FOSS Modules as the Foundation for Place-Based Science Education in Hawai'i

Ania Driscoll-Lind, Education Program Director, Kula Nai'a Foundation, Hawai'i
September 01, 2004 | FOSS in Schools

Top image: Students from Waikoloa Elementary School studying the echolocation clicks and whistles of bottlenose dolphins at the Dolphin Quest facility.

Waikoloa Elementary School (WES) on the island of Hawai'i has spent the last two years developing an inquiry-based science, math, and technology program. This project was funded through a National Science Foundation Rural Systemic Initiatives grant to support the development of science education that is of relevance to rural students. The statewide project was called Hawaii Networked Learning Communities (HNLC).

For the HNLC grant, WES and nine other schools were designated as the first group of schools (Cohort 1). Waikoloa Elementary School was the only elementary school in Cohort 1. The Cohort 1 schools were asked to develop projects that were locally relevant, specifically environmental monitoring projects, using standards-based science, math, and technology curricula. This first group of schools started their projects in the fall of 2002. They were given just two years to accomplish these goals.

We knew at the beginning of the project that there were several factors that would be essential to the success of the initiative. One of the main challenges to the schools was the lack of models or established projects already implemented in Hawai'i. There was also no statewide standard assessment for science that could be used to evaluate students and to track their progress. We would need:

  1. A well-established standards-based science curriculum
  2. A quantitative measure of the changes in student content knowledge
  3. A formative assessment model to track student progress
  4. An inquiry-based component to the investigations
  5. A school scope and sequence for science

Because Hawai'i has such a different climate and range of ecosystems than most states in the United States, there was not much available as far as curriculum, websites, books, and project models for class projects. Most of the available resources and projects didn't fit with the Hawaiian environment. On the other hand, we had rainforests, coral reefs, coastal ponds, volcanoes, and some of the world's best astronomical observatories in our backyard. So we were not discouraged—just daunted by the amount of work we would have to do in such a short period of time. We knew that it would be essential to develop a collaborative process to bring together the resources of the various teachers and staff within the school and to integrate those resources with the knowledge and skills of experts from local agencies and environmental organizations. We also had one major advantage. Three years before the project began, the fourthand fifth-grade teachers had researched the best available science curricula and kits, and they had chosen FOSS. The teachers had purchased seven of the grade 5–6 FOSS kits and five of the grade 3–4 kits. Because we had the FOSS modules, we could jump right in on the first day, teaching hands-on science and developing the project-based units as we went along.


A fourth-grade student uses a refractometer to measure the salinity of an anchialine pond.

Meeting the Challenge of Creating a Standards-based Science Curriculum and a School Scope and Sequence

The FOSS modules have been the backbone of the WES Science, Math, and Technology initiative (SMT) from the very beginning. Because the FOSS program consists of distinct modules and covers a broad spectrum of science standards, the grade levels at our school were able to quickly identify which science content areas were not being covered by the current curriculum and choose a FOSS module that would fill that need. This allowed the school to create a schoolwide scope and sequence in just one year.

Another innovative feature of our SMT initiative is our use of the FOSS modules as a foundation from which to create more locally relevant, student-directed curriculum. While FOSS kits are content-rich and standards-based, they need to be extended with other investigations and activities relevant to Hawai'i. We used the FOSS modules as a starting point for guided inquiry and standards-based content, and then we created our own lesson plans for our specific unit needs. We have been able to quickly create the type of inquiry-based, project-based units that are central to the implementation of HNLC grant program.

The FOSS program played another important role in the project by providing a common ground between the school science liaison (myself) and the grade-level teachers. I am a marine scientist with little elementary school teaching experience. Most of my teaching experience has been at the university level. I was not sure what level of science content knowledge would be reasonable for elementary school students. On the other hand, some teachers were not as comfortable teaching science as they were teaching other subjects, such as language arts and social studies. Because the FOSS modules provided a well-organized curriculum based on the students' cognitive developmental levels, we had a strong foundation for starting the project. The classroom teachers could read the short background at the beginning of each module and watch the videos, and I could quickly see what level of science content was reasonable to expect of the students.

