Science Becomes Elementary Fun A Low-Budget Learning Center in Needham, Mass., Is a Leader in Putting a Friendly Face on Science Education

Article excerpt

`SMUDGY the Polluter, that's my name. People call me that, 'cause pullutin's my game."

Kindergartners through fifth-graders start snapping their fingers.

"I dirty up the earth and I don't care, but my favorite thing to do is to dirty up the air!"

So raps Cindy Wankowicz, animal curator of the Needham Science Center, as she helps teach a science lesson on the atmosphere at the Elliot Elementary School in Needham, Mass. This Air Rap is part of a 45-minute program the Science Center is presenting throughout the school district.

The Science Center is the chemistry, physics, biology, and ecology hub for all of Needham's elementary schools. Director Larry White and assistant Dan DeWolf use an entertaining approach for teaching students as well as educators to love science.

"We are concerned about process, not concept teaching," Mr. White says. "We want to teach {children} how to discover and to want to discover.... We don't want to just open up their heads and pour in scientific names."

The discovery method is phenomenal, says Rosemarie Greene, a fourth-grade teacher at Elliot, "The children get so excited. They will go out on their own and find things in newspapers to bring in to class, or build their own models."

This approach to elementary science is not new. Many individuals and schools in the United States have made valiant efforts to make the subject lively.

The Needham center, which has been open since 1964, served as an exemplary model for a bus load of science teachers, administrators, and counselors from the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) national conference held in Boston last week.

Today "hands on, hearts in, heads up, total involvement" teaching is getting more of a national focus, says Lynn Glass, president of the NSTA and professor of science education at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. More emphasis is also being placed on better teaching in elementary schools.

Elementary science was neglected for a long time, Dr. Glass says. Grade-school teachers usually are prepared in language arts, and many avoid science, he says.

In Ms. Greene's case, that was especially true. "I was a new teacher in Needham. I went to them {the Science Center} and said, 'Look, I don't feel comfortable teaching science, I don't like science. It was my worst subject in school,' " she says. So the center advised her on innovative teaching methods, gave her equipment and kits for the classroom, and encouraged her to ask questions. "And now I love science and my kids love it too," she says.

"This is the perfect age {kindergarten, first and second} because they are so curious," says Elizabeth Fitzgerald, director of the Magic House at St. Louis Children's Museum in St. Louis. With funding from the Monsanto Company, the Magic House sponsors "kitchen chemistry," hands-on science-teaching workshops for elementary school teachers.

"Research shows that if you wait till third or fourth grade, the children have already closed their mind to the subject. They hear from brothers or older kids on the bus or playground that science is boring or hard," she continues. …

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