Anthony Edwards / Staff Photo
Boston Patorti, a fourth-grader, examines live organisms under a microscope as part of the STEM project taught by science teacher Tom Estill at Christ the King School recently.
RUTLAND — When it comes to preparing today’s youth for careers in science and technology, it’s best to start early.
That’s the philosophy at Christ the King School in Rutland, which this fall began a new initiative to have fourth-and fifth-graders study science in a hands-on laboratory setting every day.
“I don’t remember science really in fourth and fifth grades. I remember long division and being read to,” said Principal Mary Guggenberger. “We feel strongly that fourth- and fifth-graders should have science every day to prepare them for those STEM fields.”
STEM is an acronym that stands for science, technology, engineering and math, and there’s a push among many schools in the state to better prepare students in these fields.
Teaching the students is Tom Estill, who spent six years as an aerospace education specialist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. Now in his second year at Christ the King, Estill gives off a sort of benevolent mad-professor vibe as he moves about and works one-on-one with his 11 fourth-graders.
Estill gave each student a microscope slide containing a drop of water from a flask containing water and hay that had sat beneath a lamp all weekend.
“Even in a drop of water, things are pretty complex,” Estill tells his pupils as they hunch over microscopes, looking for signs of life.
“We’re finding out if an ecosystem can survive in a drop of water, and see what can survive,” said Ethan Courcelle, 9.
Courcelle said he enjoys science much more this year than he did as a third-grader at Christ the King. His classmate, 9-year-old Olivia Calvin, agreed.
“This year, it’s a lot better,” Calvin said. “We dissected a worm last week and that was really fun. We didn’t do anything like that in third grade.”
Making science class more hands-on and less nose-in-a-book is the key to getting students interested in science, Estill said.
“These kids have never used microscopes before, or learned how science really works,” Estill said. “It’s exciting for them because they’re not just using a textbook.”
Estill is focused on teaching his students about the scientific method and how to gather data, pushing his students to think about the process of scientific inquiry.
It’s a change that is necessary, according to recent science scores from the New England Common Assessment Program, which showed a 6-percent drop in science scores among the state’s fourth-graders. New Hampshire and Rhode Island’s fourth-graders also saw their scores slip, and officials with the Vermont Agency of Education attributed the drop to the scientific inquiry section of the test.
When the bell rang, the fourth-graders were replaced by 17 fifth-graders, who begin measuring bean plants they’ve been growing since the start of school. The students are using the plants to study dominant and recessive genes, and later in the week they will extract DNA from an onion.
Ten-year-old Nick Quintana said he found the new science class to be both more exciting and a better way to learn.
“We do more experiments and we’re actually in a science lab,” Quintana said. “It’s actually easier this year because last year we were just learning out of book.”
The hands-on approach has benefits beyond science, Estill said.
“Keep them excited and keep them interested, and you teach people to want to learn,” he said.
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