In Pam Cole’s science classroom at Amelia Earhart Elementary School in Goddard, failure not only is an option, it is welcomed, embraced, respected and revered.
One recent day, as a group of third-graders readied their hand-built gliders for a flight test on “Earhart Island” – a carpeted area marked with masking tape outside Cole’s lab – the teacher reminded them again: “Is it OK if it fails?”
“Yes!” the students responded in unison.
“Who wants to explain why?”
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Chris Baumann raised his hand. “It’s OK, because you can go back and redesign it,” he said.
“Absolutely,” Cole replied. “Could we redesign it 10,000 times if it takes that long?”
“Yes, we could.”
Cole and other science educators are teaching children that it’s OK to take risks, make mistakes and discover together as part of Goddard’s commitment to elementary-level science and Project Lead the Way Launch, a STEM-education program (science, technology, engineering and math) for K-5 students.
“Building confidence at this level – that’s where the magic happens,” Cole said.
“They learn on their own, and they try things and fail, and that all builds. Every single thing adds up in their minds, so when they get to the final project, they go ‘Oh!’ They have that aha moment when it all comes together.”
In the wake of No Child Left Behind, the federal initiative that emphasized reading and math and prompted many schools to scale back on other subjects, Goddard has ramped up science education for its youngest students. Starting in kindergarten, students have 35 minutes of science instruction two to three days a week, the same way they rotate through art, music and physical education.
Project Lead the Way’s activity- and project-based curricula comprise the bulk of classroom content in Goddard and shape the way Cole and other science teachers approach their work.
Kindergartners learn about the structure, function and durability of different building materials with a lesson on the Three Little Pigs. First-graders, after learning the properties of light and sound, are given a theoretical problem to solve.
“They’re lost in the forest and have to communicate over a distance to get help,” Cole said. “So I give them so many materials and just let them go – no help from me.”
One youngster fashioned a mirror he could hang from a tree to reflect light and send an SOS.
“We’ve squelched creativity with kids,” Cole said. “That creativity, figuring things out, it’s bringing back a curiosity, too. … If we’re going to get kids interested in science and math, it’s not going to be in the later grades, when we throw the rigor and the critical thinking at them.
“The younger you start them with the excitement and the curiosity vs. saying, ‘No, don’t do that’ – that’s how we’re going to sell more kids on STEM.”
The younger you start them with the excitement and the curiosity vs. saying, ‘No, don’t do that’ – that’s how we’re going to sell more kids on STEM.
Pam Cole, Goddard science teacher
Last fall, Cole was awarded a $3,000 grant from the Westar Energy Foundation, which financed two dozen K’NEX solar energy kits and wind and water kits, as well as supplies to build wind turbines and measure their output.
Another $3,000 grant from Waste Connections will pay for the school’s Green Week this spring, when students will hold campuswide recycling efforts, examine ways to reduce energy and food waste, recycle used markers and host a book trade-in program.
Cole’s commitment to science education – in particular, encouraging girls to explore STEM-related fields – also earned her recognition from Kansas Strong, the nonprofit arm of the Kansas Oil and Gas Resources Fund, which named her its K-2 Drillers Teacher of the Year.
“I don’t ever want people to think I don’t teach to the boys, too, but this is where the girls are really going to develop a love for it,” she said.
“Research shows they’re good at communicating, they’re good at collaborating, they’re good at being creative, they’re good at leading. So look at this environment.”
She motioned around her classroom-turned-science-lab, where fourth-graders worked in small groups to build replica bicycles for a lesson on human and mechanical energy. Students used iPads, Vex robotics kits and old-fashioned trial and error to piece together the bikes.
“They’re doing all four of those things, and they’re learning to love science,” Cole said.
Fourth-graders Anna Peery and Jett Schwartz sifted through their bucket for just the right pieces. Andrew Azzarito whistled as he snapped his bicycle together.
“My passions are building, science and dinosaurs,” said Andrew, who wants to go to college and study archaeology or paleontology. “And I love Legos, so this is like the next step.”
Anna said she wants to be a chemist, at least in part because she loves science.
“If we didn’t have science, we wouldn’t have phones, Newton’s three laws, aircraft, clocks, cameras, computers, television or weather channels,” she said. “Science and technology are important.”
Cole said she hopes the end of No Child Left Behind and a recent shift away from standardized-test-focused curricula will allow more Kansas elementary schools to ramp up science education in younger grades.
“We have so much emphasis right now in math and reading, we’re leaving out some very important things as far as kids’ education,” she said.
“When it gets rigorous, when it gets tough in high school, they need to already have that basis of ‘I know how much fun this was, and I know what I can do.’ ”