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It's not Summer School, it's SCIENCE CAMP!

Tara Edmond, NBCT Elementary Science Facilitator for Tacoma Public Schools in Tacoma, WA
March 01, 2010 | FOSS in Schools

Above images:

  1. Students observe a bess beetle.
  2. A group of students working with the teacher to plant seeds in a Root-Vue Farm.
  3. Students notebooking about bess beetles.
  4. Question: How many paperclips can your beetle pull? Prediction...
  5. Students review data in their notebooks.

Good teaching and learning are fostered through reflection. In Tacoma Public Schools, when reflecting upon the effectiveness of our summer school program, the data showed us a lack of attendance and poor results. In recent years, the summer school program had focused on math due to low math achievement on the state test. The questions became, "How can children be motivated to use math in context? How can the neediest students be served without making them feel like they are missing out on summer fun? Could hands-on science provide the lens for effective math instruction?"

Tacoma School District is a large urban district about 20 miles south of Seattle in the Puget Sound Region of Washington state. There are about 30,000 K–12 students; district-wide there is a high poverty rate with almost 60% of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch. There are 37 elementary schools that serve 15,000 students with a slightly higher poverty rate at just over 60%.

The Summer of 2008

In the spring of 2008 work began on Science Camp. The students targeted were the incoming fourth graders who were low performing in math. That determination was made based on data from our district math assessment. The tests are given five times per year, and the students who were at a level one or two (at 50% or below) were invited to attend Science Camp. The FOSS Structures of Life Module was chosen to extend into the summer program. Approximately 450 students were targeted to participate, and teachers were hired and trained to teach the program.

Summer School: A brief overview of each day

A 12-day program was developed to run over a period of three weeks. Science Camp met Monday through Thursday from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. The program was three hours, but an extra hour was built in for students to take advantage of breakfast and lunch served daily. As a big shift from our previous offerings, Science Camp was offered in August rather than July. The program was meant to provide children with a jumpstart to the school year. Also, with the Title I funding, busing was provided.

Third-grade students experience the FOSS Structures of Life module as part of the school-year curriculum–students sprout seeds and study crayfish and land snails. Although all of the Science Camp lessons were directly connected to the Structures of Life module, there was very little repetition of the school-year experiences. For example, when doing Origin of Seeds during the summer, rather than using a variety of fruits, apples are used. Also a Root-Vue Farm® was purchased for every Science Camp classroom. Root-Vues give students the ability to study the entire structure of plants and track growth over time. Part of the reason Structures of Life worked so well with the Science Camp model was because of the optional bess beetle investigation. This became a focus of the summer activities.

In math, basic facts and graphing were the targeted skills and concepts. The students took a pre- and post-test in order to measure their academic growth. That data was placed on a report card along with their attendance. For lesson plans, teachers were given a very detailed daily structure (see example on page 10). They were also shown how to group and manage their students. These management tips particularly helped teachers who were less comfortable with hands-on learning. It was important to have teachers who felt confident with the science lessons, the materials, and critters, in order to best make connections to math.

As a culminating activity, students participated in a field trip to the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium. The Science Camp program connected to the zoo trip by focusing on animal adaptation as students made observations when they toured the zoo. After submitting an application, the zoo granted a scholarship for the cost of admission for all students, parents, and teachers. Because the zoo was such an enticing opportunity, the field trip was directly connected to student attendance. If students did not attend Science Camp, they could not go to the zoo.

At the end of the program, teachers, parents, and students gave us overwhelmingly positive feedback. In a letter to the Director of Title 1, three Science Camp teachers wrote, "The program was exceptionally well organized and geared to engage students who otherwise would lose interest in coming to school in August. We never would have believed we ourselves could have so much fun with bess beetles!"

Wednesday, August 13th, 2008 -- Week 2, Day 7

Working with bess beetles: Example of a daily plan.

When visiting some of the sites, teachers shared how impressed they were by student attendance. They also talked about parents being curious about what their children were experiencing. It was those conversations among parents, teachers, and students that demonstrate the richness of this program. It was impressive to witness the impact of self-motivated learning. When children wanted to know about the growth of the plants over time because they were curious, it no longer felt like an isolated math lesson to them. The math gave students the power to explain their observations and defend their predictions through the lens of science.

Students completed their work within the context of science notebooks. This gave students a strategy to track the data and review the investigative processes. As a district, the use of science notebooks by students is encouraged throughout the school year. It has proven to be an excellent way to capture evidence of student thinking and science content knowledge. During Science Camp, the notebooking model was very effective because of the focused time and subject matter. Students did not want to give up their notebooks at the end of their 12 days!

The Summer of 2009

In the summer of 2009, Tacoma School District was able to provide not only the fourth-grade Structures of Life module, but also add a program for incoming fifth graders. This meant essentially doubling the teachers, students, sites, and other support.

The FOSS Variables module was used as the basis for the summer program for the fifth graders. The Plane Sense investigation became the focus of the curriculum and led to the entire program being based around flight. Since Tacoma is in the Pacific Northwest, the community has strong connections to Boeing, the aerospace and aircraft company, and multiple military bases. The richness of the local area was used to help make the experience relevant for Tacoma students. As the culminating activity, Air Force pilots dressed in uniform visited each site and conducted an interactive presentation. The pilots were very impressed by the students' knowledge and how well the students articulated the basic principles of flight.

