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FOSS Kits Customized for Rainy Winters in Corvallis, Oregon

Gail Gerdemann, K-5 Science Coordinator, Science Education PartnershipS, Oregon State University and Corvallis School District 509J, Corvallis, Oregon
March 15, 1999 | Materials Management

Top image: Third and fourth-grade students at Adams Elementary School in Corvallis, Oregon investigate mineral hardness in The Scratch Test from the Earth Materials Module.

Anyone who has a spent a winter in Oregon's Willamette Valley knows about the rain. FOSS kits developed by our neighbors in sunny California needed to be adapted to survive our rainy winters. Here's the story of FOSS science kit evolution in response to environmental factors.

In our first year of piloting, we tried out a variety of kits including FOSS. Teachers enthusiastically embraced the FOSS format and lessons. Kits in the physical science and scientific reasoning strands worked well as is; pendulums swing the same (Variables Module) and cardboard crawdads balance the same (Balance and Motion Module) whether in Oregon or in California. It was a much different story for some of the kits in the other strands.

Pilot teachers were the first to encounter problems with live materials. In the Animals Two by Two Module, the directions suggest covering the worm terrarium with plastic wrap to prevent the environment from drying out. Things don't dry out during the Oregon winters; instead mold grows overnight. A simple change in directions, which suggested allowing more air to flow through the environment, solved that problem.

Besides excess moisture in Oregon, our climate is cool during the winter and that leads to some problems with other critters. The waxworms and milkweed bugs in the Insects Module seem to stop developing during the colder months. Fortunately our partnership with nearby Oregon State University through the Science Education PartnershipS program gives us ready access to local experts. A quick call to two SEPS scientists--a zoologist and an entomologist-- saved the day. We are currently trying out their suggestions for keeping the insects warm and the air properly humidified and hope to get some action soon. We would love to try the silkworms in the Insects Module (they really look exciting in the video), but with the only two mulberry trees in town located on private property, that will not be possible. Most of the other organisms have worked out quite well here--especially those water-loving crawdads in Structures of Life and the snails in Animals Two by Two. They're right at home in the Pacific Northwest!

Our moist climate required a few changes in other kits. We've replaced the cardboard anemometer in the Air and Weather Module with a plastic one; soggy cardboard doesn't spin well. Water doesn't evaporate very quickly in Oregon humidity and so we have changed the teacher directions in a few kits. In several kits where evaporation is called for (Water; Mixtures and Solutions; Pebbles, Sand and Silt; and Earth Materials), teachers are told to reduce the amount of liquid or schedule the activity to span a weekend. One module was very problematic in our climate: Solar Energy (guess why). Following the suggestions of a SEPS scientist, we did experiment with an infrared heating lamp in the Solar Energy Module, but it proved to be no substitute for the real thing.

(Editor's Note: Cloudy-day strategies are included in the revised teacher guide for the Solar Energy Module.)

Customizing the FOSS kits to match our local area has involved help from local businesses and scientists. Kindergarten students (and teachers) using the Wood Module have never seen a basswood tree; we are surrounded here in the Willamette Valley by Douglas fir and red alder. Starker Forests Inc., a local forestry business, provided over 500 wood samples from these two local trees cut to the same specifications as the other wood samples in the kit. The U.S. Forest Service supplied beautiful full-color posters of the coniferous and deciduous trees in our area. With help from an aggregate company, we have river rocks from our own Willamette River and aggregate samples for Pebbles, Sand, and Silt. The Mineral Information Institute has donated reading materials and posters that serve as a basis for natural resource research for the Earth Materials Module. Our local aggregate company has also donated videos of its operation along with an outreach program for all our third-grade students. Even though Mt. Shasta is a beautiful mountain, we needed to make the Landforms Module our own and so we're working on a model of nearby Mary's Peak to accompany the local topographic maps we've added to the kit.

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Students record their observations of mineral hardness in The Scratch Text from the Earth Materials Module.

One thing teachers repeatedly speak about is the quality of the FOSS kits and how they make teaching science easy and exciting. To make teaching even easier, we have endeavored to put everything needed into the kit (which we have transferred to two large plastic tubs). At the suggestion of piloting teachers, we have increased the numbers of some supplies because many activities work better for pairs of students rather than groups of four. We have added some materials to the kit that are listed as "teacher supplied" (for example, napkins and liquid detergent for the Air and Weather Module). In addition to the hands-on activities provided in the modules, we have also added supplementary materials: read-aloud books, computer software, posters, videos, safety goggles, lists of appropriate websites, and small labeled collections and models (e.g., rocks, tree cones). When a teacher checks out a kit, there is no need to spend time gathering teaching materials. Videos from our central collection as well as phone numbers of local scientists and pertinent field trips are listed to quickly put resources in the teacher's hands. In addition to these extra materials, each teacher guide has tips and suggestions from the piloting teacher as well as an overview that lays out the timeline with a short synopsis of each lesson. The enhanced-customized science kits have nearly everything the teacher needs in the materials kit!

It's our fourth year of science kit implementation and it has made a huge difference for kids in Corvallis. Our district had made the switch to hands-on kits nine years ago, but interest was flagging. At first we tried to revise the flawed kits, but then we discovered FOSS kits. Our energy shifted from trying to fix an inferior product to implementing an excellent program with a few adaptations. Teachers are very excited about hands-on science in Corvallis. We've had a steady increase in kit checkout over the course of the four-year piloting and implementation project. Yes, FOSS kits work throughout the country including the rainy Willamette Valley.

Submitted By:
Gail Gerdemann
K-5 Science Coordinator
Science Education PartnershipS
Oregon State University and Corvallis School District 509J
Corvallis, Oregon
e-mail: gerdemag@ava.bcc.orst.edu