Columbia Explorers Academy Credit: Jason Reblando

A couple of years ago, hardly anyone at Columbia Explorers Academy enjoyed science, not even the teachers.

“I was having them memorize facts. There were no experiments,” says 8th-grade teacher Andrew Cosme, who like most of his colleagues, followed a standard science textbook. “The kids were bored out of their minds.”

Fourth-grade teacher Maria Janik agrees, adding, “If the teacher is bored, the students aren’t interested either.”

But all that has changed at the Brighton Park school since fall 2003. That’s when Columbia Explorers and 20 other schools piloted a hands-on science program in one classroom per grade level as part of the Chicago Math and Science Initiative (CMSI), the district’s math and science initiative.

Already state science test scores have shown some growth, and teachers anticipate bigger gains in coming years now that the program has gone school-wide. “Kids get more out of it,” says 6th-grade teacher Joanna Navarro. “It’s fun for the teacher and the kids.”

Chicago Public Schools is encouraging all elementary schools to adopt the program. Pilot schools, like Columbia Explorers, got a financial break that other schools won’t. CPS paid for teachers’ training and contributed about $10,000 to help pay for materials. Most pilot schools also got a science coordinator to assist teachers for two years.

Even with CPS’ help, Columbia still had to come up with approximately $80,000 to buy curricular materials, which were developed with support from the prestigious National Science Foundation by the University of California at Berkeley and the National Sciences Resource Center based in Washington, D.C.

Teachers say the steep price tag has been worth it because the high-quality material and equipment—including plenty of lab gear and live specimens—help students become more engaged with lessons and gain a deeper understanding of science concepts. Principal Jose Barrera agrees, noting that hands-on activities are the key to engaging students with science.

Active learning sets curriculum apart

On a Wednesday morning in late September, excited whispers break across Mary Pagan’s 1st-grade classroom. From under a fluorescent lamp on a counter, Pagan removes clear plastic cups of soil with sprouts of green. One by one, the children come forward eagerly to claim them.

Twelve days ago, each child planted two brassica seeds. Examining her sprout, 6-year-old Vanessa Cameron discovers six tiny white buds. “Mine has flowers! It has flowers!” she exclaims, holding out the cup to a friend. After counting off the buds with the tip of her pencil, she adds them to her sketch on an observation sheet.

In addition to drawing their plants, the 1st-graders are expected to measure their height and record observations, just like real scientists. Science coordinator Raul Bermejo, who occasionally co-teaches a lesson with Pagan, prints three fill-in-the-blank sentences on the chalkboard for the students—who are just beginning to read and write—to copy and complete, such as “My plant is____ in color.”

Even with coaching from Bermejo and Pagan, only about half of the 32 children complete three sentences. By the end of last year, 1st-graders composed their own lab reports with little assistance, according to Bermejo.

In two weeks, Pagan will read them a story titled “What Do Plants Need?” from a non-fiction book of ‘science stories’ that is included with all lesson units in grades 1 through 5. Today, Bermejo prepares kids in advance by helping them recall the parts of plants and what they need to grow.

But it’s the hands-on activities that drive the curriculum and set it apart. “If you tell the kids too much, they’re not thinking for themselves,” 4th-grade teacher Janik explains. “It’s those experiences that they have for themselves that they’re going to remember.”

On an afternoon in late September, Janik’s 4th-graders experience fuzzy grey “owl pellets” for themselves, working in pairs to record their size, shape and texture before carefully breaking the pellets in half.

“They look like bones,” says Stephanie Cisneros, a slight, serious girl, to her equally intent partner Juan Mendez. She holds out the pellet’s two halves; each child takes one, scrapes it gently with a toothpick and compares it to a chart of a rodent skeleton depicting 14 pictures of individual bones.

Within minutes, Stephanie has discovered her first skull, much to the envy of Sebastian Bellatin and Vanessa Ramirez, another pair seated in the same desk cluster.

Soon Vanessa makes a discovery of her own. “Look at how tiny the phalanges are!” she exclaims to Sebastian, pointing to a tiny foot bone.

Tomorrow, students will glue the bones they find into completed skeletons on construction paper, and explain in writing how the rodent bones compare to a chart of the human skeleton, which is somewhat similar. They will also discuss how bones differ in shape depending on their location and function in the body. Two days later, they will read a story explaining how owls swallow their rodent prey whole, then regurgitate bones and fur after the other parts have been digested. (Pellets are sterilized for classroom use.)

“I don’t get what is an owl pellet,” Sebastian remarks at one point during Wednesday’s lesson as Janik pauses by his desk. You will by the time the unit is over, she assures him.

Understanding the scientific process

At all grade levels, CMSI units teach students scientific inquiry skills, such as collecting data and recording observations, which is one of the state science goals. The CMSI program is also structured to expose students in kindergarten through 5th grade to each of the content areas required by the state: earth and space science; life science; and the physical sciences, which include both physics and chemistry. Starting in 6th grade, students concentrate mainly on one content area per year: earth science in 6th grade, life science in 7th grade and physical science in 8th grade.

By the middle-grades, scientific inquiry becomes more complex as students learn all the rules of scientific protocol, such as keeping all variables constant except the one being tested. Data analysis also requires a deeper understanding of charts and statistics, as an activity in Valerie Kirkolis’s 7th-grade class illustrates.

In Columbia’s courtyard, pairs of students record how often each of them can catch a rubber ball, first with two hands, then with one. They are testing the hypothesis that a two-handed catch is easier, thus more common.

Kirkolis circulates to coach students on proper scientific procedure, such as keeping the distance between thrower and catcher constant. “If you cross the line, it’s going to change your data,” she counsels one pair of boys. “You have to re-throw.”

After tallying results the next day in a chart on the chalkboard, Kirkolis has them answer questions in their workbooks, such as “What was the range of student’s ability to catch a ball with one hand?” and “Use the class data to explain whether the ability to catch a ball increases when using two hands.”

Later that class period, groups of students will decide how to alter one variable in the experiment and design their own.

“It’s not just going back and finding the answer in the science book, because it’s not there,” says Kirkolis. “They are forced to think.”

Hands-on training for teachers

Some teachers without a science background were intimidated by the program. Fifth-grade teacher Amy Shpritz acknowledges she was “scared at first,” but says the training was helpful and the teacher’s guide detailed and easy to follow.

Teachers new to the program get 50 hours of training in the summer and throughout the school year, working their way through virtually every student lab themselves. In their second year, teachers get 25 hours of training specific to their grade level, focusing on analyzing students’ work and targeting instruction to areas where they need to improve, says CPS Director of Science Michael Lach. “We can look at lab reports. We can say, ‘Johnny gets the concept of PH but not neutralization.'”

Compared to a traditional textbook series, the new science program is more “teacher-friendly,” staff at Columbia Explorers say. Some units come with a CD of video clips showing a teacher leading every lesson. And nearly all the materials needed for each lab, from jump ropes to microscopes, are included in the kits.

“It’s nice not to have to get stressed out trying to pull your own material [together],” says 6th-grade teacher Joanna Navarro. “It’s all here for you.”

The teacher’s editions of the textbooks provide plenty of in-depth background. “You don’t want to feel like you’re trying to teach kids something you don’t know,” says Janik.

Seventh-grader Karen Picazo says the program is a big plus for students. “You can do things your way. You can see if you were right or wrong and make another hypothesis. It’s kind of playing and learning together.”

To contact Elizabeth Duffrin, call (312) 673-3879 or send an e-mail to

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