Decookbooking Science Lessons

by

Kelli Huntley

One of the assignments given in this class was to “decookbook” a science activity in place. The idea of Decookbooking comes from an article by Thomas W. Shiland called Decookbook It! (1997) where he challenges science educators to take apart the activities provided in the teachers manuals and make them more student based and more interactive for the students. He suggests letting students create their own experiments that would answer the questions that they have based on teacher-led investigations. In essence, the teacher provides a base activity and encourages students to ask questions of what is happening in front of them. He then suggests giving the students the materials and the time required to answer their own questions. It is a great way to approach science learning in the classroom because it gets students engaged in what it is that they want to learn from a given science unit.

The assignment we were given required looking at a pre-existing science lesson and breaking it down in this way. I chose to look at a lesson I had already created to teach in an after school science club at an elementary school here in Lincoln. I chose to use this lesson because I felt like it was already pretty close to being broken down in a way that encouraged student inquiry. As I worked through the process of justifying why my lesson was already great, I realized that it wasn’t as fabulous as I had originally thought. Yes, I provided students with some opportunity for inquiry, but I didn’t actually foster an environment of inquiry. I had a set experiment in mind for the students to do without really taking any of their ideas. (In my defense, if I would have waited to plan around their ideas, I wouldn’t have had much to go on because no one really seemed to have any ideas of how we might show a cloud in a jar.) I realized throughout the Decookbooking activity that there is a lot of work that goes into inquiry-based science teaching. We can create the best lesson plans, ones that we think will be extremely hands-on and beneficial for the students to see them play out practically in a way that barely challenges the students. Science teaching is definitely a process of trial and error and constantly revising the way we teach, kind of like the nature of science itself.

In an article written in 2004 by William F. McComas, he describes 9 distinct key elements of the nature of science. One of the elements that this lesson taught my students and myself as a teacher was that science “demands and relies on empirical evidence.” The students learned and explored this element of the nature of science by seeing that the clouds that formed in their own jars were a small scale picture of what happens in the sky above them. It showed them that what we know to be true about clouds is true because scientists have tested the idea multiple times and have always found that clouds are formed after water evaporates and then condenses again in the sky due to the colder air. The students in the club got to be scientists that tested that idea yet another time. I came to better understand this element of the nature of science after teaching in my reflections on the lesson. I realized, after teaching, that what works best might not always be what I think it is going to be. I have to use the evidence of my students to see that what I think is research-based quality instruction might not always be the most effective. This can also be depicted by another element of the nature of science; that science is a “highly creative endeavor” (McComas 2004). As teachers, we have to keep adapting our lesson plans, sometimes in very unique ways in order to get the best kind of instruction for our students. I can will venture to say that although we will have basic lesson plans from year to year, our overall science instruction is going to have to change on a regular basis based on the students in our class and the new research and evidence that is being provided to us over the years.

This assignment actually gave me a very meaningful glimpse into my strategies for teaching. The first thing that I learned was how far in advance I need to prepare for things. I thought I had everything ready to go f or my lesson, only to discover, upon my arrival at the school, that I had forgotten a key component of my experiment that could have shifted the experiment more towards answering student questions.   My intent was to bring a can of aerosol hairspray to spray into the jars so that students could see that the water droplets attach themselves to the “dust” particles of the hairspray to form clouds. It also would have given the students an actual opportunity to see the “clouds” within their jars. I was frustrated that I had forgotten that component and therefore just had to describe that phenomenon to the students. Although the students didn’t seem to mind that I had forgotten the hairspray, I was a little perturbed. However, in retrospect, it worked out that I had forgotten. Yes, I am sad for my students that they didn’t actually get to “see” their clouds, but I learned a very valuable lesson from the experience too. I realized how that activity really could have made my overall lesson more inquiry based. Laura Zangori, in her article Is this Inquiry (2012) talks about varying the level of inquiry based on the level of yours students. Having the hairspray would have helped me to judge if the students were ready for more student directed inquiry or if they still needed teacher direction from me. While I didn’t see how this played out in my “classroom,” I did see how if I taught the lesson again, it would give me insight into answering the question, “What kind of inquiry is my class ready for?”

I think the other thing that both planning my lesson originally and Decookbooking it taught me was the need for consistency. While we were teaching our after school science clubs, we had a variety of pre-service teachers come in each week to teach a lesson to the group. Not only did the students have new teachers each week, they only saw us once per week. Our club met on Friday afternoons, which is a crazy time for kids anyway. Add in the fact that for the first month of our science club we only met twice (every other week) and it was very hard to give the students a successful, comprehensive unit. I doubt that the students that we were teaching remembered everything they learned from week to week and it might have been difficult for them to understand how the unit fit together as a whole. While the idea of a unit on Nebraska weather is a good one for teaching elementary students in Nebraska, it would have made a lot more sense to teach this in a regular classroom setting where we could be working with kids each day and asking them questions about the weather on a regular basis. It was very difficult to help the students retain their learning from lesson to lesson because our lessons were so far apart and different people taught each week. I really think that for kids to really grasp what they are learning and for it to “stick” kids need to have adults invested in their lives as a whole and not just for an hour every few weeks. Students need consistency in order for them to make meaningful gains in learning. I think my time at the after school science club was very well spent, but I would have loved to teach a unit like this one in the context of a regular classroom where I had more control over the environment, but could also give the students more time to explore the given materials and how they relate to the overall weather unit.

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