Activities aim to hook kids on science

TUMWATER - With "satellite towers" made of everyday objects leaning precariously in one room, finger and shoe prints laid out in another and random circuit boards in a third, it looks like chaos, admitted Dawn Hosni, who runs Camp Invention, a weeklong summer camp.

But it's science, she said.

"The underlying theme is problem-solving," she said. "Identifying a problem in everyday life, and how to go about it in the scientific method."

Students need to be turned on to science, state educators say, with the subject as a part of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning at each grade level and an emphasis on teaching the subject in the elementary school through college levels in the Washington Learns report. The report recommends beefing up math and science education so students will grow up to be competitive in the job market.

Emphasizing science through inquiry-based learning is one way to engage those students, educators say.

"It's about the kids doing science, using the habits and mindset of the scientific method," said Vicky Lamoreaux, director of career and technical education in North Thurston Public Schools. She recently led a committee that recommended a new inquiry-based ninth-grade textbook for freshman science classes.

Inquiry is one of three "Essential Academic Learning Requirements" identified by the state as an important part of science education, but the scientific method plays a big part in the state's standardized tests.

"There's a number of the scenarios that you find on the WASL that ask students to think deeply and ask about the scientific process," said Jon Wilcox, Tumwater Middle School principal, who also is on the district's committee to develop its science power standards.

The district is teaming up with scientists from the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory to encourage classroom teachers to think like working scientists, Wilcox said.

Continuum of inquiry

Lamoreaux said inquiry-based science education can take "the five E" approach: "You engage, explore, explain - so they have some knowledge about it - elaborate and evaluate."

That involves hands-on experimentation and an emphasis on laboratory work.

However, an emphasis on inquiry doesn't mean teachers are throwing out all "cookbook" style experiments - experiments with an expected outcome - in favor of experiments in which students come up with all the questions, she said.

"There's teacher-directed inquiry - you can provide data and you can have them in a very structured way - and it could be totally student-directed, where they come up with the question and they test it out," she said.

In Tumwater, selected science teachers are in their first year of a three-year partnership with the professionals to learn about a scientific way of thinking and developing laboratories and lessons in which that will translate, Wilcox said.

"How do you give students experiences in the classrooms that, if not mirror what a scientist does, at least gives them a taste of real scientific research?" he said.

He said learning about science and the scientific method is becoming important to all people, regardless of whether they have careers in science or technology.

"The technical knowledge that you need for any profession right now is growing. More science knowledge is good no matter what career you are going to go into," Wilcox said.

Controlled chaos

At the science summer camp held at Black Hills High School, inquiry is taking the form of a brainstorm session by elementary students, trying to figure out how to build sturdy towers and domes to make contact with "aliens."

Whether aliens are real has not been settled scientifically, but the structures of cones, towers and domes has been. That was one of the main objectives of one of that lesson, Camp Invention teacher Kay Caldwell said.

"We talked about towers and columns, and the famous towers of the world," she said, pointing to a poster of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. "Whatever else they think they learned, they were learning about structures for building."

Through trial and error - many of the towers became leaning towers - students were seeing what worked and figuring out why through the lessons, Hosni said. Other lessons included a crime-solving module, in which campers had to find who took some important papers, and an invention class, in which campers took apart common items such as VCRs and printers, learned about their parts and recycled them into a new creation that solves a problem.

"Last year, we had a girl make a corn-butterer out of printer parts," Hosni said.

While the part that the kids might remember most is the brainstorming and their creation, Hosni said, the elementary school students also get a taste of chromatology, forensics, physics and other concepts such as frames of reference for their scientific experimentation.

"We want to make engineers and inventors," Hosni said.

The problem-solving approach has resulted in a few interesting inventions that might make real life easier.

Darwin Jones, 9, a fifth-grader at Tumwater Hill Elementary, took apart a computer keyboard and rearranged the letters in a way that made more sense to him.

"I wanted to make it easier to type," Jones said.

Daisha Barry, 11, who is entering sixth grade at Black Lake Elementary this year, last summer invented a "picker-upper" for reaching things from a tall shelf.

"A lot of people are shorter than others," she said.

Darwin said science is an exciting subject in school because the unexpected can happen.

"If something cool happens, you keep wanting to do it, and you keep learning," Darwin said.