New elementary science program helps students explore the world around them

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All across Westerville elementary schools, students are diving into their science lessons by exploring a variety of questions: How do you find animals in the woods? Where do clouds come from? Why did the dinosaurs go extinct?

This year, the district introduced new science learning materials for grades K-5 that teaches students how to apply their class lessons to solve problems, helping them better understand the world around them through writing, discussions and exploration. 

The Mystery Science curriculum includes materials, hands-on activities and videos that help teachers facilitate lessons and support students build a critical skill — the ability to figure things out for themselves. 

“The way that they think is going to be broader and bigger than what we did before,” said Beth O’Reilly, a third-grade teacher at Wilder Elementary.

This week, her students are studying the life cycle of mosquitoes. Previously, O’Reilly would have covered the stages of the insect’s life cycle — egg, larva, pupa and adult.

But through the Mystery Science curriculum, students are exploring where mosquitoes can be found, what they need to survive and how they impact an environment. To deepen their understanding of the insect’s life cycle, students have to help the fictional town of Pondville deal with an abundance of mosquitoes. Students are reviewing statements from experts and devising ideas that will help the town control its mosquito population.

“They understood the stages of the life cycle but not to apply it to a problem and that to me is so much bigger,” O’Reilly said. “And that’s what is going to lead us into our jobs and professions for later.”

It’s been years since the district adapted its elementary science curriculum and officials sought materials that aligned not only with Ohio’s learning standards but the national Next Generation Science Standards as well. 

The national science standards call for a three-dimensional approach to K–12 science instruction, identifying scientific and engineering practices, crosscutting concepts and core ideas in science that all students should master to be successful in college and careers. 

A team of teachers tested three different science programs that aligned with the national science standards last year and found overwhelming support for Mystery Science from students. 

“When our teachers first tried the materials for Mystery Science, the student engagement in lessons was amazing,” said Heather Griffith, a district math and science curriculum specialist for elementary schools. 

“In elementary school, it’s hard to be an expert in every subject. Mystery Science’s easy prep and motivating videos that allow kids to build, talk and write help to guide learning so teachers can focus on supporting students throughout the lesson.” 

Mystery Science takes sometimes complex questions that kids ask and helps them to explore and discover answers on their own, she said. 

“The lessons help orient students to the world around them and then explain topics in layers so students who want to delve further can continue that learning on their own,” Griffith said. 

In its first year of implementation, the Mystery Science program has gotten rave reviews across the district.  

“The kids really love it,” said Whitney Pyke, a first-grade teacher at Robert Frost Elementary. “They are excited and very engaged in what we’re doing and excited to learn about science.”

During a recent lesson on plant life, Pyke’s students applied what they learned about the shape and structure of a tree, its branches and leaves to design an umbrella that could withstand gusts of wind. They used pipe cleaners, plastic straws, Playdough and a cup to create their base and cut out the tops of their umbrellas from paper. Pyke tested students’ designs by simulating gusts of wind by waving a fan at their umbrellas.

After their structures continued to get knocked down by the wind, students revamped their designs — this time using what they learned about plants and trees and how they remained standing amid heavy winds.

“They love being able to do hands-on activities and explore,” Pyke said. “It’s applying that knowledge that they gained from the lessons they learned.”

Fifth-graders in Danny Williams’ class at Hawthorne Elementary recently wrapped up their unit on the water cycle and earth systems by exploring the impact of hurricanes and storms on land. 

As part of the lesson, students served as structural, environmental, seawall and levee engineers to help the fictional town of Beachtown protect their buildings from being flooded on the eve of an impending storm. 

For fifth-grader Aubrie Clark, the activity reminded her of a visit to Florida shortly after Hurricane Ian struck in September. She recalled seeing the aftermath of the storm, including the buildings that were destroyed and a boat that had sunk behind the place she and her family stayed at during their visit.

She was surprised to learn about levees, seawalls and other resources that could help minimize flooding. 

“This will stick with me because it’s crazy what hurricanes can do to places,” she said. 

Fifth-grader Zachary Raki has explored the subjects he’s learned throughout his science lessons on his own.

“I read some weather books and happened to come across hurricanes and tornadoes,” he said. “They seemed pretty cool and exciting.” 

When his science lessons covered dinosaurs earlier in the year — what they ate, what caused them to go extinct, what their life span looked like, what ate them — Raki wanted to know more. He picked up books on dinosaurs, learning about Tyrannosaurus rexes, velociraptors and the Spinosaurus.  

Meanwhile, fifth-grader Kaeden Freeman has marveled over the hands-on experiments he’s conducted in class. During the water cycle unit, he and his peers created a tiny ocean by mixing salt and water, weighed it and observed what happened after the liquid evaporated. They experimented with warm and cold water, which represented the air and the ocean. Freeman saw first hand what combination would create the most condensation/precipitation and would help fill up the aquifers. 

“I love science,” he said. “I like how it pushes me to be my best and to be smarter every day.”