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Parents for Hands-On Science

Peter Rillero
March 01, 2004 | FOSS in Schools

Top image: Parents lead and support a Solids and Liquids module investigation.

On Fridays, the students in Mrs. Kim Cash's first-grade class are not excited because of the approaching weekend. They are excited because it is FOSS Friday.

"What day is it today?"


"And what happens on Friday?"

"Friday fun with FOSS science!"

Marie Jackson, a parent in the class, leads the class in singing "Solid as a Rock." After a short review and an overview of stations, the children are actively exploring solids and manipulating materials at three stations. At one station is Mrs. Cash, at another is Marie, and at the third is another parent. The adults interact with the enthusiastic children and enhance their learning.

Parent involvement with FOSS investigations is not new. Teachers are advised to seek parent helpers for some activities that were designed as centers. The parental involvement in the Parents for Hands-On Science program, however, is much more substantial. Rather than involving parents just as helpers, it creates classroom leaders. Parents don't show up and just help with an activity. Every two weeks they attend a workshop on the upcoming science lessons. They then watch the FOSS video on their own time and/or read the Teacher Guide. The parents assemble all of the materials. Then, without taking away any of the leadership or authority of the classroom teacher, the parents serve as co-teachers in the implementation of FOSS.


Gavilan Peak Elementary School, just north of Phoenix, Arizona, swelled from less than 600 students to over 1,000 during the summer of 2003. In the rapidly growing mega-subdivision known as Anthem, the overflow was absorbed by Gavilan Peak School, which was only in its second year of operation. As a parent of a first grader in classes with 29 students, I was concerned about the overcrowding.

Rather than just complaining, I thought about how I could channel my energy into something positive. I recognized that the overcrowding in the school and in classrooms would sap the teachers' energy and use more of their planning and preparation time. I also recognized that science, already on the backburner or in the refrigerator in elementary classrooms in Arizona because of state testing in language arts and mathematics, could be put into the freezer as teachers struggled with overcrowded classrooms. Hands-on science would be in even greater jeopardy because of the increased demands this form of instruction has for teachers' time and the greater difficulties large classes pose for classroom management. My contribution to the problem of overcrowding was to use my knowledge of science education to start the program.

The Details

The program was started with all five first-grade classrooms, which average 29 students per class. The first module used was Solids and Liquids. During the semester an additional first-grade teacher was added, which reduced class sizes and added a sixth class for FOSS science. At first some teachers wanted to implement FOSS twice a week, but the majority preferred once a week. There were advantages for training and preparing materials to have all the classes on the same schedule so it was decided that all the classes would implement FOSS once per week.


This first-grade student puts together a structure of solid materials in the Solids and Liquids module.

An initial parent training session of 45 minutes was held. The focus was on having parents experience hands-on science, especially the idea of free exploration. I was concerned that some parents would not see the value in what has been respectfully termed "messing around." Perhaps, because of this experience combined with observing the children during free explorations, parents began to recognize the open-ended inquiry phase as a valuable learning experience.

Every two weeks my wife, Kim, and I conducted training sessions where we explored and discussed a plan for the next set of activities. We also handed out an outline for the suggested activities. The outline included which pages to refer to in the Teacher Guide, whether it was whole-class instruction or stations, and the suggested amount of time. All of the training sessions were limited to 45 minutes because of the difficulty in finding meeting space in the overcrowded school. We used a first-grade classroom when the students were out for a special class. Although at times I wished we had more than 45 minutes, the limited time helped keep us focused. A few mothers brought their young children, which was not problematic, as they seemed to enjoy the environment and manipulatives in the classroom.

A sign-out sheet for the Teacher Guide and video was prepared. Parents were encouraged to use the Teacher Guide and video to become better prepared, and most did. Parents were also responsible for getting all of the materials ready for classroom use. A schedule for FOSS implementation was also established so that all classes could use the same Solids and Liquids module kit during the same period. At a couple of the training sessions we asked for volunteers to gather or prepare certain materials.

