This Is Science: Don't Take My Word for It. Try It Yourself!
The little boy was pulling a net into his canoe and searching for fish when we approached. He looked up at our canoe, full of American teachers and students, and fear spread across his face. He threw down the net, picked up his paddle and raced to his father's side, screaming. His father reassured him that we meant no harm. The screaming stopped, and with his father at his side, he greeted us with a nervous wave.
This was not the reception we had expected on our expedition to the Amazon River. We were prepared for excitement and discovery. We had not planned to frighten small children.
The mystery was solved at the next stop along the river. At a one-room school, we learned that the day before, a team of Brazilian health workers had traveled this same small river. At each hut along the river, they stopped to collect blood for a malaria study. The young boy thought we were part of the team coming back for more of his blood!
I have met many Brazilian children on my annual eco-tourism trips to the Amazon River. Each expedition has included teachers and former students who share my interest in learning about our amazing world. It doesn't matter if you are in your backyard, your classroom or in the Amazon rainforest—you can enhance your experience with a little science.
Science is meant to be explored using all of your senses, and when you're sleeping in a hammock in a rainforest filled with the sounds of exotic insects and odors you've never smelled before, your senses come alive. Your mind quickly starts to fill with questions, and for an educator, one of the best ways to find answers is to conduct your own investigation. This enables you to apply what you have taught in the classroom to what you see outside.
I have found many opportunities in the Amazon rainforest to apply fourth-grade science. When I observe that the tips of certain leaves come to a sharp point, it makes we wonder why.
Then I remember that plants have undergone adaptations to help them survive. That the sharp tip of a leaf allows water to run off quickly is an example of a science concept I have taught in my classroom.
Science sparks interest in students who are often turned off by books and lectures. Science is about the things in this world that grab our attention. It has the power to hold our interest and challenge us to want to know more. Science motivates students to find answers to questions they have about our world.
As educators, we often search for ways to individualize our students' learning. Scientific investigations can match a child's interest in a way that is both educational and fun.
In addition to our trips to the Amazon, my work at The Children's Museum in Indianapolis has provided me with rich resources to help foster interest in scientific discovery among students and teachers.
I created a program called "CSI: Curious Science Investigators" for elementary students and teachers, in which students use science skills to solve a mystery. The class receives a card with a liquid stain and a note that reads, "Sorry, we caused a leak at the exhibit and had to leave the museum." Students must use scientific tools to examine the evidence, team up to define a hypothesis, and plan and conduct a scientific investigation at the museum. Part of their inquiry involves information acquired before their museum trip using Web-based distance learning. After the trip, they analyze data collected using scientific methods to determine the source of the stain. The five-day investigation concludes when students present their findings on a class Web site.
When children work together on science activities, their learning is enhanced. The same approach applies to teachers. Earlier this year, 14 teachers flew with me on a plane to the prairies of South Dakota for the 2005 Children's Museum Dinosaur Dig. Looking down from 36,000 feet at the seemingly endless dry plains that had been relatively undisturbed for 65 million years, we felt as if we were headed back in time to the end of the Cretaceous Period. A few hours later, our group of teachers was carefully digging and sifting through this very same dirt in search of fossilized dinosaur bones.
This is what I call hands-on science. The expedition allowed us to be paleontologists: in other words, to practice the science that we teach.
To be honest, science scares most people—even elementary school teachers. But we didn't start that way. We started as infants exploring the world: finding our hands, taking our first steps, testing, trying and learning from our observations. We started school with a capacity to wonder. Each day was filled with new discoveries.
Science standards direct us to "raise questions about the natural world." Young children come to school with an open mind to investigate, discover and explore. This is the age when they innately know how to "think like a scientist."
Then, sometime around the third grade, something happens: Science becomes boring. Children are taught to turn off scientific observation. Science becomes something that seems unconnected to a child's daily life. It is perceived to be hard and filled with a bunch of "know-it-alls" using big words. How do many of our schools respond? In many classrooms, the response is to turn science into a reading and vocabulary program.
Don't let this happen in your school. The best way to nurture a child's natural curiosity is for teachers to join their students in asking questions about our world. Science should not be a spectator sport. I believe that you should be an active participant in making discoveries. It's a subject that demands that teachers and students ask questions about what they see, do and learn. You do not need to be an expert in physical, earth or life sciences to make science education a part of your life. All you really need is a desire to ask questions and a way to find answers.
All of us have a natural curiosity about the mysteries we encounter in our classrooms, backyards and even the Amazon. This curiosity can help you solve these mysteries as you share your discoveries with students and other teachers.
My passion and love for science are expressed in the following phrase: "This is science: Don't take my word for it. Try it yourself!" This has become my motto for working with students and teachers. I hope it becomes yours.
For more information on how to make science come alive in your classroom or to join a future expedition, contact Rick Crosslin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can read about the 2005 Amazon River Expedition at: http://education.indiana.edu/~educalum/amazon.html.
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