Science with toys, squirrels and boats – School News Network

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Science with toys, squirrels and boats - School News Network

Students in Glenwood Elementary School teacher Mindy Geer’s class were learning about organisms and environments dating back through major geologic periods. They considered how organisms adapted and changed – the evidence can be found in fossils –  to ultimately figure out the STEM unit’s main question:  “Why do we see so many squirrels but not any stegosauruses?” 

Geer teaches science through Project-Based Learning, and she does so using a curriculum made by CREATE for STEM, an institute at Michigan State University. It’s proven to be effective and engaging, and a Kent City Community Schools K-5 STEM class that used the program was highlighted in a recent U.S. News and World Report article. It was part of research that shows students in PBL classrooms across the U.S. significantly outperformed students in typical classrooms. 

From left, Joel Thang, Sam Wright and Maver Htoo study their fossils

From left, Aubrey Cherokee, Landon Love and Abby Sheets use evidence to identify fossils

Story Highlights

  • “This is a trilobite,” said Isaac, who worked to match the rock and its ancient etching with drawings on a worksheet. “It lived 359 to 416 million years ago.”

  • “The pictures look like the bones of sea creatures,” said third-grader Betty Mugiraneza, as she looked at pictures of different fossil types.

Geer is in the fourth year of using the program, and now other Kentwood third- through fifth-grade teachers are implementing it as well. Teachers in Wyoming, Northview, Sparta and Kent City are also using the curriculum.

Guided by open-ended questions that allow them to discover and explore, Geer’s students will dig further into their study of animal adaptations with in-depth research on squirrels, a species that has survived since prehistoric times. They will practice balancing and jumping like the nimble animals and conduct a field investigation to observe squirrels on school grounds and record what they see. By the end of the unit, they will have learned why squirrels but not dinosaurs frolic in their school yard, and about the anatomy and behavior of squirrels.

On the way, they will have lots of questions they will work to find answers to themselves, and that’s a great way to learn, Geer said. “They start questioning everything.” At East Oakview Elementary School in Northview Public Schools, third-grade teacher Annie Powers, who is also in her fourth year teaching the curriculum, sees her students thinking deep and working through trial and error. 

“They actually get to discuss and explore and experiment and collaborate– along with doing a lot of research.” From left, Erisa Jackson, teacher Mindy Geer and Betty Mugiraneza find information about geologic periods

Obed Sang identifies a fossil close up Student-led, student-centered

From the Kent County data, research showed that third-grade students participating in the CREATE4STEM course did better on a science assessment, which aligned with Next Generation Science Standards, than students in a non-project based learning course. The positive impact held across racial and ethnic groups and socio-economic levels and regardless of reading ability level, meaning struggling readers in the PBL class outperformed struggling readers in the traditional class.  “I like that everybody, no matter what level they are at academically, they can be involved,” Geer said. 

It shows: elementary students in PBL classrooms outperformed their peers by 8 percentage points on a test of science learning, according to one of four studies released by Lucas Education Research. The studies showed “that when schools provide the chance for underserved students to engage in high-quality PBL, significant learning occurs.”  Kent ISD partnered with CREATE4STEM and brought the science program to Kent County schools, said Wendi Vogel, Kent ISD educational science consultant, who was excited to share the national research.