the event, which was first run back in 1998, will be running well into the future. It gets kids excited about science, and hopefully prevents them from thinking that science is dull and that they are not good at it.
During my last year in the classroom, a year that saw a pandemic shut down schools just as the final trimester of my career was beginning, I had a colleague telling me that I wasn’t going anywhere, that I was coming back to teach STEM enrichment classes. However, the following year saw kids taking part in online “learning” and so, I was not back. In the school year after that nightmare, the 2021-22 year, kids were back in the classroom, and I was asked to return and teach STEM. As the NGSS was beginning to come into play a few years prior to the end of my career, my team and I took on the standards and tried to get ahead of the game. We were working to implement NGSS before our district did; our gifted students needed that. It was incredible to work with a team of educators who were progressive in their thinking and were willing to put time into teaching themselves how to use the new science standards. To that end, we each created STEM units to teach to our children. We developed earth and life science units based on the standards, and we were certain to ensure that each program built on the program of the previous grade level. As “the science guy” I spearheaded the project to build those units. Honestly, I needed professional growth hours so leading the learning got me those hours! However, what better way to get those hours than in science?
Unbeknownst to me at the time, I was actually training myself for my second “career”. I accepted the offer to create a STEM enrichment program for gifted kids in grades 2-5. There would be five sessions of one hour each for each grade level. That’s twenty sessions in total. I had to find activities that were based on each grade level’s standards, that would have an engineering component to them, that could be done in five hours per class, and the kids would be able to collaborate to accomplish their engineering tasks. It took a lot of time in writing the programs, acquiring the materials and creating what I needed to deliver a high-level, gifted education STEM program. I taught one session in the fall and one in the spring. Before the spring session, I decided that we would showcase the learning in a STEM Museum. Each team in each class created a museum display of their work, and all the students went room to room to see what their fellow members of their cohort had created. Next year, I hope we can bring parents in to see the museum, but that is all dependent on the Covid rules.
In the end, I was pleased with what was taught. I learned a great deal during the fall session, and I believe that the spring session was much better. I now find myself writing additional programs to provide more offerings to the teachers. I enjoy writing program. I couldn’t do that 40 years ago due to the demands on a new, inexperienced teacher, but now, as a seasoned “old guy” I can. I look forward to more STEM sessions. I am continually looking for ways to improve my craft, but aren’t we all? My goal is to create a program that promotes kids loving science, who develop curiosity in the world around them, who solve problems and become thinkers, and who want to take what we do in the classroom and try some of it at home. I have been asked to come back next year, and the thought is that there will also be a winter program too. I had better get busy!
I find it sad but somewhat amusing that I grew up in the 1960s when the space race dominated the science of the decade. Yet, the best that the schools could offer in science instruction was reading books and answering questions? That led me, and how many others, to be turned off by science. From avoiding science to reaching a point where I feel it has to be taught in every classroom with dedication and devotion has brought me to be “the science guy”. Science is an outstanding conduit for developing thinking skills and innovative thoughts, but then, if all school subjects are taught properly, aren’t they all? However, given my evolution in becoming “the science guy” I have a bit of a bias toward the subject that will hopefully find solutions to the problems that humans create on our planet. My hope is that teachers inspire our young students to pursue science as their own profession in order to discover answers to the questions that abound in the world. Our students also need to be motivated to develop their minds in a way that will lead to solutions to the problems that are science-based. Yet, they also have to be able to see solutions to problems that are years down the road. There is so much wonder that science can answer, and we need to inspire people to want to satisfy their own wonder, and through that, answer the wonderings of us all. We live in a strange time where people don’t trust science due to the political climate, but we have to break through that. Science is a tremendous endeavor; it’s the way we figure out how to live better lives, or even live at all in our ever-changing world (see global warming). With powerful science programs that allow our young people to create overwhelming proof of scientific ideas, we can once again convince our population to trust and believe in science. Our job is to develop the next generation of explorers and innovators. Science is the key to the continuation of life on Earth. All science guys know that.
The important thing I’ve learned is to never give up on developing a topic of interest. I didn’t have the most inspiring start to learning science, and I tried my best to avoid the subject for years. Had I kept up that attitude and never given science a chance, I would have been deprived of so many amazing ideas and ways of thinking; subsequently so would my students. My own interests would have been stunted and in not developing a love of science as an adult, my students’ learning would have been stunted as well. Unfortunately, when teachers avoid subjects or topics, we can put the future in detriment: science is the way we solve problems and figure out the future. To take it a step further, science determines the future, so we had better be developing scientists in our schools. It’s the job of schools to inspire curiosity in children and teach them how to think in different disciplines. We need to develop creativity and innovation in our young charges and science promotes those skillful ways of processing the world. Had I continued to avoid science and not develop an interest in it, I would have cheated myself and possibly turned others off from science. That would have been a failure as an educator. Teachers need to continue developing their interests. Everything that we see and learn can be brought into the classroom; we just have to find that right moment to drop that pearl of an idea we came across into the discussion with our students. We become better educators when we develop our own academic pursuits as we can make our interests those of our students, too. One never knows exactly what will create a spark that launches a child into a life-long pursuit of any topic. That pursuit may just change the world some day.
I am proud to have become “the science guy.” I hope my students loved that I became “the science guy”. Being “the science guy” sure made for some fun times and imaginative thinking in my classroom. I hope I contributed to some of my students developing a curiosity in the world that can only be satisfied through scientific thinking. Science guys know that curiosity. I am one of them.
Science taps into kids' wonder and promotes curiosity. All kids need to be engaged in science.
~The Science Guy