Keeping Science in the Curriculum

Tucked into a tiny backpack is everything they need to explore the scientific method.

Fifth-graders at Westwood Elementary School can take home a backpack with a rubber band and toy car to build a sling shot and learn about Newton’s Second Law of Motion. A backpack with a roll of masking tape and directions to do tasks with their thumbs taped to their hands teaches them about the biology of opposable thumbs. A paper frog folded to jump teaches them about kinetic energy.

For seven years, fifth-graders have been taking science backpacks home as their main science curriculum for that school year. Each backpack is stuffed with everything they will need to complete a science project or do a science experiment. Worksheets and questionnaires that they turn in about each backpack project makes up most of their science grade.

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Fifth-grade teachers at Westwood do not have the classroom time for comprehensive science classes due to a focus on social studies, reading, writing and math, said Teresa Gross, fifth-grade teacher at Westwood Elementary School.

The Indiana Department of Education still has learning goals for science in fifth grade, such as learning about the scientific method and about basic science such as motion and force. And science teachers at Westwood believe that teaching science is an invaluable resource for teaching students about working together and critical thinking that students could not afford to miss, teachers said.

“Yes we need to prepare them for the test, but, we need to prepare them for the future,” Gross said.

The concept of the take home backpack of science was born.

“We were trying to think of a way to get more science in the curriculum,” she said. “I was trying to figure out how to get more science in the limited time I have.”

Backpacks come in three sets of 30, with each of the school’s three classes having 30 science backpacks they can explore.

Students are required to take the bag home about five times each grading period. Students have five days to work on the experiment at home and then turn in the accompanying worksheets about what they learn. Bags have all the materials they need to do an experiment and range from testing which rubber ball has the highest bounce and making aluminum foil boats.

“It’s a wide variety,” Gross said.

The only other science fifth-graders get at Westwood Elementary School is a STEM lab for an hour and a half each week. Most of those lessons are based on engineering principles, said Alicia Mumma, a fifth-grade teacher at Westwood.

The teachers try to weave science into writing and reading when they can. Fifth-graders at Westwood do not have science textbooks.

Students need more, teacher Cody Honeycutt said.

The bags became ingrained in the Westwood science curriculum about seven years ago when Gross and other teachers wrote a Lilly grant for $500 that would purchase the bags and supplies.

Annual PTO grants of $50 to $100 help replace the supplies, such as Ziplock baggies, masking tape and paper.

Part of the design of the bags is to encourage families to take part in the experiments as well, Gross said.

Teachers hope that parents will help their students with the experiments and will be inspired to look up more science they can do at home and to make completing a bag assignment a family activity, she said.

And students appreciate the chance to be able to do something hands on, versus reading a science textbook and doing an assignment over a reading, fifth-grader Brock Owens said.

“If I do something, I get it better than just reading an article or something,” he said. “You actually get to do it and not just read about it.”