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Creating a Science Room

Kimi Housome and Don McKenney, FOSS Developers
March 16, 2010 | FOSS in Schools

Top image: A solar system rug is a gathering place for students in Laura Prival's science classroom.

Allendale Elementary School, Oakland, California

Walking into room 20, there is no question that science is happening here and not just sometimes, but ALL the time. Plants, fish, crayfish tanks, terrariums, and microscopes line the shelves and counters. Numerous FOSS kits peek out from under side tables. Plates with rocks, gravel, and hand lenses are organized on a cart. Eight round tables with chairs are labeled with a colorful organism card. Science books, notebooks, charts, student-created posters, and other interesting "stuff" are evident on walls and tabletops. A solar system rug is positioned in front of a whiteboard. On the board is a poster of rocks and minerals and pocket charts with science words. In the corner of the board is a piece of handmade/recycled paper. The three words written on it clearly describe the spirit of the room: I Love Science!

This is Laura Prival's room at Allendale Elementary School in Oakland, California. Laura is the science teacher. Her role is to make science an integral part of every classroom. Science is going on in individual classrooms with teachers and their students, as well as in room 20 with Laura. She supports the teachers, guiding them through planning lessons and organizing materials. Laura is usually here teaching FOSS with 4–5 classes a day. Her room is very organized and inviting. With onl15 minutes between classes, materials are prepped in advance, and work/discussion areas are designed for kindergarteners one hour and for fifth graders the next. We asked Laura to describe the thinking behind her classroom set-up.

The Environment

It's important that the room is a place that welcomes both students and teachers. Because Laura works closely with each class, she knows what particular materials, living organisms, posters, and other resources will engage the students in a given class. Encouraging students to wonder, explore, and inquire are her goals as soon as students step in the room.

Community Building

Having behavior norms for students is a key to creating a science room that functions well. The behavior norms apply to how individuals behave and how students relate to one another. How students relate to the science room and its contents is also important. Four posters on the front wall describe these norms.

  1. Mutual respect (for people, plants, animals, and materials).
  2. Attentive listening.
  3. Appreciations (no put-downs).
  4. Everyone participates. (Students should push themselves to engage, but also take responsibility for including and encouraging others to engage, by not laughing at what someone offers, for example.)

In her first four lessons with a class, Laura will focus on one of the four norms per lesson. Students learn that each norm also has a hand signal. The hand signal can be used at any time during a science lesson to remind students of a norm, identify a norm for focus, or to appreciate students following a norm. Positive reinforcement is very important in establishing working norms.

Round tables that seat groups of four are ideal.

Round tables that seat groups of four are ideal.

Tables and Chairs

Round tables that seat groups of four students are ideal. Students can work together in any combination of partners or as a group. No one's back is to the teacher. The circular orientation encourages a sense of community in the group. Posters on the four walls show the cardinal directions, north, south, east, and west. Students know their relative orientations at their tables, allowing all jobs and roles to be assigned by the teacher simply by calling out a direction. One of the main goals in establishing this sense of community, particularly in the upper grades, is to have students operate independently in sharing jobs and roles in the investigation when materials arrive at the table. For example, Laura encourages sharing by saying that she would like to hear students saying to each other, "Would you like to go first?" She has fun with the kids doing this, making a game of it on occasion, by suggesting they respond, "No, no, you go first!" or, "You go first this time, and then I'll start with the materials next time."

Management is also made easier when each table group has a name. The names are related to the FOSS modules. In the past she has used the FOSS organism card sets found in the FOSS California Plants and Animals, and Environments kits. At the beginning of the year, each table gets a set of organism cards for a different environment. Laura lets each group look over the organisms for that environment, note their attributes, and choose one for their table's name. Depending on the FOSS module they start the year with, she may also let them choose an element, rock, or mineral for their table name. For younger students, an organism card is attached to a tented piece of paper and placed in the middle of the table. Students are directed from the rug to their table by saying, "Carlos, Tanya, Lauren, and Michael can go to the Pond Turtle table."

Selecting the right chairs is important for many reasons, including comfort. Laura recommends a mid-weight chair design that will be stable when placed upside down on the tables at the end of the day and aren't too heavy for students to lift into place.

Sink Counter

Counter space around the sink area is essential to handle the substantial amount of materials that need to be rinsed and dried. She suggests having a drying rack for small items like vials, cups, and utensils. Rubber gloves are a must for whoever is doing the washing so that hands don't end up looking like dried fruit at the end of the day! Sponges and dishtowels help students assist with cleanup. Also good to have on hand are a hard bristle scrub brush with a handle and a bottlebrush. Laura suggests using labels stating "no soap" (except on human hands). Materials used with live organisms should be well rinsed, but never with soap.

Laura has thoughtfully considered every space and material in room 20 based on her work with the Allendale students and teachers. The following lists provide more details to think about when creating a science room. And, as Laura will state, it's an ongoing evolution of organization, management, and community-building systems that make the room a rich and nurturing place for inquiry-based learning.

Shelves, Storage, Containers, and Space

  • Set-up space for materials and for prepping materials
  • Shelf space for student work-in-progress
  • Lots of shelves and cabinets, even shelves under work spaces
  • Boxes or tubs for class science notebooks for easy access
  • Science center space for K–2 classes, with center instruction cards
  • Areas for activity tubs that students can choose from for self-guided free-time exploration
FOSS boxes under tables

Space is needed for both preparation and distribution of science materials. Note the FOSS boxes stored under the tables.

