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Captivating young minds

Kindergarteners experience an early taste of science.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK
Published February 25, 2007


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TAMPA - Julie Zhang eyes the inch-long, charcoal-black darkling beetle as it wriggles along before her.

She contemplates. Should she pick it up, or leave it be?

Then, with the zeal and inquisitiveness of a 5-year-old, Julie reaches out and grabs the insect.

"It's hard," she says, holding it between her fingers. She sniffs its body. "It smells like smoke."

Feeling more comfortable, Julie lets the beetle crawl down her arm. She quickly flicks it off with an, "Oh! It tickles."

This isn't play time in the yard. It's science, kindergarten style, at Chiles Elementary School in Tampa Palms.

Every day, teacher Tammy Reale helps the school's 101 kindergartners conduct experiments and have other hands-on science experiences. They've done chemistry, learning what happens when you put baking soda into vinegar, for instance. They've watched ice melt and cooked pancakes to study how materials change their physical stage when heated.

Today, they're examining the four states of a darkling beetle - egg, larva also known as mealworm, pupa and adult - and making notes about what they learn. Each child keeps a journal of scientific discoveries.

"We collect data, and then we learn about the data and we talk about it and we share," says Amy Dougherty, 6.

Chiles is the only elementary school in Hillsborough County to dedicate a kindergarten teacher to science instruction. The reason, principal Shari Beaubien says, is simple: Kids get an early love of science that they carry into the upper grades.

Beaubien likes the idea so much that she's already planning to extend the model into first and second grade.

This focus is important for several reasons, not the least of which is the new Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test science exam, which all fifth-, eighth- and 11th-graders take. Education and business leaders also point to research that shows U.S. students trail many international peers in their science knowledge.

The well-regarded Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study of 2003, for instance, ranked U.S. eighth-graders' science scores as significantly lower than those from Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Estonia, Japan and Hungary.

"You need to capture their interest, and you need to catch them young," says Reale, a former county Teacher of the Year finalist who helps write the district's science curriculum. "Science is such the easy subject to integrate reading with, integrate writing. It goes hand in hand with math. They're going to want to go home and write about the things they see in their back yard."

Jennifer Messer, another Chiles kindergarten teacher, says her students this year love science much more than her classes did before the team started sending their kids to Reale once a day. Their excitement is evident as they relate the lessons they've just finished, and as they do other things in Messer's classroom.

"When I pull out more of the nonfiction books, they are a lot more into it than in past years, and they understand it more," says Messer, who has taught kindergarten for eight years. "I absolutely love it. The parents love it. The kids love it."

Just ask Zoe Patten. She giggles with glee as she watches an off-white beetle pupa, which appears to be dormant, suddenly wiggle its tail like a rattle. Zoe can't put her finger on exactly why she enjoys science, but she offers a convincing testimonial.

"It's real fun," the 5-year-old says. "It feels like I'm about to laugh everywhere."

Zoe doesn't hesitate to touch and explore. Some of her classmates are a bit more squeamish of the squirmy worms, though, and they don't hold back their sounds of disgust.

"There is no ewww in science," Reale constantly reminds.

Rather, there are five other e's - exploring, engaging, explaining, evaluating and elaborating. There are tough vocabulary words on the word wall, ones like precipitation, friction and metamorphic.

A hairless rat wanders aimlessly through the classroom, protected by a hard plastic ball. A regular rat, who later will join the hairless one for a test to see whether the babies have hair or not, rests in a cage along the wall, as do a rabbit and some lizards.

Reale, who has spent 17 years teaching, says she's been slowly building the children's science knowledge base so that in the final nine weeks of the year, she can really get them into concentrated investigations.

Julie, for one, looks forward to more. Science is "fun," she says, "because I learn."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com.

[Last modified February 25, 2007, 00:36:14]


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