Science Comes Alive in Hartwood, Virginia

Leslie Lausten, M.Ed Science Education, 4th Grade Teacher and NBCT Early Childhood Generalist at Hartwood Elementary School, Hartwood, VA
March 26, 2015 | Case Studies

When I first started using FOSS, I was reluctant and nervous about how to introduce all of these interactive and hands-on experiments and activities into my classroom. My first few attempts were definitely learning experiences, and for the first year of trying to implement FOSS, I felt like a little bit of a mess. But year two with FOSS has been amazing! Starting from day one, I was able to build in more of the management structures into my classroom and felt so much more comfortable with the activities. My students are so much more engaged in science lessons and it definitely shows in their assessment results!

—Allison Watson, 5th Grade Teacher

Students in woods

A nature walk in the woods surrounding the school

It started with one FOSS module. In 2007, we were introduced to FOSS by Kip Bisignano at a conference that I attended as the lead science teacher for our school. I had always embraced hands-on science, but knew instinctively, that something was missing. FOSS added an element of inquiry and thinking that made instruction more than just an activity. Immediately I rushed home and asked my supervisors, Eric Rhoades and Rita Truelove, to let us try it. They were supportive, and Mr. Rhodes, our county Science Supervisor, bought us the FOSS Solids and Liquids Module for second grade. Once the students started to explore the concepts, I was amazed at the level of engagement for all kids. Now, instead of just doing the activity, they were talking about the science behind it.

Page from a student's journal

Students begin to use academic language in their writing. A notebook entry from the FOSS Weather on Earth Module: "What causes condensation to form?"

Students were introduced to language and concepts that were of a higher level than ever before and they rose to the challenge. I noticed children come alive with wonder, and soon they were begging for science time. I will never forget the first time a second grader used the words viscous and transparent correctly to describe the bottle of liquid they were holding. The playing field that used to be so wide due to background knowledge that students came to school with was suddenly narrowed. FOSS always starts with a hands-on activity that introduces the concept in a way that is meaningful for all. The children began to use academic language throughout the lessons, and we were thrilled when this transferred to their writing as well.

I like the organization in the writing that we do. It helps me understand what we are learning better than just knowing it out of a textbook.

—Emma, 5th Grade Student

Soon, other grade levels bought into inquiry-based science through various professional development opportunities presented by our science coordinator and supervisor. As the excitement gained momentum, the teachers started asking about an inquiry based program that would connect literacy skills and vocabulary that was so desperately needed. FOSS was introduced soon after in fourth and fifth grades. We saw our science scores rise from the worst in the county in fifth grade in the year 2000 to the best in the county in 2010. The next grade level to buy into FOSS was our third grade. They were lucky enough to get brand new modules from the FOSS Third Edition. Within a year, they not only increased scores in science but also in reading and math. In 2013, their science scores were 98% and they were recognized as being not only first in the county, but 39th in the commonwealth.

Students working to make a circuit using the FOSS Magnetism and Electricity Module.

Students working to make a circuit using the FOSS Magnetism and Electricity Module.

In 2012, we embarked on a change to create a STEAM centered school. We knew that we would build from our foundation of FOSS. We were also using an inquiry based mathematics program, investigations, which supported building numeracy through hands-on activities as well. The T-E-A in the middle of STEAM, however, was still a little bit fuzzy. We embarked on a mission to find the right fit for Hartwood and explored several engineering curriculum units from Engineering is Elementary, an engineering curriculum developed by the Museum of Science, Boston.

One of the greatest experiments that we participated in was an afterschool tutoring program that focused completely on engineering. We realized that many of our at-risk students, or "at-promise" as our principal likes to say, were having difficulty problem-solving. Our math specialist, Susan Sydla, and I decided to use Hop To It, a free afterschool engineering unit available on Engineering is Elementary. We were shocked and amazed to see how low our children were in creative thinking when we started our first challenge. We gave the students 10 index cards and asked them to build a tower that could hold a small stuffed frog. Several of the students laid the cards on the floor and tried to tape them in a straight line. Others didn’t know what a tower was. After several weeks of working on simple problem solving tasks, they were able to create a trap that would hold a Cane Toad (an invasive species and real-world problem solving task). It was also evident to all of us involved that we had some work to do with this population of students.

