Thanks to a $35,000 private grant from an elementary-school parent, seven school districts on eastern Long Island will be participating this year in an initiative that focuses on establishing a hands-on foundation in science literacy.
Richard Wilson, a retired science teacher and former department head in the Sag Harbor School District, has already started hand-delivering black and white marbled boxes containing the resources, from beakers and balance scales and basins to student journals and lesson plans and assessment tools, to elementary teachers at the Montauk, Amagansett, Springs, East Hampton, Sag Harbor, Wainscott and Sagaponack schools.
Michael Maffucci, who has a child at the John Marshall School in East Hampton, awarded the grant through the Greater East Hampton Education Foundation in response to a proposal written by Mr. Wilson, who’s also co-chair of the Citizens Advisory Committee to the East Hampton School Board. Patricia Hope, the East Hampton School Board’s vice president and a retired science teacher and former department head in East Hampton, has been helping Mr. Wilson get the initiative off the ground.
Seventeen teachers from six of the districts attended a science workshop on September 28 in East Hampton to learn more about using the Full Option Science System program, or FOSS. It strives to shift even the earliest formal science instruction “from passive exposure to scientific concepts toward real experiences for students,” according to the vendor’s literature. The program is already in use at the Springs School.
Mr. Wilson and Ms. Hope, who have about 80 years of science teaching between the two of them, said they were “blown away” by how the program challenges children to learn by doing, and by writing, instead of relying on things like textbooks and worksheets and rote learning, even as early as kindergarten. “The kids do their own thinking,” Mr. Wilson said of what the educators call “guided inquiry.”
The FOSS system, which comes in different units for different topics and grade levels, hits on everything from physics to life science to earth science, Ms. Hope said, “It’s more than just plants and animals,” which elementary studies tend to focus on to the exclusion of the others.
In addition, the system has what she and Mr. Wilson called a “built-in literacy component,” with “science stories” to read for content and lessons that ask kids to interpret and predict, skills they will also need in English language arts. And “the writing becomes subsidiary,” Mr. Wilson said, that is, purposeful, as they record what they observe during their projects.
This year, students in kindergarten will study “materials in our world” and “trees and weather” while first- and second-graders tackle “pebbles, sand and silt” and “solids and liquids.” New kits will be purchased in future years to expand the program to third-graders, then fourth-graders and, in 2015-16, fifth-graders, who’ll take on “levers and pulleys” and “mixtures and solutions.” The other units to be phased in will cover “balance and motion,” “measuring matter,” “insects and plants,” “structures of life,” “energy/electromagnetism” and “sun, moon and planets, soils and landforms.”
The kits, which offer written materials in Spanish—which the company threw in for free—can be reused once the “consumable” products like glue sticks and paper have been replenished. The grant will pay out $15,000 this year and $5,000 in each of the following four years to cover purchasing the kits.
Mr. Wilson and Ms. Hope serve on the East Hampton School Board’s academic advisory committee, and Mr. Wilson has grandchildren in the East Hampton School District’s elementary school. Last spring, he was attending a concert of the Bonnettes, the middle school singing group, when Mr. Maffucci passed him a note asking him to get in touch, and he subsequently asked Mr. Wilson to write up the proposal.
“Act now and qualify for free shipping,” joked Mr. Wilson about personally delivering the large marbled boxes like some kind of Bill Nye Santa Claus. He also went banging on the doors of the schools he didn’t hear back from after the kits and the workshop were first offered to them. Down the road, he hopes to recruit the districts for what he called Invention Conventions, as well.
“Six months, and we’ve launched a sea change in elementary science on the East End,” Ms. Hope said with a smile before Mr. Wilson went off to deliver boxes to Sagaponack and Montauk.