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Columbia Missourian

Experimenting with education

By BRIAN MCCAULEY
October 30, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST

Columbia educators peak students’ interests with hands-on activities

The eyes of 15 boys are glued to film canisters filled with water and Alka-Seltzer tablets. Suddenly, the canisters shoot to the ceiling, spraying water as they fall. Science specialist Gregory Kirchhofer shouts over the screams of joy, “maybe we should take this experiment outside.”

This was the scene at the second meeting of the Mill Creek Science Club for fifth-graders, which, because of the large roster, meets at 7:30 a.m. every Monday for boys and on Tuesdays for girls. Kirchhofer gives the students hands-on learning opportunities each week to get them interested in science.

Hands-on learning

Sandra Abell, an MU professor of science education and director of the Southwestern Bell Science Education Center, believes the hands-on learning technique is the best way to teach students science.

“Everything we know about learning tells us that people need to have real experiences with phenomenon in order to understand the ideas and data that result from them,” Abell said.

After the students shot off their rockets, they recorded their results in notebooks and created educated guesses about why the Alka-Seltzer created the reaction.

“My main goal is to get the kids interested in science by doing something active. I then ask them questions and have them record their results in their notebooks so that they start thinking about the process,” Kirchhofer said.

Kirchhofer is one of 11 science specialists within Columbia elementary schools. The specialists focus exclusively on the science curriculum and teach fourth- and fifth-grade students. Many of the specialists teach at multiple schools so that every Columbia elementary school has a science specialist available for its students.

Laura Zinszer, science specialist at Blue Ridge Elementary School, is proud of the multiple hands-on learning opportunities offered by the science specialist program.

Columbia School District does an awesome job at every level teaching science in a hands-on way,” Zinszer said. “I teach at Blue Ridge, but I travel to Field Elementary and Ridgeway Elementary, and I try to give them all an opportunity to explore science outside the regular curriculum.”

According to Abell, hands-on learning should not just be limited to science classes.

“This type of learning makes sense for the general classroom, too,” Abell said. “Nobody would argue with the idea that in all areas of studies students need to be actively learning. It’s just a good teaching technique.”

Making learning about science fun

Kirchhofer’s approach appears to be working.

“Mr. K is funny,” Matthew Kelly said. “He’s a good teacher and he’s pretty nice. I’m glad he started this club because it is really cool. I know we are learning because we always know a lot more in our science classes now.”

According to Abell, one of the biggest advantages to hands-on learning is the excitement it creates for the student.

“The biggest benefit is related to motivation,” Abell said. “Kids who are engaged in these hands-on programs have higher scientific achievement and better attitudes toward science.”

Omar Taranisi, 10, credits his positive view of science to Kirchhofer’s teaching approach.

“I like science because Mr. K has a lot of interesting stuff,” Omar said.

Fifth-grader Ryan Kleiner agrees that the most important aspect of hands-on learning is letting kids have fun while they learn.

“My favorite part is blowing stuff up,” Ryan said.

Club interest continues to increase

Kirchhofer started the club five years ago and is already experiencing an increase in the students’ interest.

“The club has become so popular that I now require the students to make a written interview describing why they want to be in the club and what science topics they are interested in,” Kirchhofer said. “This has narrowed the club down to only the students who really want to be there, and that makes it fun.”

Zinszer has experienced a similar increase in the popularity of her science club.

“I started the science club 10 years ago, and now I have so many students that want to join I have to split the club into boys and girls,” Zinszer said. “The club is open to every fifth-grade student who meets the behavior expectations, and currently I have over 50 kids.”

Abell believes that the long-term effects of this active learning in elementary school will be beneficial for these students.

“The more these kids learn and understand about science, the better they will be in whatever field they choose to pursue,” Abell said. “Logical thinking is a universal job skill.”