Curriculum Corner: Lower School Science

In this week's Curriculum Corner, Tom Rankin reflects on the impact of his science teachers and the lingering smell of formaldehyde.
“The truth is obtained like gold,
not by letting it grow bigger,
but by washing off from it
everything that isn’t gold.”
When I think back on the science teachers I had, quite a few stand out: like those who have had an impact on the way I observed the natural world and those who helped me consider the “big questions” of the universe. I will always remember Ms. Taylor, who took us to visit a stream nearby my school in search for microorganisms; and Mr. Schreiber, who strived to instill a love of science in a very awkward high school freshman. And then there was Mr. Morgan, and that pungent smell of formaldehyde emanating from his sixth-grade science classroom. It was a terrible smell that has always stuck with me, and so did the memory of Mr. Morgan. Last year,  I was given the opportunity to fill the shoes of Ms. Banks, our Lower School science teacher, and while I was intimidated, at first, I was also eager to make an impact on the boys through science.
This year, I’ve set out to not only develop a curriculum aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) but to generate a sense of awe in my students and an appreciation for the natural world and beyond. In just the last five years, national science standards underwent a large-scale overhaul that resulted in the NGSS stating that: “science is central to the lives of all Americans, preparing them to be informed citizens in a democracy and knowledgeable consumers.” The NGSS incorporates traditional science content (physical science, life science, earth & space science) with an added emphasis on engineering, meant to develop students’ knowledge along with applicable skills and concepts that connect across grade levels from kindergarten through high school. This provides foundations and learning goals for students, and also leaves opportunities for me to deliver content and assess student learning in unique ways. So, I strive to spark my students’ curiosity through inquiry and ask questions about phenomena in nature, pushing them to discover and find answers through investigation.  Luckily this comes naturally to a group of boys who brim with curiosity and wonder. I also have the advantage of teaching a subject that demands hands-on work which is at the core essence of an all-boys school, and if I’ve learned anything in my 10 years at boys schools, it’s that they like to build. I see this every time they jump up from the rug and begin a design project, in their engagement as they work through hands-on challenges, and in their reluctance to stop working and clean up before they go. This is one of the many reasons I feel fortunate to be part of this community and to be teaching a subject I love.
While it’s difficult to give a concise overview of Lower School science, I want to elaborate on the principles that guide my teaching and share some examples of my evolving curriculum. I feel that science is an essential subject not just to better understand the world, but also in how one approaches the questions and challenges that we all face in life. One unit example is in our study of weather and climate, and how it impacts humans. Students in each grade learn about weather and climate. The earliest grade starts with making observations and predictions locally, working toward understanding more complex climates around the world. In fourth grade, students take on a design project to show erosion near a coastline or from flooding. Using elements of design-thinking, students worked together to research, plan, develop and test new ideas to solve this problem, and reflected on how successful their project was. This project also includes the use of iPads to document their work. While the use of technology is limited in my classroom, having previously taught technology, I look for opportunities for students to share their learning in a variety of formats. Technology also allows me to assess their learning in ways that a test or classroom observation might not satisfy and to share within the CSB community (see:
Back to my middle school science teacher, Mr. Morgan, the one with the formaldehyde, The other big impression he left was something slightly more useful: the practice of obtaining, evaluating, and interpreting data. Mr. Morgan taught us how to create research outlines and collect data. This process stuck with me not just because it was important in science, but because it is an important process in all subject areas. I found, time and time again, that I depended on outlines for English, social studies, and other subjects as I conducted research or studied for tests. He taught us how to find what was most important, to cut through the excess and the noise to settle on basic truths. This process is mentioned at great length in the NGSS and is something important even to elementary students. The process can set a learning foundation throughout their lives. Students use science journals in each grade, to begin the regular habit of collecting data, gathering information, and reflecting on their learning. I suppose, the other big takeaway from Mr. Morgan, was that a good balance of writing and hands-on science might be the key.
In many ways, this school year brings me back to my first year of teaching, with all the excitement and optimism that comes with it, but now with many years of experience and perspective to go along with it. As the year unfolds, I welcome the possibilities and challenges that await as we venture into the world of science and I’ll continue to work hard to make sure that our boys develop a foundation and love for science and learning. Ultimately, I hope to empower our students to solve problems in the real world, eventually, while giving them great science memories that will stay with them for years to come.

If you have questions about this week's Curriculum Corner, please contact Tom Rankin.

Cathedral School for Boys

1275 Sacramento Street, San Francisco, CA 94108 Main phone 415.771.6600 Fax 415.771.2547
Located in San Francisco, CA, Cathedral School for Boys is an independent elementary school for boys in grades K-8. Our mission is to provide an excellent education through intellectual inquiry and rigor that is centered in the Episcopal tradition and is respectful of and welcoming to people of all religious traditions and beliefs.