The Joy of Science

Cathy Klinesteker, Co-Director for FOSS California Professional Development, Lawrence Hall of Science
Photos by Jenny Lopez Ngigi
September 18, 2009 | FOSS in Schools

Sometimes something happens in education that is so right for children that you can't help smiling right from your heart when you watch it unfold. There's a program like that in a little school in the desert in southern California, where summer days are often above 100°F, and cold winter winds can blow right through you. There is not much rain, no forests, no streams, except when the dry washes fill with flash floods after a rare storm. But there's a program there where children are laughing and exploring and reading and writing and learning about their world and their skills and themselves, and it makes you smile all the way to your heart!

Jenny Lopez Ngigi started the after-school science program because her school had been designated an underperforming school, and mandatory time for language arts and math had crowded out time for science. Of course, any great teacher who has integrated these skills into the rich content area of science knows that children's enthusiasm carries the day, and conceptual growth across subject areas happens seamlessly. The Coachella program is one creative way to find time for science.

A first-grader counted the seedlings planted in a cup as it was passed from child to child around the table. There were four cups, one for each child. The parent volunteer talked with the children, one at a time. The fourth-grade student-volunteer helped with the counting and writing as needed: "uno, dos, tres...ocho y nueve."

The first-grader drew all 19 of the seedlings, complete with leaves, stems, and roots and labeled the parts in Spanish. But there wasn't a purple crayon for the few leaves that had a purple hue as they first sprouted, so he went to the supply table to find a purple crayon. The cups continued to be passed on, and when the first-grader returned, there was a cup at his seat with only seven plants. The student-volunteer came by and asked about the 19 plants, since there were only seven in the cup he now had. His was also the only picture in the classroom with any purple on it. Confidently he explained to the older student and the volunteer parent that he had, indeed, seen purple, that it was in new leaves, and that the cup he'd had before had 19 plants. If only all students could be so confident and articulate!

And so it goes in Cesar Chavez Elementary School in Coachella, California, where the after-school dual immersion program engages in FOSS hands-on science. The students meet for eight weeks, three times a week for 1.5 hours after school. They complete one FOSS module during this period. On a typical day, first- and fourth-grade students arrive about the same time, right after school. The two "buddy teachers," Ramon Ortega and Raquel Delgado, who will help expand the program next year, arrive as the parent volunteers are arriving. Fourth graders distribute snacks provided by the school after they escort the first graders on a bathroom and hand-washing break. While the children eat their snack, the parents and teachers gather at a large round table where Jenny introduces the lesson to the parents, complete with science content, processes, and written directions, which include questions to ask the children during the investigation. The entire program is conducted in Spanish, so the written materials given to parents are in Spanish. When the process is clearly understood by all parents and the last question is answered, the fun begins!

Jenny gathers the children at the rug. They review the material covered in the last lesson, referring to their word bank and science content charts. In response to probing questions, the children recall what they did and learned in the previous class while Jenny records their responses in words and pictures, reinforcing the science as well as the language skills. Then they go to their table groups where a parent volunteer leads the group, assisted by fourth-grade student helpers. The three teachers travel from group to group, listening, assisting if necessary, taking pictures, and otherwise supporting the groups as needed. The table group session includes hands-on activity, question response, charting by the parent to reinforce science content, process skills, language skills, pair and group oral sharing, and science notebook entries. It is a noisy, exciting, busy time in the classroom!

The Joy of Science - Collage

Of the 21 first graders, a third speak only English, a third speak only Spanish, and a third are bilingual. Because all instruction and work is conducted in Spanish, the Spanish speakers help the English speakers with their Spanish, and, in doing so, learn English. Bilingual students help all students with both languages. Parents are required to volunteer one day per week and are instructed in the science content and pedagogy before each lesson. Fourth grade helpers are bilingual and work with first graders on writing in their science notebooks, science processes, and task completion. These older student volunteers are chosen partially because they are the youngest in their own families, and their teacher has determined that the opportunity for them to work with younger children will promote their growth and responsibility.

At the completion of the table group session, parents arrive to pick up both the first- and fourth-grade children, and one more session of the program comes to an end. Then teachers and parent volunteers gather for an informal debriefing session to discuss how the lesson went, what they learned, what went well, and possible improvements for future sessions. This reflection and self-correction provides a means of continuous improvement of the details of the program and input from parents that has proven to be a source of enrichment and growing ownership for the success of the program.

In summary, the program consists of:

  • Eight weeks of instruction, three times a week, using FOSS modules
  • Volunteer parents (for students to be in the program, required once a week)
  • Volunteer teachers, for the existing program as well as program expansion
  • Volunteer fourth grade student assistants
  • Hands-on activities that promote discovery and inquiry
  • Reading (using FOSS Science Resources books) which promotes content knowledge and reading comprehension
  • Science notebooks to support writing and critical thinking
  • Support from the school (providing a place to meet, snacks, materials), the K—12 Alliance, FOSS Program, and Delta Education (materials and training)

In the words of the principal of Cesar Chavez Elementary, Maria Sarabia Ponce, "The program is the perfect opportunity for our students in the dual-language program to be exposed to a specialized science curriculum...Jenny...has made everyone realize how important their role is in this program, especially the parents. Their involvement has made all the difference."

Recently Jenny received a letter from Maritza Rodriguez, coordinator of the Regional School Improvement Unit Division for Riverside County, congratulating her on being selected as her district's Teacher of the Year in the Bilingual Educators Succeeding Together (BEST) Program. One of the volunteer parents in the program, Edith Paz, is receiving the BEST Parent of the Year award. The program and Jenny have also been accepted to do presentations at this year"s California Science Teachers Association (CSTA) Conference in Palm Springs in October and at the National Staff Development Conference in St. Louis in December. Be sure to look for them!

In the words of Jenny and Ramon, "The science bi-literacy program has the potential to be replicated at other school sites in the district, but organizers stress that success comes only from full participation from parents, teachers and upper-grade students. It's a big commitment, but one well worth it. Until such programs are routinely found at school sites across California, parents need to rely on everyday opportunities to bridge math and language arts with other areas of student academic achievement, especially science. Working with teachers, administrators, and peer role models, parents realize that academics and learning doesn't stop when the bell rings at the end of the school day. Those experiences continue as long as the student is eager, and the teacher is ready." ?

Author's Reflections

In the September 1992 issue of Popular Science, Arthur Fisher relayed the following story in his article "Why Johnny Can't Do Science and Math." His tale reminds me of the joy of science and discovery at the Cesar Chavez after-school program.

Many years ago when the distinguished Stanford science educator, Mary Budd Rowe, was a teenager visiting Princeton University, she encountered an instantly recognizable figure, Albert Einstein. He was staring raptly at a fountain. "He was tilting his head this way and that, and sometimes moving his hands rapidly up and down," Rowe remembers. "I stood beside him, puzzled. He said nothing for quite some time. Then he turned to me and said, 'Can you do it? Can you stop the stream enough to see individual droplets of water?'"

Einstein showed the young student how to move her hands to synchronize them with the flow and create a strobe effect that froze the droplets. As they left the fountain, he told her, "Never forget that science is just that kind of exploring and fun."

The Cesar Chavez after-school science program is the embodiment of just that kind of exploring and fun, the kind of educational experience that invites replication, an exhibition of children's joy and exhilaration in the wonder of learning that leaves you with a smile all the way to your heart.

Cathy Klinesteker, Co-Director
FOSS California Professional Development
phone: 510.847.5273