Lighting up elementary school science with ‘lab before the blab’

BY Rebecca Jacobson  November 20, 2013 at 3:58 PM EST

Elementary school science students in Leigh Ann Anderson’s classes skip the textbooks and get straight to the experiments.

Four fourth graders huddle over short magnetic wires attached to the top and bottom of a DD battery. Bits of tin foil and sketches for a simple electrical circuit are scattered across their desks. One boy taps the wires against the tiny light bulb his classmate is holding. After several tries, he sees the bulb light up.

“Oh my God, it’s working!”

Throughout the room children squeal for joy, laughing and high-fiving each other as their light bulbs glow. This fourth grade science classroom at Barnhart Elementary School in St. Charles, Md., usually sounds like chaos, said their teacher Leigh Ann Anderson. This is due in large part to her teaching style. She skips the textbooks and goes straight to the hands-on experiment.

“In order to learn science, you have to do it,” she said. “Basically what we do in my room is all about having fun and learning by doing.”

Textbooks aren’t a requirement for elementary school in her district, so Anderson’s fourth and fifth grade classes get “the lab before the blab.” On a recent fall afternoon, she handed her fourth graders a DD battery, tin foil, wires and light bulbs.

“Your job is to use these to make your light bulb light,” she tells her students. They draw their predictions for a system that will make the bulb glow.

Some students try covering the batteries with foil, and others twist the foil into rudimentary wires. As the light bulbs start flickering, the batteries start heating up. Anderson stops the class for a few minutes and asks for their observations.

“We do the lab before the blab,” she said. “And a lot of times teachers will stand there and say okay, this is what you’re going to do, this is how you’re going to do it, and this is what’s going to happen. Well then, what’s the point of doing it? You’ve already told us everything.”

The class chatters and realizes that the metal is conducting energy in a loop, up through the battery, into the bulb and back to the bottom of the battery. So they try making a circuit with other metallic objects in the room — the aluminum ends on pencils, bracelets, even the table leg.

Later in the school year, the fourth graders will use what they’re learning about electricity to make a flashlight.

Anderson’s fifth grade class is after a different study in physics: force and motion. Their assignment is to launch a tiny rubber cat one meter using a plastic catapult. Their goal is to understand motion by manipulating the catapult’s force and trajectory, and math as they record their test flights and calculate average distance.

Flinging the cats across the room is fun, but they are learning important skills about the scientific method as they make connections between the settings on the catapult and the data they collect, Anderson said. And getting to the meter mark is a triumph for them. They shout, laugh and fist bump each other when their cat lands at the end of their meter stick.

“It’s fun getting the kids excited about science and about learning,” she said. “They think they’re just playing. They’ll say ‘what are we going to do today? Are we going to have fun?’”

Those joyful reactions are what Anderson is looking for in her students. By having fun and finding the answers through experiments, the students will be more open to taking science, engineering and math classes in the future, she said — something that is crucial for the country’s future.

“STEM education is probably one of the most important things in education right now,” Anderson said. “Obviously not every kid is going to be a scientist, but if something sparks in their mind and they say ‘I want to do this,’ I think we’ll be better off.”

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