Exploring Our “Pale Blue Dot” in 5th and 6th Grade

When asked what his overarching goal for 5th and 6th graders is this year, science teacher Bryan Adams is quick to answer, "knowing their place in the universe." He says he visits the idea at the end of 5th grade by having students watch Carl Sagan's "Pale Blue Dot" video.
But it’s something his students delve into all year long as they learn science through a hands-on appreciation of our role in protecting the planet. In a year that began like no other in Bryan’s tenure at FCS, he managed to start students off doing many of the same things they would normally do in the lab. They’re honing their observational skills through measurements and data collection using materials they got in their supply kits such as a scale, ruler, and graduated cylinder. “At the beginning of every year we practice using these instruments so as the year goes on and I up the ante I can give them less direction,” he explains.

“I try to be as hands-off as possible. I try to keep it less about me upfront telling them what they need to know and more about them exploring to find the answers.” For example, in 6th-grade students do a lab where they are given information about different metals and then they have to identify samples using this data and their own calculations. 

He misses listening to the spirited debates that are possible in a live classroom setting as students try to solve problems. “Sometimes I don't tell them the answers even if there is a correct one. I’m trying to teach students that they have to lean back and be confident in their observations because scientists frequently do not know the ‘right’ answer. They just have their data.” 

What does that kind of inquiry look like online? It still involves posing challenges but the materials students use in their investigations have to be things they have access to at home. One exploration 5th and 6th graders did recently involved figuring out what different volumes of water weigh. They tried a variety of measurements, 20 mL, 15 mL, etc., and came to Bryan with the observation that “the numbers for volume are the same numbers for the mass!”

Next, he had them do experiments to see if that rule applied to other substances. They measured, weighed, and collectively compared 3 other household liquids looking at the relationship between volume and mass. When they discovered the water rule doesn't apply to something like vegetable oil they then pursued a line of questioning to figure out why. 

Students do a lot of this exploration on their own now, coming back to live Google Meets after they experiment to share what they learned. “What did you notice and find out?” is a question Bryan asks a lot. “They’ve been amazingly good at learning independently,” he says. “I was worried I was going to have trouble getting them to come back if they didn’t stay on camera while experimenting, but they do a really good job with independent work.”

This is a positive Bryan has seen during this time of remote learning. He says many of his students “have really grown up and need a lot less adult supervision looking over their shoulders. They’re getting their work done and completing it efficiently.” 

While the 5th and 6th-grade science curriculum has remained largely unchanged this year, how students demonstrate their learning is a little different. In 5th-grade, a crowd-sourced periodic table that would normally live on a bulletin board is now an interactive virtual tool that students co-created.  

Among the things his students will explore in the weeks ahead are a study of various geologic cycles and eventually an opportunity to design and build a model for an environmentally friendly house. “I want to make sure they have the science down and they’re not spreading misinformation about climate change or other important scientific topics. I’m not here to tell them what to think, but I do want to make sure they have their facts straight.” 

Both online and in-person Bryan says he appreciates how FCS is a place where experimentation and taking creative risks is encouraged “both for the adults and the kids.” No matter what curve balls COVID throws in the months ahead, he and his students will continue to explore what Carl Sagan calls, “our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.”
Located in College Park, MD, Friends Community School is a progressive Quaker K-8 day school, founded on the belief that every child is a valued member of our community. We offer a challenging curriculum imbued with strong values of equality, integrity, community, environmental stewardship, simplicity and peaceful conflict resolution, rooted in our Quaker heritage.
Friends Community School
5901 Westchester Park Drive
College Park, Maryland 20740