Science: Satisfying a Child’s Natural Curiosity

Head of Lower School Michael Simpson writes about Greenhill Schools science curriculum and a visit to the newly opened Perot Museum of Nature and Science.

Recently the Fourth Grade spent the day at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science. At the end of the day, we all attended a session called “The Science of Superheroes,” which was a series of interactive science demonstrations on topics inspired by superheroes. It was about Newton’s laws, light and color, and magnetism and conductivity. There was another school in the audience at the same time. Occasionally the Perot instructor would throw out a question, and each time it struck me how several hands strained to the ceiling from our green-shirted students on one side of the room, and few or no hands were raised from the other side of the room. After a moment of sadness that the children at the other school have not yet had their science fires lit, I was impressed by our students. They showed their amazing curiosity and knowledge of science, which was a great reflection on them and our program.

Our job in Lower School is to set the stage and create the foundations. Especially in the last year we have shifted to focus our instruction even more on the process of doing science. Journaling, collecting and interpreting data, working in teams to solve problems…our students do this on a regular basis.

For example, every month third graders head outside to the playground to collect data about the relationship of the earth to the sun. The students measure the length of the shadow of an upright meter stick. They record which direction the shadow is pointing. They measure the angle of the sun in the sky above the horizon. For this part they use a device the kids have named an “angle-ometer,” consisting of an upside down protractor, a tube, some string, and cardboard backing. They record this information in their science journals. Then they go back to their classroom and process the data. They calculate and record a class average, and with the teacher they discuss reasons for the variations in their data.

So in addition to using this process to discover the Earth’s tilt on its axis, the students are also learning about the challenges of collecting large information. It would be easier (but less fun!) if the teacher just did the measurements and told the students to write it all down , but then the opportunity to discuss how variations in data collection occur would be lost!

This approach to doing science continues on into Middle and Upper School. I was amazed at a recent meeting on science curriculum to learn that course offerings in Upper School next year will include classes such as “Bioinformatics,” in which “the bioinformatics tools of BLAST and Cn3D are used to investigate the genetic and molecular consequences of a mutation to the Breast Cancer Susceptibility 1 (BRCA 1) gene.” Another lab class is called “Biotechnology Laboratory Techniques,” in which students pursue the answers to questions such as “What techniques are needed to genetically engineer an organism and include genetic material from another organism?” and “What tools and procedures are used to isolate and analyze protein samples?” Our students are not going off campus for these classes, they will happen right here in our science labs, with our equipment and biological material the school is purchasing.

Most likely, the students from the other school are learning about science out of a textbook, maybe a couple times a week. One can draw a line from our third graders learning how to use microscopes and the “angle-ometer,” or fourth graders applying precise measurement and data collection skills, to those Upper School classes. It all begins in Lower School with a combination of curiosity, practice of science process skills, and introduction to interesting content.

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