A First-Timer's Experience with FOSS

Dr. Claire Pettiette-Hall, Torrance, California
September 10, 2003 | FOSS in Schools

Top image: Mrs. Hall and a group of budding geologists study the results of a mineral scratch test from the Earth Materials module.

I have just completed my first year of being the "science mom" in my two older sons' classrooms at Riviera Elementary in Torrance, California. Last fall, when I was deciding how I should spend my volunteer time in the classroom, I came up with the idea of helping the teachers do science experiments. You see, I have a doctorate in physical chemistry and I worked in an R&D setting for ten years. Now that I am a stay-at-home mom, I have the time to offer my practical expertise and share with the children how much fun it is to do experiments. I don't think the teachers had ever had such an offer, but they graciously accepted. My big adventure was underway.

It was our first-grade teacher, Mrs. Eads, who first introduced me to the FOSS program. She always did the FOSS Air and Weather Module in the fall. In our first sessions we made wind-detecting devices (pinwheels, streamer flags, etc.), and we went outside to use them. Mrs. Eads knew (from experience) which worked best in our environment, so I would prep all the materials and lead the class in building these devices. This unit also has several experiments that demonstrate to the children that air is "real." Even if you can't see it, it is something that is present, it takes up space, and you can use it to physically move other things. These experiments really sold me on FOSS. What you do in the experiment is really quite simple, and yet, you are demonstrating fundamental properties of a gas, one of the three states of matter—and the six-year-olds get it! They never would have understood it if they just read it in a book—a lot of high-school students don't. Not only did they understand, but they remembered because it was so much fun.


Katie enjoys showing off her darkling beetle.

Now, I realize that a lot of people won't have the same "Wow" response that I did when they do the experiments, but you don't have to be a "science nerd" to lead the FOSS modules. It is very easy to do this because the manuals are full of background information. They outline how you should lead the class in the investigation and what scientific concepts you are trying to teach. You have more than enough information to be the "expert" for the children. Mrs. Eads's only complaint about the Air and Weather Module is that the Weather Journals are boring to make here in Southern California—"warm" and "sunny" are just about the only descriptions the children get to use.

My fourth-grade experience started out quite differently. I would either choose experiments that were laid out in the textbook or surf the web to find ones that correlated to what the students were studying. We did some interesting experiments, but I was spending large amounts of time (and a fair amount of money) to have something set up and ready to go every other week. I was beginning to realize why routine, hands-on experiments do not seem to be on the top of any teacher's priority list. I was also just realizing that there were stacks of FOSS boxes in the room where we held our monthly PTA meetings. A chart in the Air and Weather teacher guide indicated FOSS did make other kits, some of which seemed appropriate for our class.

So I asked Mrs. Romeo about it. The only reason she hadn't been using FOSS is that, after California changed the standards for what should be taught in the different grades, the fourth-grade curriculum was spread out over third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade FOSS modules. However, our school district has all the kits; she just needed to make a phone call, and we received everything we asked for. Hallelujah! No more rounding up supplies for 33 children—most of what I needed was in the boxes. Mrs. Romeo was a very good sport about finding a home for the new FOSS kits—there is not much free space in a classroom of 33 children. Since she has used several of the kits, she was also a good resource about which experiments the children usually enjoyed the most.

We primarily used the FOSS Environments Module for her class. At the elementary school level, the children seem to always enjoy the experiments that involve living creatures. The Environments Module has an investigation on hatching brine shrimp. You make four different environments (four different saltwater concentrations) and determine which results in the highest number of brine shrimp hatching. The children loved it. I was able to make a connection with their social studies coursework as well. California children learn about their state geography and history in the fourth grade. The FOSS manual pointed out that we happen to have a natural habitat for brine shrimp in our state, Mono Lake. I went web surfing to learn more information about Mono Lake and found we have a Mono Lake preservation organization that does educational slide shows in the Los Angeles area ( Mr. Bowling came to our classroom and gave a great slide presentation about the Mono Lake environment, the unique creatures that live there, and how our water usage in the Los Angeles area directly affects these little creatures we had just been hatching in our classroom. He even led them in some science experiments concerning the composition of the Mono Lake water. We all enjoyed his visit.


Like proud parents, the first-graders show off their darkling beetles and pupae. in the beginning, many children wouldn't touch them.

Nearly all of the first-grade classes at our school use the FOSS Insects Module in the spring. As I mentioned earlier, if it involves living creatures, the children love it—they really eat this one up. I knew from previous experience that the mealworms will take up residence on the children's desks, and by the time the mealworms are sent home, each child has a new pet to share with his or her family. This year, our first-graders got to learn about mealworms, waxworms, silkworms, and painted lady butterflies. By the end of the module, no one was afraid to touch or handle the insects, quite a change from the beginning. They also could tell you all of the stages of the life cycles of these insects and what characteristics define an insect. (This was primarily due to the daily work of the teacher, Mrs. Barker, not my visits.) The children were very interested in the mating habits of the silkworm moths and the butterflies (some called this "dating"). They were so excited the day they found the silkworm eggs! I think both the children and I appreciate the beauty and complexity of nature more after having the opportunity to closely observe the insects.

I could always tell by the children's behavior that they really did enjoy science with Mrs. Hall. However, the icing on the cake came near the end of the year in the fourth-grade class. A new student had arrived with only a few weeks left in school. I saw her in the park after school and chatted with her for a few minutes. Then I asked if she had liked the day's science experiment. She replied, "I loved it. Science at my old school was so boring—all we ever did was take out a book and read. This was fun!" (I, too, absolutely hated science in elementary and middle school for the same reason—it was horribly boring. All we ever did was read.)


Taylor intently studies a rock sample from the Earth Materials module. What concentration!

This is why I am such a FOSS fan. It provides me with the information and supplies that I need to lead the class in pre-tested, age-appropriate, hands-on science activities, and I don't need to be an expert. It does still take some time to prepare, but not nearly as much as it does if you are doing everything from scratch. The reward is great. The children are so involved and interested, I know they will remember the information I have taught them for a very long time. I hope that next year I'll be able to do the same thing for some second- and fifth-grade students, using FOSS of course!

Note: Sending organisms home with your students should be thoughtfully considered beforehand. For more information, please read the FOSS/Delta Policy Statement on Living Organismsin the Classroom.