I’m a second-year teacher at a small elementary school. I was poking around the supply closet and found several unopened science kits. Last year, I did some basic science activities that I did while student teaching, but this year, I’d like to do more. Would these kits be helpful? What do I need to know about them?
—Conrad, South Bend, Indiana
I’m glad you’re expanding your lessons to incorporate more science investigations. 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.
I’d ask your colleagues or department chair what they know about them. And then, go ahead and open the boxes! Take a look at the descriptions and the teacher’s guides and check out information on the publisher’s website. Most kits focus on a theme or topic (e.g., the human body, matter and energy, weather). Determine which topics and lessons align with your curriculum goals. The kits I’m familiar with contain several lessons and are designed to be used as a unit of instruction at specific grade levels (e.g., K-2, 3-5, 6-8).
In addition to a teacher’s guide, the kits should also include student handouts and basic materials the students need for the activities. 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. If the kits are just a collection of materials for demonstrations or replication (sometimes referred to as “cookbook” activities), you’ll need to go beyond showing students how to follow directions and supplement the activities with additional strategies in the processes mentioned above.
The kits should also have assessment suggestions, rubrics, timelines for implementation, suggestions for interdisciplinary connections, and components for reading, writing, and mathematics. Using kits should be an integral part of your science program, not an add-on, so be sure to allow time for all of the activities (anywhere from a few weeks to an entire marking period may be needed). The kits I’m familiar with do not have rigid scripts, so the teacher can adapt the activities to the needs and interests of the students.
When schools purchase kits, there is often an option for teacher training/professional development in using them. But unfortunately, you didn’t have that opportunity. If the publisher has a website, use it to learn more about the topics and the materials. Take advantage of any online forums or Frequently Asked Questions.
I worked with a fourth-grade teacher who used a kit focused on the anatomy and physiology of the human skeletal and muscular systems. When I observed her classes, the students made models of the human arm, using craft sticks and rubber bands. But this wasn’t just an arts-and-crafts replica. The students then used their models to explore the relationship between muscles, bones, and ligaments. When a group asked, “What would happen if the rubber bands were shorter?” the teacher asked what they thought would happen and encouraged them to change their model to see what did happen. As students worked, she distributed (without comment) pictures of animal skeletons. When the students looked at bird and bat wings, the arms of humans and apes, and the legs of frogs, horses, and cats, you could see light bulbs go off over their heads. “Wow, look how these are all alike!” “So that’s what the bones in a Buffalo wing are.” “The bones in our arms and legs are similar.” The teacher did not have to tell the students about homologous structures—the students saw them and came up with their own examples. Several students looked up and learned the names of the bones, even though that was not an essential goal of the unit.
Another consideration is to inventory and replenish any materials in the kit before you store it again. You’ll be all ready for the next time.
This can be a great opportunity to get inquiry science into your classrooms. Just remember: although inquiry-based science often involves hands-on activities, not all hands-on activities are inquiry-based.