Constructing Understanding in the Lower School

After 16 years at FCS, nothing quite prepared Lower School science teacher Gerry Stewart for 2020, but she’s found all sorts of creative ways to stay true to the values at the core of her instruction even in this extraordinary time.
Her students are experiencing a constructivist approach to science even outside the lab. The usual fall curriculum includes a study of the senses at the Kindergarten level, animal life cycles for grades 1/2, and an exploration of ecosystems for 3/4. Gerry has found ways to continue to explore these topics but students are doing it in their own neighborhoods. 

“My goal is to keep them in their notebooks and teach them about observing the world around them. They don't have to be in a lab or grandiose place. There are things to discover on the ground. Lift up a rock and see what’s there! I want that curiosity to come out. Science is not just everything in a lab where there is all sorts of equipment and materials around them. The kids have really enjoyed taking their notebooks and doing that kind of work.”

At the beginning of class students are invited to share what they’ve found, and they’ve shared everything from observations about birds to detailed lab notes from an Ooblek experiment.  

Building those observational skills is at the heart of Gerry’s instruction and remains central to the science curriculum as students travel all the way up to 8th grade at FCS. The observation is paired with critical thinking and deriving understanding by wrestling with what they study. “It’s not simply a matter of me saying this is what happens when you mix baking soda and vinegar. They go through the labs constructing their own understanding of how things work,” Gerry explains. 

At the lower grades this can look like student-derived characteristics of living things. Gerry presents her class with 5 objects that they have to classify as living or non-living and then through their own questions and observations they arrive at a set of characteristics that they test in application to all living things. “They’re constructing those things, then fleshing out the ideas to arrive at a final list they can apply more broadly.” This year Gerry says she missed the conversation-filled debates that are possible when everyone can speak in-person, but the learning is still happening even if the hum of consensus building sounds different.

While all Lower School students were sent a kit with lab materials that they use to conduct experiments and observations, Gerry does a lot of live demonstrations to give students a front seat to labs that they might not be able to recreate at home. 

For example, she recently had three lima bean sprouts growing in different conditions that students could “check in on” via her camera during class to see how they fared in higher and lower light situations. “They can do the same thing at home but it’s not required. I share how they’re growing within this experiment and we use what they observe to determine what plants need to live.”

When students share their notebooks now, they often share observations about the plants in and outside of their homes. Gerry notes that this focus on the living world “feeds directly into the Quaker SPICES and stewardship.”