By Orla Dunstan, Director of Communications
MMFS empowers students to become more independent learners through its student-directed, project-based science program. In this age of information overload, students are building critical thinking and analytical skills necessary to differentiate between fact and opinion and recognize internal bias. They are becoming practiced at taking risks and investigating the unknown, both of which are at the core of scientific inquiry. They learn to cooperate with one another to carry out experiments. Folding topical issues such as sustainability and climate change into the curriculum peaks students’ interest and they become more invested in their learning.
Students are provided with many ways to learn. Interactive virtual experiments are used throughout the science curriculum to enable students to grasp abstract concepts, such as gravity, energy, friction, waves, and electricity, that are otherwise invisible. Digital tools such as the Google Suite allow scientific investigation to be directed by students, helping them record data, make calculations, and create graphs and diagrams in the modality they find most comfortable.
The lower school science curriculum taps into students’ curiosity about the natural world and teaches them the fundamentals of scientific thinking. Classes study earth, life, and physical sciences every year; the curriculum deepens as students advance. Students learn how to make observations, record measurements and data, and discuss their findings in class.
Stacy Miller, Lower School Head Science Teacher, and Sarah Kane, Lower School Teacher (former science teacher), have begun to integrate digital journals (created in Google Slides) into the curriculum. Each student has a journal that gives him/her/them access to all the information, resources, and assignments related to a unit in one central location. Journals include diagrams, visual representations of the information, links to digital lessons, interactive apps, and informative websites. Students do assignments and present projects in their journals.
Students primarily make discoveries through hands-on experiments and observations. One long-term project involved caring for and documenting the transition as tadpoles become frogs. When studying adaptation during the life science unit, students created their own fictitious microorganisms out of model magic that used real adaptations to help them survive.
“We are building a link between digital and hands-on activities,” says Stacy. Teachers interface with the Educational Technology Integrator to take advantage of the wide range of exceptional software and apps, including BrainPop Jr, Mosa Mack, NASA Science for Kids, and National Geographic videos, that make concepts more accessible to students. According to Stacy, the most popular app was My World of Atoms, a game in which students guide a robot through a virtual world in order to collect the elements of the periodic table. Teachers made connections to students‘ lives when studying the different elements by asking students to name examples in everyday life.
Science teachers teach the youngest students, in the Anderson and Krisberg Rooms, in their classrooms. Each year, these students participate in play-based activities focused on a year-long study of one topic. Last year students learned about water and the water cycle and this year they are studying the life cycle through the life of a snail. Whenever possible, teachers connect projects to students’ lives – where does NYC water come from? How much water do different activities require?
The goal of the middle school curriculum is to teach students the steps of the scientific method through carrying out experiments. Teachers hope to convey to students that the process of generating and testing a hypothesis is a means to answer questions and to solve problems in the broader arena of life.
The sixth grade studies earth and environmental science. Units include minerals, rocks, soil, and weather. Students learn that the natural world is full of repeating cycles, some of which humans can influence, and some they cannot. The steps of the scientific method help to predict patterns and reveal cycles.
The focus of last year’s curriculum was climate change and the curriculum addressed the responsible use of natural resources. Every student presented a slideshow on the pros and cons of a different energy source. Students were genuinely interested in each other’s choices and learned a great deal from their peers. This was followed up with students working in small groups to build models of different power plants. John Denton, Middle School Education Technology Integrator (former sixth grade science teacher) commented that, “The projects turned out very well and I was pleased with the way students seemed to understand individual responsibility in making environmentally friendly choices.”
The seventh grade explores life science. Units include heredity and genetics, natural selection and evolution. Students are introduced to the concept of categorizing things according to certain characteristics. Students are learning in many modalities – direct instruction, viewing images, observing real specimens, dissecting, looking at slides under the microscope, experimenting, drawing, and writing – to help them understand and retain the concepts. Each unit begins with an exploration in which Anna Chapman and Grace Daniel, Middle School Head Teachers, put out materials and ask students to closely observe and identify characteristics to determine if, for instance, something is alive or not or if a plant is a monocot and dicot. Written and visual clues are up all around the classroom to help students in their exploration. Allowing them to explore in a more open-ended way shows students that they can be scientists by thinking scientifically. When they realize they have the ability to figure it out, they take more ownership of their learning. In one case, where students were given six different specimens from five different kingdoms and one non-living specimen to examine under the microscope, a student who initially had difficulty understanding what a slide is, exclaimed “this is so awesome” when he got it.
