Teaching Future Scientists

“Young engineers, it looks as if you have mastered skyscrapers. Now you are ready for the challenge of building a bridge!” said the teacher to a small group of children in a first grade science classroom I recently visited.

She was addressing four students who had built a tall structure using cups, cardboard, and a variety of other materials. The structure was interesting, complex, and stable: it truly did show a high level of engineering. The students brightened visibly at their teacher’s feedback and took their skyscraper down after she took a quick picture of it with her phone. As she walked off, I heard one student say to the others, “So, let’s think about bridges. What’s a bridge?”

I loved watching this moment, and this class at work. The teacher was doing rigorous, standards-based science instruction in a way that was also rich, engaging, challenging, and fun for her students and for her. Her careful planning, thoughtful selection of learning tasks, excellent classroom management, and strong relationship with her students led them to deep thinking and learning about science. Let me tell you a little more about the learning I saw:

The class was studying solids and liquids. After a mini-lesson that briefly reviewed the important concepts about solids they had been learning, the teacher sent about two-thirds of her students off to centers to explore the properties of solids in different ways. She stayed on the rug to begin teaching the rest about the properties of liquids. She gave pairs of students in this group a set of eight, tightly-sealed clear plastic containers of different liquids. She used interesting questions to encourage them to explore their liquids: “Scientists, see what happens if you shake your liquids. What do you notice? How are they similar? How are they different?” Once they’d gotten started, she left to check on the work of those at centers.

This is when she visited the table of “young engineers”and challenged them to use the solid materials at their table to build a bridge. After her visit with this group, the teacher quickly checked in at the next table, where students were happily looking through “I Spy” books to classify what they saw as solids or liquids on a recording sheet. Finally, she gave some quick, positive feedback to students who were creating mini-books about different solids and their characteristics at a third center.

One “careful observer” (as the teacher called her) at this last table answered my questions about solids by giving me a quick mini-lesson of her own on the subject. With exacting vocabulary (and a little concern that I didn’t seem to know about the characteristics of solids already), she told me that solids usually keep the same shape. She let me know that solids could be flexible, like the plant she had drawn in one picture, rough like a rock, or hollow like an eggshell. She was so proud of her careful illustrations and labels! It was clear to me that this first grader had really internalized the vocabulary and concepts she was learning. She unquestionably understood what a solid was.

Meanwhile, the teacher had returned to the liquids group on the rug, sat down, and as if she had been there the whole time, said, “Okay, liquids down. What did you discover?” And so the lesson continued.

The children in this room were so happy and engaged that I could feel it. Their teacher’s careful selection of age-appropriate tasks (first graders love to do things!), along with her careful set-up, cheerful reinforcement, and appropriate challenges, made all students feel safe and significant.

As often happens in rooms where children feel this way, the children’s behavior was almost all positive: engaged, on-task, and appropriate. As a result, this teacher had to spend very little time redirecting students. Instead she was able to use her considerable energy to give them positive feedback, encouragement, and when needed, a little push. It was such an inspiring example of how we can meet standards and provide rigorous instruction while still teaching in ways that are engaging and developmentally appropriate. It was amazing to see her and her students at work!

Margaret Berry Wilson is the author of several books, including: The Language of Learning, Doing Science in Morning Meeting (co-authored with Lara Webb), Interactive Modeling, and Teasing, Tattling, Defiance & More.

Tags: Engaging Academics, Guided Discovery, Science