This proved to be a very successful strategy. Having the FOSS modules helped the teachers let go of the need to know all the science content and instead explore the interesting questions that naturally come up as the students proceeded with the investigations. For me, the FOSS modules provided content and activities that were appropriate to their level of cognitive development. Because I was piloting the lessons, the teachers could see how much of the time I was learning new things as we went along and that helped them to realize that, unlike in some core areas, in science the whole point is to explore new questions. ("I don't know the answer to that question, how do you think we could find out?")


Mr. Mike Ikeda of the Queen Lili'uokalani Trust at the Papawai Ponds near Kona works with fourth-grade students to collect native Hawaiian shrimp.

Because we were building on the FOSS modules, we could spend our time exploring new questions and ideas rather than developing basic lesson plans. Here is an example of how we extended the investigations using a FOSS module. During the first year we taught the Water Module. In addition to doing the investigations in the kit, we extended the module to include investigations on the pH of common liquids because this was important to the water quality portion of our environmental monitoring project. The students often surprised us by extending beyond the investigations themselves. As part of the unit, we used gumdrops connected with toothpicks to build models of water molecules, using one color gum drop for oxygen atoms and another for hydrogen atoms. We were puzzling over why very cold water will sink to the bottom of a glass of room-temperature water, but solid ice floats on the surface. Once the students learned that there were six oxygen atoms arranged with two hydrogen atoms connected in solid ice, they came up with the hexagonal lattice structure by themselves. They observed there was much more space in the ordered arrangement of the lattice work of solid ice than when the molecules were all moving around freely in liquid water. The students were able to see and explain why the ice would be less dense and would float. I was amazed, and it was the beginning of my realization that we greatly underestimate how far elementary students can go in using scientific models to explore their world.

Meeting the Challenge of Assessment

An important requirement of the HNLC program was measuring student performance using a standardized assessment method. Again, we were able to rely on FOSS for the foundation of our data because each module also provided the necessary standards-based assessment. Once we determined which modules we would be using at each grade level, we could then create a specific test. For two grade levels, we used the End-of-Module assessments and created additional questions that were specific to our own units to develop a test that could be given at both the beginning and end of the year.

The pre- and post-test fulfilled the need for a standardized assessment of the content knowledge acquired by the students during the year. We have quantitative data that shows significant increases in content knowledge by the students for both years. We also have data that could be used to compare our students' content knowledge in science to national scores. In addition, we created summative assessments to track student content knowledge over the course of just one unit during a single quarter. The data from both these assessments gave us essential quantified results to report for the grant. FOSS also provided us with some ideas for formative assessments with each project. We took these ideas and modified them to meet the needs of each particular class and each project. Some classes created classroom murals, others created Web pages, and others conducted individual investigations and presented the results to the class.

Collaboration Within the School and with Organizations in the Community

We have relied heavily on a collaborative model for curriculum development both at the school level and with our community partners. The grade-level teachers and I have worked closely throughout this initiative with our librarian, Hawaiian studies and computer science teachers, and the school technology coordinator. The FOSS program provided us with a common ground for the collaboration. This made the planning process much easier and focused. The result has been that, during each unit, the students are engaged in exploring the same general content in their classrooms, during science lab, in the computer lab, and during library instruction.

Because we are an inclusion school with a high SPED and ESL population we have also worked as a collaborative team with our SPED and ESL teachers to provide them with the curriculum and project assignments ahead of time and to develop differentiated instruction methods.

The results of our collaborative model are reflected in our assessment data. From the formative assessments it is clear that the students are actively engaged in the material and are making gains not only in the science and math content areas, but also in language arts skills. The data from the summative assessments shows a statistically significant increase in student performance in all seven classes tested by the end of both years.

Challenging Ourselves to Keep Growing and Learning

I continue to be amazed at the way elementary students are not hindered by worrying about what they do and don't know. When they encounter something that they are curious about they just forge ahead. As a society many of us underestimate how much elementary students can learn about a topic. While it is difficult to build enough time into the regular school schedule to allow students to move beyond the set curriculum and pursue their own investigations, it is essential if they are to take ownership of both the content and the methods of inquiry that are integral to good science.


This close-up image of a native shrimp was captured by a student using a digital microscope.