Students conducted a series of experiments to test predictions they generated from their research. They took samples to determine what parts of the school grew the most bacteria in a petri dish. They grew bread mold in four different environments and collected data to determine the optimal conditions for growing the mold. The class talked about the microbiome and human health and connected it to each student’s personal health.
The eighth grade curriculum has the most in-depth focus on learning the scientific method and writing lab reports. At the beginning of the year, teachers choose a simple experiment so that students can focus on learning the steps: begin with a question, based on research generate a hypothesis, conduct an experiment, observe, record data, and draw conclusions. The eighth grade studies physics in the fall term, with an in-depth investigation of forces and their application in the real world, and chemistry in the spring term, with a focus on the different states of matter.
The abstract nature of physics and chemistry is particularly challenging for many students with learning disabilities, so each unit begins with a demonstration to help students understand the concepts. The teachers choose experiments, whenever possible, to show real life examples of phenomenon. A parachute activity demonstrates gravity and air resistance, and a hot wheels project examines potential and kinetic energy, speed, velocity, and acceleration.
Students learn to define matter, and investigate mass and volume through a series of experiments exploring various changes in matter from one state to another. They gain an understanding of the properties of solids, liquids, and gases by using interactive and kinesthetic materials. Students also conduct experiments that demonstrate the differences between chemical and physical changes. “Everyone gets involved in experiments. There is no back row seat.” declares Cecily Moyer, Middle School Head Science Teacher.
In the spring, middle school students work on long-term science fair projects. Sixth graders work in small groups on one of two projects related to their curriculum that have been selected by their teachers. Seventh and eighth graders choose topics that interest them in any area of science and work independently on their projects. Teachers provide support and structure for each student. Soo Kaas, Upper School Head Math Teacher (formerly eighth grade science teacher) recalled that an eighth grade student, who set out to determine the best angle of a basketball backboard shot to make a basket and felt overwhelmed at the onset. He didn’t think he could do it, but with the supports and structure that were in place he was successful. He was quoted as proudly saying, “I actually did it!” “Overall, the science fair is a great experience, students come alive, they do a great job!” says Cecily.
In the upper school, students are required to take three years of science, and several electives are offered for an optional fourth year of study. Ninth graders study earth and space sciences, and tenth and eleventh graders study chemistry and biology. Upper school teachers are always finding new avenues for students to access content. In addition to the Google site, teachers are using apps and virtual reality, they are creating podcasts and videos to help students retain information and to work independently. Last year the upper school offered a STEM Fundamentals class as the first step in building a computer science curriculum. Enrollment in the class this year more than doubled over last year’s.
STEM Fundamentals is a year-long survey class covering topics including: Coding in HTML language; App Building; Security & the Web; Robotics; Augmented and Virtual Reality; 3D printers; and Game Design. The instruction model, which is based on Code.org curricula, is a discovery-based model – ABC – activity before concept and CBV – concept before vocabulary – that is very well suited to how our students learn. The teacher sets a challenge or task, provides guiding questions and tells students to explore. “It’s intuitive, it is natural for students to pick up a piece of technology and explore.” Abby Flemming, Upper School Educational Technology Integrator says, “They really love it.” After ten minutes, students are asked to share what they have observed. Then the teacher reveals the lesson. It is very helpful to students to start with a context, something that has meaning. They internalize and retain what they are learning much better. Students’ favorite unit was robotics; they built very intricate robots from scratch that were controlled with their phones. The teacher served simply as a resource and answered questions. Students felt very proud of producing something tangible at the end.
The curriculum is always making connections to real world applications; for instance, during the unit on app building, students were required to design an app that would solve a problem in other people’s lives. In their unit on computers, the class went out into the neighborhood and discovered that many, many things are in fact computers. Students attended the Creative Coding Fest at NYU where they participated in several creative coding workshops and attended a session about coding to create music using Sonic Pi software.
“Everything we do in science is relevant to students’ lives,” says Soo. Teachers are helping students to develop the skills to become problem solvers and the knowledge to contribute to the decisions, inventions, and discoveries that lie ahead.