Energize science activities for elementary students! How? Above all, let kids get their hands on science. Then try these simple strategies. They’ll transform instruction. First, ask for generalizations. Second, encourage inquiry. Third, use the fair test.
Ms. Sneed Improves Science Activities for Elementary Students
Our favorite fourth grade teacher, Ms. Sneed, sat in a planning meeting with her mentor. “Let’s talk about some ways to encourage thinking,” said Mrs. Brown. “Science activities for elementary students should focus on processes.”
“But we do experiments…” Ms. Sneed began.
Mrs. Brown launched into her first point. “Turn observations into generalizations. With this approach, kids discover the concepts themselves. Here’s how it works. As usual, the teacher provides an activity. In the end, however, kids figure out what it all means. Let’s try this on your next planned activity.”
“Okay,” said Ms. Sneed. “Our next experiment deals with transparent, translucent, and opaque materials.”
She continued with the process. “First, I explain the terms. Then I distribute materials. Kids shine flashlights on materials. They list each as transparent, translucent, or opaque.”
“Hmm,” said Mrs. Brown. “When planning science activities for elementary students, you need to take one more step. When you allow kids to make generalizations, you put them in the driver’s seat.
“Don’t explain. Instead, just give them the materials. Then tell them what to do. After they’ve shone the light on all of the materials, simply ask, ‘What can you conclude?’ Kids think about it. Then they draw conclusions. In the end, they develop the concept by themselves. Powerful!”
Mrs. Brown smiled. “See? This requires only a small change. Ask, don’t tell. Consequently, students do the thinking.”
“I can’t believe it’s that easy,” said Ms. Sneed. Her eyes brightened. “I’ll try it!”
“What’s your next activity?” asked the mentor.
“It’s super fun,” gushed Ms. Sneed. “First, I show how to create white light. The kids use flashlights and colored cellophane to try it themselves.”
A small sigh escaped Mrs. Brown. “Let’s talk about inquiry. Kids start with a messy problem. Then they find the solution. Surprisingly, almost any science activity for elementary students can become scientific inquiry. Just ask kids to set it up themselves.”
Ms. Sneed tapped her pencil nervously. “I think I understand how to use scientific inquiry. Tentatively, she continued, “I don’t explain. Instead, I just give kids the materials and let them figure it out themselves.”
“Exactly. Inquiry makes kids think. Consequently, they become scientific problem solvers. For more inquiry in your classroom, let kids figure out how to set up science activities.”
Ms. Sneed perked up. “I’ll try this too. I’m a little worried about setting my lab groups loose without my direction, but…” Mrs. Brown sent an understanding look across the table.
“For a full-blown experiment,” said Mrs. Brown, “kids use the fair test. They compare two (or more) things. All other variables are controlled. Asking students to measure and repeat seals the deal. The fair test is also part of the traditional scientific method.
“Not only does this encourage thinking, it’s also a part of our science standards.”
“Okay,” said Ms. Sneed. “Our next experiment involves separating ink into different colors. First, I explain what to do. After that, kids put black ink on coffee filters. Then they dip the filters in water and wait. Consequently, the black ink spreads into many colors. It’s a chromatography activity.”
“Exactly,” said Mrs. Brown. “It’s a science activity, not an experiment.”
“What?” frowned Ms. Sneed.
“Here’s how to use a fair test:
- Ask a testable question: ‘Which color of ink will separate into more colors?’
- Before experimenting, discuss the independent variable. In this case, it’s the color of ink.
- All other variables must be controlled. Ask kids to name them. Here, the cups; amount of water; filter type, size, shape, etc. must be controlled, or kept the same.
- Let kids hypothesize.
- Each group sets up multiple cups.
- After waiting, they record results and compare.
- Finally, each student draws a conclusion.”
“I remember the scientific method from my science course at the university,” said Ms. Sneed. “Question. Hypothesis. Experiment. Conclude.”
“Yes, but don’t forget about the fair test. Compare. Control. Measure. Replicate.”
“I get it,” Ms. Sneed replied. “My kids need to use these scientific processes to conduct an experiment.”
“And to pass the state science test,” smiled her mentor.
NGSS Science Activities for Elementary Students
Next, Mrs. Brown pulled out a list of science and engineering practices from the Next Generation Science Standards. “As you can see, the NGSS encourages teachers to use eight sets of science practices. When you ask students to make generalizations, they’re actually constructing explanations of observed relationships.” She pointed to the corresponding wording in the sixth practice.
“Furthermore, when kids use inquiry and the fair test, they nail this second set of practices. It asks them to plan and carry out investigations. Hopefully, you can see how much the three steps we’ve discussed can improve science activities for elementary students.”
Ms. Sneed nodded. Then she looked more carefully at the science practices. As she took in the words, the new teacher understood much more about her role as a science teacher.
- Ask testable questions.
- Develop and use models.
- Plan and carry out investigations.
- Analyze and interpret data.
- Use mathematics and computational thinking.
- Construct explanations.
- Engage in argument.
- Obtain, evaluate, and communicate information.
“Wow, this is nothing like the science lessons I had in fourth grade,” she said to her mentor.
Mrs. Brown chuckled. “You got that right. But believe me, this is so much better.”
“And I think it will help me enjoy teaching too,” Ms. Sneed replied.
Light Science Activities for Elementary Students
That year, Ms. Sneed improved all the activities in her light energy unit. Before long, she changed all of her science activities for elementary students. Once she internalized the science practices, there was no turning back.