Pittsburgh Public Schools' Approach to Creative FOSS Homework

James A. Simeone, Patricia J. Phillips, Ann Allison, Andrea Brown, Ruth Martin, and Melissa Wagner, Pittsburgh Public Schools PRIME+PLUS Elementary Science Team
March 02, 2004 | FOSS in Schools

As the FOSS developers suggest, elementary students learn science best by doing science. The Pittsburgh Public Schools adopted this philosophy when they began their search for a successful approach to homework, based on the idea of doing science. The Pittsburgh Elementary Science Homework Activity Calendar was the result of this search and satisfied the need for a homework tool that would support classroom instruction and continue the hands-on, minds-on inquiry that is the philosophical foundation of FOSS. This calendar also supports our efforts to fully implement a standards-based curriculum and is part of the professional development plan delivered through district workshops and site-based activities with teachers and the community at large.

A committee of teachers, parents, and administrators, along with a dedicated group of regional Carnegie librarians in Pittsburgh, joined forces to create this district-wide monthly homework calendar to explore and further develop ideas in the FOSS curriculum. As teachers became more familiar with the FOSS modules, they began to collect ideas for activities students could do on their own to extend their understanding of the concepts developed in the classroom.

The compilation of the teachers' ideas developed into a successful homework document for students in kindergarten through fifth grade. It is published as a project of PRIME+PLUS (Pittsburgh Reform in Mathematics Education and in Programs for Learning and Understanding Science), a part of the Division of Instructional Support representing the combined departments of mathematics and science in the Pittsburgh Public Schools.


homework calendar as it appears on the web. (

PRIME+PLUS is a systemic plan to implement standards-based, inquirycentered science and mathematics education to all students in kindergarten through grade twelve. The Pittsburgh School District is in the fourth year of a five-year National Science Foundation Urban Systemic Program (USP) to implement this plan and raise student achievement levels.

Web and Print Formats

The introduction page to the homework calendar on the web includes a chart as seen above with a column for each grade level and a link to each month's calendar. The homework calendar is a chart with an array of activities entered in boxes. The activities are grouped loosely by categories in each column. We try to include a range of homework activities that relate to these five areas of the curriculum:

  • Specific science activities relatedto the FOSS module.
  • Environment and ecology standards-based activities highlighted in the FOSS module.
  • Investigations that relate FOSS module activities with the district's mathematics program, Everyday Mathematics.
  • Career awareness and social studies/geography connections with ideas from FOSS extensions and our Career Development division.
  • Science connections to language arts and other related arts as explored in the suggested readings from the FOSS Teacher Guide Resources section and FOSS Science Stories and in alignment with our literacy program.

These calendars are published using a color-coded system to designate grade levels. Teachers and/or students determine the number of assignments to be completed each month. The calendar is intended for all students and encourages family participation. It provides opportunities for students to choose hands-on activities rather than fill-in-the-blank or rote assignments.

The Home/School Connections and Interdisciplinary Extensions described in the FOSS science curriculum provide a basis for a number of the suggested homework activities. The homework activities enable the classroom teachers and their students to address other standards (e.g., mathematics, language arts) while engaging in a variety of interesting investigations. Selected activities throughout the calendar encourage students to seek community resources, such as local businesses, museums, nature centers, and the regional branches of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.


One of the most successful aspects of this calendar has been its use in integrating the FOSS curriculum with other content disciplines and in meeting district standards in other content areas. Math, reading, and science teachers worked collaboratively to identify common strategies and skill criteria in each curriculum area. This provided a consistent "language" that is used by all teachers in all content instruction.

For example, our Everyday Mathematics curriculum teaches computation skills. These skills are exercised in FOSS investigations where students record and average numerical data. Problem-solving opportunities in FOSS investigations reinforce students' skills in reading, interpreting results from acquired data, and using new information to stimulate further investigation. Activities from the FOSS modules align with many of the routines developed in the Everyday Mathematics lessons. Data organization using graphs, charts, and tables prepares students for standardized assessments.


Above is an enlargement of a calendar with some sample calendar website links circled.

One of the most obvious math connections has been with the FOSS Measurement Module and its use of basic metric tools and standard metric units of measure. Students receive focused, comprehensive instruction in the classroom in the appropriate use of these measurement tools. Activities on the homework calendar reinforce both the science module objectives and the mathematics objectives.

A collateral benefit that has surfaced as a result of this homework venture is the collaboration with the librarians at the regional branches of the Carnegie Libraries of Pittsburgh. Through the initiative of the librarians, our homework calendar has been incorporated into their website as a resource for both our students and their families. This collaboration has led to increased use of the library facilities.