Materials and Equipment

  • A good library organized by topic, relevant to FOSS content, and coded for reading level (colored sticky dots)
  • Boxes of interesting materials organized for students to explore independently or in small groups (materials are relevant to a particular science topic and include books for further study)
  • Rock and mineral collections
  • Life-size skeleton and torso/organ system models
  • Outdoor area adjacent to science room for gardening, composting, and worm bin
  • Wall space for displaying student work, projects, science posters, and photos of students doing science or on field trips
  • Space for hanging charts and sentence frames that support student science notebook writing
  • Storage cabinets should include large multiple drawers for flat items like posters and charts, so they can be easily available as needed
  • Document and LCD projectors are particularly useful for teaching students how to make illustrations, drawings, organizational tables, and graphs. They also allow for showing Internet activities, slide shows, and images that support classroom investigations.
  • Multiple sets of specific materials that are needed when doing investigations with more than one class: terrariums, aquariums, and tubs for live organisms that are studied over extended periods
  • Microscopes and microscope slides

Students have access to a variety of critters in Connie Branson's science classroom.

Lincoln Elementary School, Oakland, California

Across town at Lincoln Elementary School is Connie Branson's science room. Connie's room is lined with large tanks and cages with chinchillas, rabbits, snakes, geckos, fish, and giant millipedes. There are students holding animals, working on science investigations, reading books, or writing in their science notebooks. Posters, charts, and word banks hang on the walls. Balances, cups, and gram pieces are ready for use on a side counter. Next to them, eight basins contain other materials for the FOSS lesson coming up. FOSS kits are positioned under counters for easy access. Eight sturdy tables are ready for the teams of students who will work together on an investigation. Yes, it's science business as usual in Connie's room, except for one big difference. The room is brand-spanking-new! After years of being in a portable, Connie has a permanent classroom that she helped design. We asked her to comment on her ideas for a perfect science room.

The Environment

Think like a kid! What would invite students into the room and make them want to engage in science exploration? Materials should be easy for students to access and appropriate for their interests and abilities. The science room should contain the science "stuff" for students to interact with. Connie stresses a student-friendly environment where students can work independently, as well as collaboratively as a team. Everyone respects each other, the materials, and living creatures in the room.

The Materials

Beyond the FOSS kits and materials in the room, Connie has collected her science materials over many, many years. Let the school families and community know what's needed in the room, and donations will be made. Visit a local resource for recycled materials, and get cups, containers, paper, and more.

Students and a bin

Trays or bins can be used to distribute materials to each group.

How the Science Room is Used

Connie uses an indirect approach to draw teachers into using the science room and to engage teachers in a hands-on inquiry approach to teaching science. At the beginning of the school year she opens up the science room to teachers and schedules a time for each teacher to visit with their class. Connie introduces the room, its resources, and demonstrates a FOSS lesson.

Connie works closely with new teachers, teachers new to a grade level, or teachers new to FOSS. She schedules them into the science room and co-presents FOSS with teachers and their students for half of the school year. Thus, teachers can get their "feet wet" learning the pedagogy and management of inquiry science teaching in a supportive environment.

As teachers become comfortable teaching FOSS in their own classrooms, the science room can be requested by teachers when they want to use the space for a specific lesson and have Connie available to assist with the lesson. For example, stream-table activities in the FOSS Solid Earth Module are always done on tables located outside the science room with Connie available to assist.

Live organisms are a central focus of the science room. Each live organism can be adopted by students in grades K–2. Each 2 class has a designated time to visit during the week at recess. Students in grade;s 3–5 can come individually by choice.

Connie also manages the school Student Council program, and when the K–2 classes visit the science room, student council members introduce them to the room and the various animals.

Students who choose to take care of an animal must fill out an Animal Care application, attend an interview session with Connie at an assigned time, and bring a recommendation from their teacher. Every student who applies is assigned to care for a particular animal once a day for the semester. Each animal has a care-sheet log. There is a formal procedure if a student wishes to borrow an animal for their class for the semester. The care-sheet log accompanies the animal to the class, and the student who checks it out will instruct his or her class in its care.

Connie's vision for using the science room encourages students to engage in doing science, develop a scientific habit of mind, become experienced science resources in their classrooms, and become part of a school-wide science community. Her room is an important extension of the classroom, and through shared experiences with live organisms and science inquiry, students gain a sense of being part of a family.

More Suggestions from Connie on Organization and Logistics

Shelving units with plastic trays

Plastic trays in this shelving unit provide organization for science materials.

  • Organize all materials to be available for students to use.
  • Use a cart on rollers with clear plastic boxes for holding materials required for lessons and investigations.
  • Have a lot of open shelving.
  • Include shallow drawers for holding flat posters and papers.
  • Provide space for microscopes (and other technology) to be out and plugged in, ready for use.
  • Use round tables for students seated in groups. Round tables help foster communication and encourage discussion. Students can be directed to discuss topics with "face partners" or "shoulder partners."
  • Use colored dots on the tables for assigning tasks (Getters, Recorders, Reporters).
  • Include small cubbies or shelves under the tabletops so science notebooks are accessible but protected from water damage.
  • Lots of counter space for student work, investigation centers, and live organisms. Make sure plants and organisms that require sunlight have counter space by windows.
  • Allow space for students to interact with engaging materials in an environment that encourages inquiry. Connie encourages learning through students' own explorations and discoveries.
  • Use prepped table boxes with materials and basic tools (hand lenses, rulers, scissors, glue sticks) for specific investigations.