Hands-on pays off for young scientists

Second of two parts

The question was, would it work?

Marie Plesniak, Carly Gobbie and Carlyse Coleman had teamed up to do a science project in Dana Sellaro's fifth grade class at South Allegheny Elementary School in Port Vue. And now it was time to see if the car they had built and loaded up with wooden blocks would travel an 80-centimeter course in 4 to 6 seconds.

A string attached to the front end of the K'Nex block car dangled over school desks that had been pushed together, and Carly had carefully placed metal washers over a paper clip at the end of the string.

"Three, two, one," the girls shouted. Carlyse let go of the car and started the stopwatch, all under the teacher's eagle eye.

"OK, what'd you get?" Ms. Sellaro asked. "Four seconds and 43 milliseconds," Carlyse said. "We did it!"

In Ms. Sellaro's class, all science is taught this way, with the students working in teams to make objects and test theories by observation and trial-and-error.

South Allegheny, along with 179 other school districts in Pennsylvania, is able to carry out this kind of hands-on, inquiry-based science education because of an organization called ASSET Inc.

The nonprofit, which stands for Achieving Student Success through Excellence in Teaching, not only develops the science lesson plans for kindergarten through eighth grade in their member schools, but trains the teachers in each unit and assembles and ships the supplies.


The South Side-based organization, which gets its money from user fees and state and federal grants, is part of a growing push around the nation to change the way younger students learn science, in hopes of reversing the disappointing science test scores that American children often turn in.

At this point, said ASSET program director Cynthia Pulkowski, about a quarter of the nation's elementary schools are using some type of hands-on science teaching program.

The goal is not only to help children learn science, but learn it in a way that sticks with them. As far as Carly and Carlyse are concerned, it's working.

"I like this way of learning science because it's more freedom," Carly said, measuring her words carefully. "It's not like 'Open your textbooks to page whatever.' You get to learn it by yourself, and just keep trying."

"Yeah," Carlyse said. "You don't have to just sit there and be bored while Miss Sellaro writes a million words on the board and you're staring off into space. You can build stuff and do experiments."

ASSET's staff believes that kind of enthusiasm is critical to prevent the dropoff in science knowledge that often occurs after the elementary school years.

"If you get students prior to the age of 11 with science and math classes, and you give them really good-quality content and deliver it in a hands-on, inquiry-based manner, then they are going to be much more likely to be successful in middle school and high school," said Helen Sobehart, ASSET executive director.

A study commissioned by ASSET showed that in the 2007-08 and 2008-09 school years, children in ASSET science classes scored 23 points higher on the state science tests than children in comparable school districts that used more traditional teaching methods.

The ASSET approach addresses two other issues that science education experts cite as roadblocks to better learning -- inadequate teacher preparation and lack of good equipment and supplies.

The program trains every teacher who uses its lessons, and then it supplies all the materials for them in translucent plastic bins that are returned and restocked at ASSET's 33,000-square-foot warehouse.

For Dana Sellaro, the ASSET support has been invaluable.

"I can't remember too many of the science classes I took when I was in college," she said.

"I took a physics class and a biology class and a life sciences class, and all of them were lecture classes, taking notes and taking tests. It didn't teach me about teaching science."

As she has become familiar with the ASSET lessons, she now understands the scientific concepts better and can answer students' questions more confidently.

"With this approach," she said, "the students are doing the majority of the thinking and the teacher is doing more of the guiding. I believe they learn more in-depth this way. They can apply it to real-world situations and so they understand it a lot better."

There is one other important aspect of ASSET learning -- failure is part of the process.

At the end of her class, Ms. Sellaro asked her students if all their teams had successfully met the time limit in their last tests. No, they said.

"So just because they didn't do it that one time we tested -- does that mean they didn't meet their challenge?" she asked. "When we're in science, do we just test things one time?

"No. Because sometimes things will work and sometimes they won't, but every time, we have to learn from it."

Mark Roth: mroth@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1130. First Published March 21, 2011 4:00 AM


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