When implementing FOSS in the classrooms, whole-class activities were generally about 45 minutes in length. When students worked at stations, the lengths of the science lessons were around an hour. In a questionnaire most parents reported spending an average of 1 hour and 45 minutes in preparation for their lesson. Each classroom had two to five parents doing FOSS. In some rooms, the same parents implemented each week; in others, parents took alternating weeks.

Reactions to the Program

When the program was still only an idea, I discussed it with the school principal, Dr. Mae Wong. She was enthusiastic from the onset. We agreed to do a pilot implementation with one grade, so I approached Mrs. Cash, the leader of the first-grade team. She was very supportive of the idea.

The parent implementers were also very positive about the program. This type of parent involvement is more intense than most. It required parents to attend the 45-minute training sessions every two weeks, spend time thinking through the details of their lessons, set up the materials, and implement the lesson. Despite these demands almost all the parents that started are still with us, and the number of parents has grown. These parents directly observe the power of the FOSS kits for helping children learn and be enthusiastic about science. One mother stated her perceived benefits of the program as follows: "It allows the kids to get a wonderful handson experience with science. They love it!" She added, "I have so many kids come up and tell me about how they recognized a liquid or solid at home. They just love it!" Another mother described the benefits as: "I think it is great. The kids love it, the parents are involved, and everybody is learning."

The teachers are also enthusiastic about FOSS and the parent implementers. They see the excitement of the children and the valuable concepts they are learning. They also appreciate the quality help of the parents. The teachers want the program to continue.

As a teacher educator and former science teacher, I know and value the contributions of an educated, certified and experienced teacher. I also know how demanding it is to be a teacher and how more planning time is an important need. I also know how demanding the preparation is to teach science in a hands-on way. This planning and preparation time is greater when teachers are implementing a program such as FOSS for the first time. Having parents help in the classrooms can make implementation easier, but it does not reduce the curriculum planning time. Training parents as instructional FOSS leaders is one way to conserve teachers' planning and preparation times.

The quality FOSS kits, the training sessions, and the average time of 1.75 hours of planning that goes into each lesson all contribute to parents helping provide tremendous learning experiences. Parents also have the time for extras. For example, one parent wrote, "a girl caught onto a concept nobody else did and I called her parents and left a message about it. I saw her father a week later and he said his wife was so thrilled about the message that she saved it."

An important benefit of parents as partners is that they see the great value of hands on science and the FOSS program. Many parents did not have hands-on science when they were children, so this is a wonderful way to get them to experience the value of this type of learning. It also makes them allies for this approach in the school. For example, some of our parents were on the board of the Parent Teachers Association. They helped convince the PTA to allocate money for FOSS consumables.

Sustaining and Spreading the Program

The program has been successful in bringing powerful hands-on science experiences to over 150 children in first grade. From the successes, I believe the program has enough benefits that it makes sense not only for overcrowded conditions but for regular-sized classes as well. The program makes the most sense for the early grades where teachers have a responsibility for teaching all subjects.

After we complete the first module in the first grade, I would like to move to another grade for the implementation of a FOSS module. I have already requested that the first-grade parents start thinking of who could be the first-grade FOSS leader. This person would be responsible for suggesting what the week-to-week FOSS schedule will be and for conducting the once-every-two-week training sessions. I believe that by referring to the FOSS materials and having experience teaching an entire FOSS module to first graders, a first-grade parent could do this in about two hours of planning time per two-week interval.

While I am working with another grade, I will also seek parents from other grades to attend the sessions and help implement FOSS. For example, if I am working with the second grade, we could invite parents from kindergarten and third-grade classrooms to help. After we complete one FOSS module, I will again seek a parent to step up and play the role I was playing and be the FOSS leader for that grade. I will also see if I can get parents from the other grades to go back to another grade level and implement the FOSS kits. And trained parents will be motivated to "move up" with their children.

With parents playing leadership roles in FOSS implementation, we are trying to help teachers in the early grades build a science foundation in children that is "solid as a rock."