We live in a world that is immersed in science. From the trees outside our window to the beating in our chests, and the cars we drive to school to the smartphones in our hands — Science is everywhere. More importantly, however, the principles that underlie scientific thought are critical to cultivating the young minds that will grow into future citizens of our world. Learning how to think like a scientist means asking questions (What is the problem?), constructing a hypothesis (How can I solve it?), testing it with evidence and evaluating the results (Did my solution work?), and then making future decisions based on that result. This is problem-solving at its finest: using critical thinking and evidence to create solutions and make decisions. These skills are essential to conducting oneself in a way that leads to achievement and success during and after school.

Here at Parker, our science students are lucky to experience a program that actively challenges them to use all these skills in every science class they have. Beginning in Kindergarten and continuing through 8th grade, our science curriculum is hands-on, experiential, and integrative. Our science teachers, Leiana Hawkins (K-4th) and John Sherry (5th-8th), craft units that incorporate STEM principles into every lesson. The result is that our students build lifelong skills that allow them to generate ideas, weigh decisions intelligently, and understand the evidence supporting the decisions they make as active and involved citizens in our world.

Here is a look at what our K-8th grade scientists have been studying…
For the past few years, early February has marked the beginning of maple sugaring season for our Parker Kindergarteners. This immersive unit engages our youngest students directly with the world right outside their window, bringing them out into our woods to work with our trees and investigate the changing weather that leads to this early spring phenomenon. Kindergarten students learn to identify sugar maples, tap the trees and collect and preserve the sap. They also study and graph the weather, noting the daytime and evening temperatures, and interpret their data to make predictions about when the sap would flow.  Last week, Leiana and her class prepared and hosted an outdoor bonfire, where they boiled their sap down to create maple syrup. The class is now planning a pancake party to celebrate and enjoy the final DELICIOUS product of all their hard work.
Parker 1-2 scientists, meanwhile, have been hard at work building bird boxes. This unit was designed as a bridge between the classes previous unit on simple machines and their upcoming unit, which will focus on spring changes outdoors. The class expressed a strong interest in using woodworking as a way to test and demonstrate their knowledge, and together honed their focus on studying how screws work as simple machines. With this knowledge, the class worked collaboratively to build three bird boxes. They now plan to use their bird boxes to run a mini-experiment, mounting one near the poles on the playground (where they have previously seen a bluebird nesting), one in the field, and one in the woods. The class will monitor the boxes to see what types of birds nest in each cavity and observe the bird life cycle from egg to hatchling.
As our oldest group of lower school scientists, the 3-4 class took on the ambitious project of designing their own robots these past few weeks. What originally started as a unit on circuits and electricity quickly blossomed when Leiana realized just how very interested her students were in the topic: “Any time they had moments with their tinker kits, they wanted to experiment with different configurations they could try. It was very clear they wanted to do something bigger with their understanding of motors, lights, and wiring.”  The class began their work together as a group of 11, but as various students learned new skills, they each volunteered to take on the role of “expert” for the task they specialized in. Thus, one student became the wire-stripping expert, while another excelled in wiring the LEDs, and so on. What began as teacher-led instruction quickly evolved to smaller group centers, with students able to seek out their peers for assistance any time they got stuck on a particular step. Leiana reflected on the value of this type of learning, saying “Some students were intimidated by taking on a project this big, but it was really an exercise in taking a risk and persevering even when it was frustrating. They spent SO MUCH time troubleshooting, but they also got to experience the joy that you get when you come out on the other side. Their pride was tangible.”
Our students may grow up, but the joy of hands-on scientific discovery doesn’t disappear with age here at Parker. At the middle school level, our students are likewise involved in projects that have them elbow deep in sugar, circuits, and mud. Currently, Parker 5th graders are engaged in a study of microscopes. Students began their unit by learning about and investigating the microscope as a tool, learning how to handle it and what the difference is between focus and magnification. The class then proceeded to make their own slides, taking hikes around the Parker property and gathering materials to make different slides with slide covers. This week, the class moved to the pond, where their studies will take a turn towards life science. In the coming weeks, our 5th graders will study pond life both macroscopic and microscopic, ultimately using their knowledge of microscopes and slide making to assess and test the overall health of our Parker pond.
Like our 3-4 students, Parker 6th and 7th graders are also deeply immersed in a study of electricity. The class began by learning the principles of basic circuitry, and then moved to testing their knowledge by making robots. As John Sherry explains, “The challenge was to be able to put circuits in certain ways that produced effects. A lot of people hear about robots nowadays, and they instantly think “coding”. All that coding really is, however, is a circuit board telling the robot to switch circuits. This project challenged the kids to put the circuits in manually. You could think of it as analog coding. For example, they had to experiment with things like making their robot move in reverse. This involves thinking about how the electrons move through the wires and then installing the wire in reverse, so that when a switch is pressed, the robot backs up instead of going forward.” All of this investigation into circuitry will eventually lead towards our 6th and 7th graders answering a larger question about electricity: How do the batteries that have been powering their robots work? This week, the kids experimented with making simple batteries in jars, that they eventually linked together to power a lightbulb. Going forward, the classes will also make cell batteries out of ice cube trays, all while probing questions about the implications of size, voltage, and conductivity.
Finally, our 8th grade students are literally rocking it with their study of geology. The unit started with an introduction to minerals, which led to an investigation of how crystals are formed. After mixing a super-saturated sugar solution, the 8th graders made their own rock candy, and reveled in the sweet knowledge of how precipitation and evaporation leads to crystallization. Following this, the class moved on to studying different rock types and the rock cycle, learning to differentiate between igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic formations. Inspired by the 5th graders’ work with microscopes, the 8th grade class also explored the differences between igneous and sedimentary rocks on a granular level, noting the differences in crystal sizes when magnified. Going forward, our 8th grade students will move into a study of the geologic timeline, studying layers of rock and using the fossils inside sedimentary rocks to investigate how and when earth was formed.