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St. Max taking a closer look at science

Monday, Oct. 26, 2015

By Gabe Licht

Kindergarten teacher Andrea Dietrich holds up a beaker and asks her students what it is.

“A bumpy science lab cup?” a student asks.

Dietrich explains what a beaker is and how it is used before handing out plastic specimens for students to examine through a magnifying glass.

It’s all a part of the curriculum St. Maximilian Kolbe Catholic School is implementing in its new science lab space.

St. Max Principal Shannon Calice was introduced to the LabLearner curriculum at the most recent National Catholic Educators Association Conference and worked to implement it locally.

“They said, by fourth grade, girls especially lose interest in science because they think it’s boring,” Calice said. “This is to make them realize it’s anything but boring; it’s so much fun. This is to get them hooked on science.”

So far, that’s been the case, Calice said.

She has seen firsthand their excitement to learn new things, such as when preschoolers made different colors of clay and then combined them to make secondary colors.

“A student said, ‘This was blue, but isn’t blue anymore; it’s green.’ I asked, ‘How did you do that?’ She could tell me, ‘I added blue and yellow and got green.’” Calice said. “When they want to share it with you, you know they’re excited.”

Preschoolers through sixth graders go to the lab three times a week.

“Teachers take them in for pre-lab, talk them through the vocabulary, introduce them to whatever subject their talking about, then they have their lab, and their post-lab,” Calice said. “It’s pretty much everything we did with our labs growing up, except we didn’t get to do pre-labs. I think it’s good for students to go in there for the pre-lab because it gets them thinking about science.”

Teachers set up labs for the younger students, while the older students learn to set up their own labs.

“Basically, what this program wants kids to be able to do is experience science, but also, when they get to middle school or high school, they already know how to calibrate a scale and use a microscope, so they can really do science,” Calice said.

Through lab work, students learn how to find answers and solutions.

“Especially for the older kids, it’s very Socratic,” Calice said. “We don’t give the kids the answers. We’re asking questions that will, hopefully, lead them to the right answer.”

One example was the lab about sound waves. Students learned that sound waves move by using tuning forks to move pepper, water, and other objects.

“One kid said, ‘I think it’s magnetized.’” Calice said of the pepper experiment. “I said, ‘There’s nothing metal in pepper, so what’s happening? What happens after a little bit when the tuning fork isn’t moving anymore?’ ‘Then nothing moves,’ he said. ‘So what do you think it is?’ I asked. ‘It has to be sound waves.’”

Students keep track of what they learn in lab books. They summarize, draw, and explain everything they do in the lab.

Students are learning more than just science.

“It’s integrating all the subjects, even art, because they have to draw what they’re seeing,” Calice said.

LabLearner was started by two scientists who wanted labs in elementary schools. Staff from LabLearner trained St. Max faculty how to use the equipment, and are available for technical support. LabLearner also has other materials for the teachers to utilize.

“They teachers have a portal on the website, so they can show videos for the kids,” Calice said.

Some of the units had to be moved to a different grade level to satisfy Minnesota standards, but no major changes were needed.

“The nice thing is it meets all of our standards,” Calice said. “It’s totally focused on the kids and it’s teaching them to be scientists, to question, to look, to investigate – the whole scientific method.”

Because many experiments utilize household products, they can be done at home.

Students aren’t the only ones who like the new lab.

“Parents are loving it,” Calice said. “When we had our back-to-school night, the parents were invited up to the lab. They just couldn’t believe their kids were going to be able to do such amazing experiments, even at young ages. Parents are very excited about it.

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