First, some background. Allendale Elementary serves 475 students pre-K through grade 5. According to their website, their student body is quite diverse: 37% African-American, 33% Latino, 12% Asian, 4% White, 1% Pacific Islander, 7% Other. 80% of the students at Allendale receive free or reduced-price lunch, and 42% are English-language learners.
Allendale has contracted an organization called Higher Ground to run their after school program. About a third of the kids that attend Allendale receive some after school programming on school grounds through this organization. The 2011-2012 school year was the first year that Higher Ground offered science in their program. I really like the way that the organization frames after school science on their website:
Teaching science to our after school program students is not only a way for us to support Oakland Unified's District Goals but it also allows for students to engage in fun activities that gives them a chance to ask questions, explore curiosity, make career connections, work cooperatively and reflect and change ideas... Students are learning that science is all around us and not just in a laboratory.
Have you ever built a tower out of gumdrops and toothpicks? This was the challenge the Higher Ground facilitator Adam put before his group of kids on the day of our visit.
Higher Ground's science curriculum comes from Coalition member organization Techbridge, which is also based in Oakland. Unfortunately, a high quality curriculum doesn't always get translated to students through a high quality experience. I was delighted to watch Adam, a skilled facilitator, lead the gumdrop engineering activity with modifications to suit the needs of the kids in his group.
Adam started out with a clear plan written on the white board and defined the key word that he wanted the kids to explore: compression. He explained that they would work in pairs or threes to construct a tower out out of gumdrops and toothpicks that could withstand some compression.
The kids first drew plans for their structures, and then they collected their materials. But before they began to build, Adam had two volunteers construct shapes for the class to compare: a cube and a pyramid. He pressed down on each shape and the kids described what they saw - the pyramid could handle more compression. Now the kids were free to start engineering.
An expert facilitator knows how to break down an activity into steps, slowing down the process to encourage reflection in action and discussion amongst group members. But there must also be a sense of freedom and expansiveness that balances the structure of an activity like this. In high quality after school science, creativity, exploration and experimentation thrive when there are clear definitions and expectations, but not so many rules that it stifles original thinking.
The kids had 15 minutes to build in small groups. Adam visited each group and talked to them about their designs, never telling them what to do specifically, but reminding them of what the challenge was and helping them talk out their ideas and problems.
Here is a snapshot of what high quality after school science looks like to me. A student presses down on his group's building with his hand, testing the strength of their construction under some compression. He's thinking ahead, improvising with materials, testing a hypothesis, talking about his observations and proposing a plan of action with his group members. The environment is free enough for him to take control of his exploration, but it's focused enough to motivate him to stay on track with the challenge.
In case you're curious, we didn't see anyone eating the challenge materials!
After 15 minutes, Adam had the groups stop building. Each group talked about their structure and tested it to see where it was strongest and weakest under compression. It is always wonderful to see the wide range of designs that are possible with such limited materials. Adam also pointed out some innovations that the kids made - some kids doubled up on toothpicks between certain spots, while others snapped toothpicks in half in an attempt to resist compression.
After getting more ideas from this share back, the groups had 10 more minutes to refine their designs. At the final share, the kids talked about what they changed and why. Adam concluded the activity with a few words about the kind of work that engineers do. "Did anybody like building these structures today?" he asked. All of the hands in the room went up. "Then maybe someday you'd like to be an engineer and build houses or bridges." These kinds of career oriented comments are critical for kids to hear in after school science programs, because otherwise they may not make the connection between the activity they just did and the idea that they could use those skills someday in a job that they might really enjoy.
- A highly trained facilitator who knows his kids and can modify curriculum as needed,
- An activity with clear goals that struck a balance between feeling structured and free,
- Kids collaborating in groups,
- Many 'right' answers,
- Kids internally motivated to explore, create, test & try,
- Lots of sharing of ideas and time built in to revise work,
- Connections to STEM careers.
What do you think is important in a high quality after school science program? Tell us and we might feature your story on our blog!