Student recording data

A student records data from working with pendulums using the FOSS Motion, Force, and Modules Module.

Another piece to our puzzle was also being developed: the arts. In 2012, we hired a new principal, Scott Elchenko. Scott was a brand new principal and very eager to create a school with a vision that would be engaging for all children. As part of creating this vision, he took a group of several teachers to visit a CETA (Changing Education Through the Arts) school in Northern Virginia, and they were very impressed. In 2013, we began working with Sean Layne, an artist in residence, on creating tableaus (in which students establish still scenes with their bodies to represent a certain scene or idea) to express thinking through drama. Teachers were trained in classroom management techniques that would help them gain control of their mind, body and voices. This fit in well with our school-wide belief in using the Responsive Classroom approach to create students who treated each other with respect and dignity. Soon students were using tableaus to show what they learned and what they were thinking.

I really like the way that Hartwood science teachers aren’t all like ‘Read this science book or else’ and instead have us do different activities and use different resources.

—Orla, student

As the pieces to our STEAM vision fell into place, we became involved in a partnership with the University of Mary Washington. Dr. George Meadows, an education professor, had recently received an award through the University that would allow him to partner with several elementary schools in the region in a new STEM adventure. Welcome to the world of technology! We were given a trunk with MaKey MaKeys, Little Bits, Hummingbird kits, and Squishy Circuits. This led to a discussion and creation of an Engineering and Design studio space.

Student building an underwater ROV

A parent volunteer and her son work on building an underwater Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) during SeaPerch.

A classroom was allocated and soon became full of cardboard tubes, recycled boxes, glue guns and more –all engineering materials for the design endeavors. We added an afterschool club called SeaPerch, that partnered with the Navy, where children created underwater robots and participated in a tournament at the university and actually beat several middle school teams. This added drills and soldering guns to the engineering space. Our kids were really becoming enriched in technology and engineering opportunities.

I really like doing all of the engineering challenges like the land rovers and houses that we built. It helps me to understand how stuff works better.

—Sam, 5th Grade Student

The engineering lab has a lot of helpful stuff. It has a lot of fancy equipment that I can build with.

—Michael, 5th Grade Student

In our classrooms, FOSS is alive and well. Students across K–5 are using science vocabulary. We use the training in science-centered literacy approaches by our FOSS trainer, Kip Bisignano to integrate literacy skills throughout the day. Teachers are using oral language techniques to get our students talking about the science content. Writing is integrated into the science classroom and suddenly the silos of subject areas are starting to fade away. Third Edition FOSS Science Resources books are used to reinforce science concepts, and our use of nonfiction is growing. We continue to connect reading skills, such as cause and effect and compare and contrast, into all subject areas. Now, it is not unusual to walk into a classroom and see connections being made between math, science and reading. As a fifth grader said, "In my old school we didn’t get to do experiments. We only used textbooks. Here, it’s really hands-on and we get to use really cool science materials." Hartwood truly is a special place for kids.

Students comparing temperatures of soil and water

Students comparing the temperatures of soil and water using the FOSS Weather on Earth Module.

My son recently graduated from Hartwood Elementary and talks all the time about how much he misses science. I have watched my son’s passion for science exploration grow thanks to the remarkable hands-on learning opportunities he had there.

He is an innovative learner now. He is not afraid to fail during his science exploration because he now sees this as an opportunity to question, re-explore, re-design and re-create until he has better understanding of the subject area.

With this unique hands-on learning approach at a young age, he has been able to develop a deep understanding of science concepts and has been able to apply this knowledge in the real world. He now has a hunger to learn more and a confidence to explore and design. My son thrives in this hands-on style of learning and now has the confidence to be an independent thinker.

Hartwood Elementary has shown us the importance and the positive outcome of learning through hands-on and creative science exploration. It empowers children to think independently, to question their exploration, and to learn by problem solving and through science investigation.

—Catriona, former Hartwood Parent

Leslie Lausten, M.Ed Science Education, is a 4th Grade Teacher and NBCT Early Childhood Generalist at Hartwood Elementary School