Teaching Our Students to Love Science

Written by Christie Reed, Science Department Chair, Becky Lewis, Lower School Science Teacher and Maggie Epstein, Middle School Science Teacher. 

Winnie, our School mascot, is missing! Where did she go and who took her? As the 5th graders entered their Science class, this was the crime scene they faced. It was up to them to figure out what had happened, and they were going to use their newly gained knowledge of the microscope and their well-trained observational skills to do so. Piecing together bits of information provided, along with various microscope slides containing evidence, the students went about solving the disastrous crime. After all, a pep rally is no pep rally without our mascot! When science class is this engaging, who wouldn’t love it?

As teachers at Baldwin, we have the privilege of being able to craft our classes, tailoring what we are doing according to student interests, current events and new discoveries. Our classrooms are our creative space, a place where we can try new things while introducing the girls to the world of discovery, a place where one teacher noted, “We can make science zany.” In Lower School, for example, a student may learn about the parts of a flower inadvertently while engineering a way to pollinate flowers if there are not enough bees. Or in Middle School, a student learning about density may be asked to take advantage of a snowy day to collect some snow from outside to then determine if there is a difference between the density of snow and the density of water. Or in Upper School, a student may be called upon to determine if gene therapy in a fetus is the best course of action for a genetic condition after having diagnosed the mutation with her knowledge of protein synthesis, research on the condition and a determination of its severity. As teachers at Baldwin, we can differentiate to the needs of our classes.  If students want to take a deep dive into how technology is being created to help patients with Parkinson’s disease by performing a neural micro-stimulation experiment on cockroaches, we are able to indulge those curiosities. We are not limited by the constraints of a national standard and we often exceed those guided standards.

Beginning in Pre-Kindergarten our Lower School science program has a dedicated science teacher and a separate science classroom. Science is not something “extra” or being taught by a teacher who is unfamiliar with and uncomfortable teaching science material. The goals of Lower School science are exposure, immersion and engagement. Science is presented in a meaningful tangible way for our littlest scientists. Our girls become scientists, using real science equipment and engaging in science experiments.  The girls are encouraged to find science “cool,” and even the teacher keeps them guessing each day with a science outfit that often relates to the topic for one of the science classes. On an average day, students might be attempting to prove that Snow White’s mishaps were not because of a poison apple, but instead a gluten allergy,  predicting phenotypes in live zebrafish, engaging in a live surgery with surgeons or writing an infomercial trying to sell metamorphic rock.

Middle School and Upper School classes are all taught by subject specialists who are experts in Physics, Biology, Chemistry or Environmental Science. Skills are emphasized while content is explored with experiences and problem solving. For example, when a particular 8th grade class showed a concern for the number of un-recycled water bottles left on school grounds, it led to an entire shift within the unit toward the chemistry of water quality and plastics. These girls saw the science classroom as a place to find answers, and they saw themselves as the ones to figure out a solution. They designed experiments to test the water for common pollutants and even for taste. They planned control groups and shared their data. The middle school years are often when confidence wanes, replaced by the burden of wanting to fit in while still discovering what that even means. These 8th graders showed real risk-taking and were empowered by the results. The structure of middle school science is predictable – the tools, the labs … but the built-in spontaneity of not having the answers (or even the questions) constantly fed to them encourages girls to see science as the exciting, evolving discipline it is. When a middle schooler sees herself as a scientist, she can feel more confident tackling any problem. This approach continues in Upper School where our ultimate goal is to educate science literate critical thinkers who are not afraid to solve any problem in whatever their future fields of endeavor. Learning opportunities are everywhere and are seized upon to keep science exciting, engaging and relevant. For example, the Physics teacher recently asked his students how their driving was on the snowy, icy roads after a few snow days in order to introduce his discussion about static and kinetic friction, and the Biology classes used the recent cloning of a monkey to begin their discussion on DNA.

From the moment our students begin their science journey in our pre-Kindergarten, to the capstone advanced elective courses they take in senior year, we work to excite, empower and instill a love of learning and questioning in our girls. They believe there is nothing they cannot do, and if they ever meet a challenge that seems too big or too overwhelming to solve, they gather their best problem-solving tools and go about figuring it out anyway. Risk-taking is the norm, and throughout their work in science at Baldwin, the students quickly see that the wrong answer is often more celebrated than the right answer! After all, the best learning occurs after mistakes are made. How great to turn a misunderstood concept or an incorrectly solved problem into an opportunity to discuss why that is not necessarily the answer. Students are encouraged to speak out and to think through a solution verbally as they work through their own understanding. Guided questions from the teacher, contributions from classmates and thinking out loud allow the girls to work through their understanding in a way that gives them the confidence to be a leader in their own learning. The message to our girls is loud and clear: trust yourself. The worst thing that can happen is that you are wrong and learn from your mistakes! This is one of the most powerful benefits of an all-girls’ education—the girls are not afraid to speak up loudly and confidently, whether they know the answers or not! There is no one to impress, and learning is the most important thing in the classroom.