During the last quarter of the 2003–2004 school year, we focused on only the Reflections investigation (from the Ideas and Inventions Module) with our fourth grade students. We decided to spend less time trying to cover the full spectrum of the curriculum in that module and to instead build in more time for the students to conduct their own investigations. Once we explored light reflections with the mirrors, we went on to investigate bilateral and radial symmetry in the computer lab and refraction of light in lenses and rainbows. By the end of the quarter, the students were conducting their own investigations exploring the reflection and refraction of light. The various investigations included creating mazes that had to be negotiated using a beam of light bouncing off mirrors, using water and mirrors to create rainbows, constructing pinhole cameras, or creating secret codes that could only be read using mirrors. They also used microscopes to compare common structures, such as flower parts, human hair, insect legs, and bird and insect wings.

For most of the last two years we have used FOSS modules with our fifth grade classes. So far we have taught the Mixtures and Solutions, Variables, Food and Nutrition, and Environments Modules. For one quarter we did an additional unit on coral reef organisms and ecology. Thanks to the crayfish investigations from their fourth-grade year and the brine shrimp hatching experiments from the Environments Module, the students were already experts on crustaceans.

We spent most of a quarter studying some of the other major groups of marine invertebrates and comparing them to crustaceans. Near the end of the quarter a student asked, "What kind of organisms are sea fans?" and wondering if they are echinoderms like sea whips. "No," replied another student. "They are clearly cnidarians." That started a debate about whether or not they were echinoderms or cnidarians. To help decide, we listed all the characteristics of echinoderms, arthropods, cnidarians, and mollusks.

Once we had determined that sea fans were cnidarians, some interesting discussions about corals ensued. They raised the question "Is the whole coral a single animal or is it a colony of individual animals all joined together?" I challenged the students to consider what kind of animals barnacles were. That started a major debate about whether they were mollusks or arthropods. After they each worked out their arguments, the class divided up into groups. One group supported the view that barnacles were mollusks and the other group supported the view that barnacles were arthropods. Each group presented their argument, and the class discussed each argument's strengths and weaknesses. The grade-level teachers and I were all amazed that the students would pursue these questions so far. Starting next year we will be extending the Environments Module to include a school garden. We can't wait to see where that leads us!

Future Challenge: Funding to Support the Program

Like all other schools and all other science education programs, we face the constant challenge of obtaining the funds to continue to provide the science and technology program at the Waikoloa Elementary School. While there will be another three years of the Hawaii Networked Learning Communities project, the DOE has decided to only fund each school in the program for two years. So in June 2004, the funding for the Waikoloa Elementary School ended. As a result, the full obligation for finding continued funds to support the science projects has fallen to WES.

For a rural school in Hawai'i this is a major challenge. In the past two years, we have been successful in getting grant funding through the Kula Nai'a Foundation to support the marine conservation aspects of the science program. Mobile Education Partners has been very successful in obtaining grants to provide the technology tools and additional staffing for science and technology initiatives at schools in our district. Our plans are to build on these partnerships and expand our support to include parents, more local experts, and other organizations in our community with common education goals. We are optimistic that our success in building such a vibrant, rigorous program in just two years will lead to recognition and continued support from our community for the school's science, math, and technology initiatives.

Examples of Extensions of the FOSS Modules from the 2003–2004 School Year

Students watch a breaching humpback whale

Students watch a breaching humpback whale on their whale-watching adventure.

Example I: Grade 3

The third-grade teachers already had a full science unit developed on whales to coincide with the winter quarter when the humpback whales migrate to Hawaiian waters. So, I proposed that this year we pilot the Physics of Sound Module during the fall. This worked very well. By winter quarter the students who used the Physics of Sound Module already understood important vocabulary and concepts needed to study how the whales used sound in the marine environment. They already understood the difference in the speed that sound travels through water vs. air.

In addition, the students studied the different kinds of toothed and baleen whales and the types of sounds that each group makes. Because they already understood pitch, frequency, loudness/amplitude, and Hertz they could apply those concepts to the different types of sounds made by marine mammals. All four classes created their own humpback whale songs. Small groups created phrases and then each class combined their phrases to create a unique song. The quarter culminated in a whale-watching trip to see and hear humpback whales in the wild.

Students and dolphin

Students get up close with a dolphin at the Dolphin Quest facility.

