I’ve been asked to chair a committee to look into using science “kits” for our elementary classes. We’re interested in this, but where do we start?
—Mariana, Manchester, New Hampshire
Science kits are published by many companies and individuals and address a variety of topics. They can be helpful for teachers who do not have a lot of background experience in science topics – either in the content itself or in designing and implementing inquiry-based activities. They can also be expensive. You’ll want to ask several questions:
- What do you hope to accomplish by using the kits? Is your school/district trying to get inquiry into elementary classes, to provide a complete set of materials and resources for studying a topic, or to ensure that all students have common experiences? Kits can provide these, but if you already are implementing a strong, inquiry-based curriculum, the kits may not be necessary.
- How do the kit topics align with your state standards and local curriculum? Using kits should be an integral part of your science program, not an add-on. Many also are designed to be appropriate at specific grade levels (e.g., K-2, 3-5, 6-8).
- What are the credentials of the publisher and the history of the publisher in developing and supporting the kits?
- What research does the publisher have to show the effectiveness of their particular kits?
- Do the kits provide background information and opportunities and resources for the inquiry process? The activities should promote processes such as observing, questioning, hypothesizing, predicting, investigating (including planning, conducting, measuring, gathering data, controlling variables, interpreting, and drawing conclusions), and communicating. Evaluate them carefully; some kits are just a collection of materials for demonstrations and/or replication activities.
- How will you implement the kits? I recommend providing the professional development offered by the publisher, even if it adds to the cost of the kits.
- Will it stifle creativity? I asked a colleague (one of the best elementary science teachers I know) about the kits in his school. He appreciates them for the way they guide teachers through the processes and provide the materials. He noted the ones they used were not tightly scripted so teachers had room to incorporate their own experiences and go beyond the basics if they felt comfortable doing so.
- Will you be able to cover the same amount of material? My colleague noted that the kits take time to implement fully, and therefore teachers may not “cover” as many topics as they did without them. However, he noted the kits provided opportunities for students to develop skills in the processes of science (a focus of many state standards as well as the National Science Education Standards). So you may wind up “covering” more about these processes.
There are some practical considerations, too. Where will the boxes be stored? Will the same kits be used by more than one class during the year? If so, what rotating schedule will you have? Who will be responsible for ensuring that all materials are in place for the next class? How will you budget for replacing consumables? Some kits sell replacement materials, but this can be expensive. Some teachers get funds from the school/district and have fun scouting local discount stores for the materials.
This can be a great opportunity to get inquiry science into your classrooms. Just remember that although inquiry-based science often involves hands-on activities, not all hands-on activities are inquiry-based. Good luck in your efforts and keep us posted!