Various activities on each calendar are highlighted and have hyperlinks to further information and resources related to the activities (see examples below). There are additional links to modulespecific book lists (both fiction and nonfiction) that support the science concepts being developed. Teachers and parents are able to encourage their children to utilize this resource, increasing student involvement with technology at home, in school, and at the public libraries.

Student in library

This student uses the local library to complete her homework assignment.

Science and Literacy

Current federal legislation has demanded an emphasis on the instruction of math and language skills for our students. Providing opportunities for students to practice their skills through calendar activities was not difficult because the FOSS curriculum design and philosophy of learning lend themselves to the development of basic skills.

  • Content/inquiry charts include questions that can be explored effectively by students and lead to new questions.
  • Hands-on investigations enhance students' reasoning abilities; students incorporate their observations and ideas into group discussions.
  • Investigations and firsthand experiences help students develop more abstract ideas.
  • Introduction of new vocabulary in the context of the lesson encourages students to use appropriate, modulespecific language.
  • FOSS response sheets support taskrelated reading and writing.
  • Students' oral and written presentations of homework investigations enhance their communication and leadership skills. These presentations are also applicable to portfolio and standards requirements.
  • FOSS Science Stories can be used as supplemental texts to extend students' experiences beyond the classroom and enhance their understanding of the big ideas of science.

The homework calendars also stimulate interest and attendance at various community resources and have resulted in a more school-friendly relationship with agencies that include the National Aviary, Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium, and the Carnegie Science Center. Collaborations have also involved our nature centers, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Phipps Conservatory, and our city parks.


An example of the rubric and parent information for the science homework calendar sent home to parents at the beginning of each year.


With 58 elementary schools and over 15,000 elementary students in the district, consistency in implementing and monitoring of the homework system becomes crucial to its success. A standardized homework rubric was created. The evidence supplied by the rubric can be reviewed and summarized for reporting student achievement and accomplishments and can also provide information to maintain and improve the homework system.

The rubric was developed by our teachers and is published in print and online with the calendar. The students can evaluate their own success with assignments and participate in peer review and group discourse in the classroom. This rubric, along with a letter of explanation and the calendar, is sent to all students' homes at the beginning of each academic school year. In this way, parents can take an active role in the evaluation of their child's homework presentations because the performance expectations are clear to all stakeholders.

The homework produced by students is displayed in classrooms throughout our district. The work shows real-life application of science and technology and serves as evidence of students meeting standards.

Parental Involvement

This homework initiative would not be successful without the support of our parents. Feedback from parents has been extremely positive. They appreciate the organized approach, the clear expectations, and the fact that these activities are not the typical rote assignments. Parents have also indicated that since the introduction of the calendars their children have been more enthusiastic about completing and turning in science homework.

Parents have been invited to become active participants in generating homework ideas. The collaborative family science homework assignment is one example of how creative thinking on the part of parents can solve a logistics issue for families with children at two or more grade levels. The collaborative family assignment allows the whole family to choose a theme for a homework activity. Each child contributes a portion of effort to the assignment. Each child highlights his or her personal contribution and then submits the completed assignment to his or her respective teachers.

Water race

These students worked cooperatively to create a water race as their homework project (FOSS Water module).

Student Involvement

The most crucial stakeholders in this homework initiative are, of course, the students. Teachers can initiate the procedure and parents can express their approval and support, but if the students do not complete the assignments, all efforts are in vain.

Having a choice in assignments is a compelling feature of this initiative. Science is fun, not threatening. It is part of our everyday life. It explains how things work and why. This appeals to the natural curiosity of children, and we are tapping into this trait to everyone's benefit.

Our homework calendar is a work-in-progress. We encourage all of the stakeholders involved to submit suggestions for additional activities at any time. These suggestions become part of a bank of information that enables us to keep the calendar fresh and accurate.

At the conclusion of each school year a core group of elementary teachers reviews and refines the entries, updating technological information and utilizing new activities that have been submitted to keep the homework assignments contemporary and interesting.

The ongoing success of this endeavor reinforces our initial purpose of creating a vehicle to further science awareness outside of the classroom. It has corrected many of the misconceptions about science education held by teachers and parents and has become one of the most positive advertisements for maintaining hands-on science instruction in our elementary schools.


The teacher displays cupcakes made by a student as her homework activity to demonstrate her measurement skills learned in the foss measurement module.

For more information about the Pittsburgh Homework Calendar project, you can visit the website at or contact James Simeone at

Student Comments about Homework Activities

"You get to experience more things in science. You have the opportunity to learn more things. I enjoy making the science projects."

"When we look up inventors, we look up what they invented, how much their invention weighed, how long did it take them to build it, and learn about how they thought about the invention. That's interesting."

"I like some of the projects…like what they have on electricity. I would like the science calendar to have projects that we are not doing in school. It's interesting to pick other projects."