For the additional fifth-grade offering, we used the general framework of the 12-day program. We increased the rigor of the math to reflect the needs of this year's students and to address the teacher feedback from 2008. In addition, the new state math and science standards were incorporated into the program design. After much collaborative effort, the additional Science Camp program was developed.

Again, there was very positive feedback. A fifth-grade teacher who visited a Summer Camp classroom sent an e-mail, "I was so impressed with the knowledge base the students had from the curriculum this summer. Students had a more solid understanding of manipulated and controlled variables—a hard concept to grasp!"

With the addition of students entering fifth grade, expectations increased for notebooking and mathematical concepts. Calculators were occasionally used, and students really enjoyed the various experiences with flight. As part of the unit, parachute activities were pulled from our first-grade FOSS Air and Weather module. Because it was used as a simple hands-on representation of a difficult concept, it was naturally engaging. By being intentional with the concepts and skills, students began to make mathematical connections on their own. Students used data and referred to the graphs and tables in their notebooks to demonstrate the validity of predictions.

It became clear that gathering multiple pieces of data at the close of Science Camp 2009 would provide an evaluative tool for the program. One of the most telling pieces of information was the student attendance. By doubling the number of students in attendance, we were able to increase our impact on student achievement. The hands-on science brought the students in and kept them coming.

The most rewarding bit of feedback has been around mathematical achievement. However powerful, anecdotal feedback from teachers about their observations is not sufficient data needed to continue this type of program. As a district currently in Step 2 of Annual Yearly Progress (AYP), every expenditure needs to be clearly evaluated and justified. For this program to be effective, there needed to be clear growth in mathematics achievement. Would Science Camp students really have a jumpstart to their year? Would we move any students from a level one or two?

The Cost Breakdown

In education, whenever an innovative idea or program is discussed, cost is always a factor. Funding for Science Camp came from Title I and Learning Assistance Program (LAP) budgets. However, additional materials were borrowed from the science kits, which are kept in the Science Materials Resource Center through the summer. As a Curriculum and Instruction department working with the Title I department, all the training and logistics were covered. Through collaborative efforts and creativity, teachers were provided with almost every material needed.

Chart: Total Students

Most of the students who began the program stayed to complete it.

For the teachers of Science Camp, the training was one day. Half of that day was spent on the logistics of summer school, busing, serving breakfast and lunch, and medical issues. The curriculum training was the other half of the day. Teachers were given an overview of each day and had opportunities to handle materials, be it harnessing bess beetles or building planes.

Chart: Pre/Post Test Scores

The results of the Science Camp 2009 pre- and post-test scores.

Chart: Fall District Math Assessment Comparison

Percent of students who moved to a level three or four on the District Math Assessment.

Teachers enjoyed the trainings and were pleased with the continued support as the program developed. A letter written by three Science Camp teachers to the Director of Title I reads, "We were amazed that every small supply we needed to teach this summer unit was included in our kit. We all leave this experience in science camp feeling that each of our students had a positive summer experience in addition to gaining academic skills."

In addition to the training day, teachers were paid an extra hour daily, which allowed them time to serve breakfast and lunch to all the students. There were also three administrators who rotated through the numerous sites supporting the program.


Staffing breakdown for Science Camp 2009.

Cost Breakdown

The majority of funding goes into staffing, not supplies.

Some Things to Consider for the Future

When planning for a program of this scale, it is important to seek out donations of materials from different sources. Make connections to local resources like the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium and let the staff know what they can provide. Unfortunately, our attempts to secure donations of green beans and apples were unsuccessful because of the large quantities needed. Many places would have donated small amounts. If donations need to be a large part of a program, begin the process early and ask often.

Most of the time spent in developing this program went into connecting and extending our science kits. It was important to consider how it would affect the students if they had already experienced the Structures of Life or Variables kit in their classroom or would do so the next year. Many hours were also spent with our state standards and making logical connections to the mathematical skills that were being targeted. Because low-performing students were targeted using specific math assessment data, the skills and mathematical concepts were easier to narrow and target. Once that was decided, the program was built. Math was at the forefront of the planning, and it showed in the results.

For the summers of 2008 and 2009, an effective Science Camp program was provided to the students in Tacoma. The impact on teachers who have delivered the program is powerful as well. They want more opportunities to provide this type of learning experience for children. As teachers, Science Camp has impacted their thinking as they plan lessons and deliver instruction during the school year. "It brings the passion back into their teaching," as one principal commented. As the planning begins for the summer of 2010, teacher feedback and student data will help guide the review and further development of the Science Camp model.

It is through the communication and effectiveness of the team working on this project that it has been successful. Struggling students are having rich, hands-on math and science experiences they may not otherwise have. The most powerful outcome has been the reward of an intrinsically motivated child.

In Tacoma School District, Science Camp has only begun the process of channeling what is already present in every child. When you place something in their hands, be it a bug, dirt, seeds, planes, or parachutes, they will ask questions, make predictions, measure it, track it over time, compare it, and draw conclusions. Now, hundreds of low-achieving math students begin the journey to becoming scientists and mathematicians.

The Tacoma Public Schools team who helped the development of the Science Camp program:

  • Dan Herforth, Elementary Math Facilitator
  • Teresa Christianson, Title I Facilitator
  • Lisa Reaugh, Title I Facilitator
  • Michelle Morrison, Math & Science Instructional Coach
  • Mary Kokich Boer, Fifth-Grade Teacher
  • Marty Higgins, Science Materials Technician

Graphs in this article were developed by Lisa Reaugh, Title I Facilitator.