A smaller group of about 20 students participated in an after-school workshop created by Dolphin Quest Inc. and the Kula Nai'a Foundation. The students studied the many types of dolphins and toothed whales, which ones were found in Hawaii, how dolphins make and receive sound, and how dolphins used the different kinds of sounds. Then the class made a trip to the Dolphin Quest facility where they had a chance to meet the bottlenose dolphins and to put hydrophones in the water to listen to the dolphins echolocation clicks and whistles.

Example II: Grade 4

The fourth-grade teachers were the heart of the HNLC project at our school. They were chosen as the first-grade level to pilot a place-based science unit. All of the fourth-grade teachers were experienced and trained in using technology in the classroom. They all had at least a year of experience working with FOSS modules. During the summer of 2002 summer, the fourth-grade teachers and I had a planning meeting. The teachers chose to concentrate on the Measurement, Water, and Structures of Life Modules.

After discussing the possible projects we decided to focus on the anchialine (from Greek meaning "near the sea") ponds found along the coastline. These ponds are created by fresh water traveling through lava tunnels to the ocean. The fresh water mixes with the salty ocean water. These ponds have no surface connection with the ocean, but ocean water moves in and out of the ponds through underground lava tubes with the rising and falling tides. As a result, these ponds support a unique assemblage of organisms, many endemic to this unique ecosystem.

Anchialine ponds are also important because they are an integral part of the water cycle on our island. The rain that falls in the upslope forests and grasslands runs through the lava tubes to exits into the ocean. Studying this cycle created a good opportunity to teach the children about the traditional Hawaiian resource management system for a watershed called the ahupua'a system.

These coastal ponds are quickly disappearing. The west coast of the island of Hawai'i had about 90% of the anchialine ponds in the United States. Most of the ponds are now gone, having disappeared under the hotels and condominiums that have been built in the last 15 years.

During our second year of teaching the anchialine pond unit, we coordinated with two local experts at two very different sites on the Kona Coast. To better compare the two sites we divided the four fourth-grade classes into two groups. One group visited the anchialine ponds and fishponds that are maintained by Mr. David Chai and his staff at the Four Seasons Resort at Hualalai. The other group visited the ponds that are currently being restored by Mike Ikeda of the Queen Lili'uokalani Trust at the Papawai site near Kona. John Kahiapo, the education specialist for the State of Hawaii Department of Natural Resource, Aquatic Division was also an invaluable resource. He patiently worked with children naming and spelling the Hawaiian names for the native organisms that live in and around the ponds. Alan Nakagawa of Mobile Education Partners provided essential assistance and technology tools for the pond study.

Because there are at least three species of shrimp that are endemic to Hawaiian ponds, the crayfish investigations from the FOSS Structures of Life were good preliminary activities. In addition to learning about the characteristics of crustaceans, diagramming the body parts of the crayfish, and learning to observe their behavior, we extended the investigations by having the students use digital microscopes to investigate crayfish molts. Dean Swanson of the Just Think Mobile was able to help by providing additional laptops and microscopes and by working with the students to help them learn to use these tools. Having the crayfish investigations as a lead-in activity was useful both to help them learn about the parts of a crustacean and to learn how to use the microscopes. These microscopes were then used to study the native Hawaiian shrimp.

These photos are of the 4th grade using microscopes to investigate crayfish and anchialine pond shrimp.

Students with laptop Student with microscope and laptop


Dean Swanson and students Closeup of laptop screen


Magnified crayfish molts

In addition, the students made some basic water-quality measurements, such as temperature and salinity. This followed naturally from the investigations in the Measurement and Water Modules. By using temperature probes provided by Alan Nakagawa of Mobile Education Partners, we collected data for over a week before each trip. Then, when the classes visited the field sites, we measured the salinity of the ponds and downloaded the temperature data to a laptop computer. The temperature data were then reduced from the over 25,000 data points for each pond, down to just one temperature reading every six hours. The students then graphed these numbers for each of the ponds and compared the changes in temperature in the two ponds over the course of a week.

Ania Driscoll-Lind is a marine scientist and science education specialist working with the Waikoloa Elementary School. She is the education program director for the Kula Nai'a Foundation ( You can contact Ania at or 808-883-6808.