Experiencing Science at Boulder Elementary

What is higher on the pH scale, baking soda or Alka-Seltzer?  Is vinegar an acid or a base?  Thanks to Steve Cox and his new science curriculum, these are answers that Boulder Elementary students know from experience.

In a small K-6 like Boulder Elementary, where children from different grades learn together, it is challenging to cover the core curriculum required by the state.  For example, 2nd grade students must learn about rocks and water while 6th grade curriculum focuses around more complex topics such as the solar system and microorganisms. Steve Cox, Boulder resident and retired science teacher, has developed a brilliant system to overcome this challenge: he teaches critical thinking and—gasp!—makes science fun.

Steve, who has an impressive teaching career under his belt, volunteered to organize, develop, and teach science at Boulder Elementary.  He began by compiling lesson plans into organized binders and stocking the science area with materials.  At Steve’s request, Boulder Community Alliance was able to help fund the project.  All of his lessons focus on interactive, hands-on activities that cater to a broad range of ages and interests.  As a more long term solution, Steve’s curriculum is designed to be easily passed on to the next science teacher.

In order to better understand Steve’s methodology, I decided to visit his class.

The lesson I attended included a hypothesis driven experiment on “Acids and Bases.”  Students were presented with a variety of household products—including baking soda, lemon juice, and Alka-Seltzer—and prompted to make educated hypotheses regarding the position of each substance on the pH scale.

Then the experimental phase began.  Everyone donned their lab coats and goggles and began to add controlled amounts of each substance to vials of cabbage juice.  The students excitedly observed the cabbage juice, which contains a natural pH indicator, change colors according to the acidity of the added ingredient.  Once the experiment was complete, they compared their results to their original hypotheses.  Steve encouraged comparing and sharing data, reminding them that “In science, sometimes your hypothesis may not be right.  But that’s ok.”

The students were so engaged that they wanted to keep testing.  Zack Nelson asked if he could conduct another experiment by combining different vials together and testing the results.  Steve encouraged Zack’s experiment and we all learned something new.

“Usually if you say science to [kids] they say: ‘oh, yuck . . . science!’” Steve explained with a laugh.  When students are handed laborious worksheets over and over they begin perceiving science as, “All these big words [they] don’t understand, and science is just a big thing [they] don’t get.”  Once you introduce these hands-on experiments, they start having fun.  They can’t believe that “this is science.”

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