Science, Technology, Engineering & Math | Viewpoint

Developing Science Concept Mastery on a Budget

With the right tools, students can experience science in a meaningful way, while being challenged and engaged. Erika Fosgreen, accelerated program coordinator at Imagine Rosefield and Imagine Prep Surprise in Arizona, shares her experience doing just that.

Building a science program from the ground up with little funding and few supplies can be a daunting challenge--or an exciting opportunity to do things differently.

When we launched an accelerated program at Imagine Prep Surprise two years ago, I had access to science textbooks but little else. I'm not a fan of textbooks. I don't think they're very good at sparking students' interest in science or helping them master critical concepts.

Instead, I believe that hands-on learning is essential to build students' higher order thinking skills and conceptual understanding in science. Since I didn't have the funding to build a traditional science lab, I turned to technology to bring science to life for my students.

In a three-week unit on cell structures and functions, technology played a pivotal role in helping students master our state performance objectives, which included describing the basic structure of a cell, describing the function of each cell part, and differentiating between plant and animal cells.

Piquing Student Interest
With any lesson, my first goal is to pique student interest. Then, as I progress from the concrete to the abstract, I integrate higher order thinking skills into class activities.

For this unit, I began by showing slides of different plant and animal cells, and asking students to discuss each cell's characteristics. Since I didn't have a room full of microscopes, I borrowed a microscope from another teacher and used it with a document camera to project the preserved slides for the class.

Conducting Virtual Labs and Simulations
Next, my students and I discussed the names of the cell parts and their functions, using real-world comparisons on the computer.

Thanks to a donation of desktop computers from an office that was closing, every student in my class had access to a computer. So instead of purchasing textbooks, I chose to invest in a Web-based concept mastery program called Adaptive Curriculum (AC) Science. I liked the program because, unlike textbooks, its active learning approach is designed to motivate students to explore, make hypotheses, manipulate items, and see the impact of their decisions to deepen their conceptual understanding. A practical benefit of AC Science was that it gave us high-quality, interactive tools to teach difficult science concepts, without having to invest in expensive manipulatives or lab equipment.

Within AC Science, we explored an instructional unit titled, "Comparing Plant and Animal Cells." I introduced the online unit, which uses the analogy of a city to introduce the differences between plant and animal cell organelles and their functions, by connecting my laptop to a projector and speakers because I find that whole group modeling is often helpful for the more difficult concepts.

Then I gave students the opportunity to work on the program individually to show their mastery. My students said they enjoyed exploring science in a differentiated learning environment. They also said they liked the interactive simulations, 3-D models, and real-world examples.

Extending Student Learning
I also incorporated free Web sites into my lessons to extend student learning. One site, Cells alive!, has video and computer-enhanced images of living cells and organisms and most of it is free.

While my students may have liked Cells alive! because it had video of real cells, I liked it because it had appealing activities that asked students to label cell parts and describe their functions, which directly related to what we were doing in class.

In addition, if students mastered the designated performance objectives before their peers, they could choose to explore other AC Science instructional units related to cells. For example, two students had parents with cancer, so they dove into the unit on "Identifying Cancerous Cells." Other students showed interest in a unit called "Exploring Cells with a Microscope," in which they learned to use a compound microscope and could observe human tissue cell samples.

A key benefit of having a virtual learning environment was that I could give students access to microscopes, tissue samples, and dyes without having to purchase or store them. It's also safe, so we didn't have to worry about things like goggles, aprons, and extra ventilation. Another advantage is that I didn't have to spend the time to set up and maintain a lab.

Assessing Student Learning
Throughout the unit, I assessed student learning in several ways. I used Microsoft Word to create formative assessments to measure student mastery, identify misconceptions, and identify students who could benefit from small group instruction. I also used online assessments and reports, as well as printable activity sheets within AC Science to monitor student progress, identify areas of concern, and keep students on task. Finally, I created and administered a summative assessment.

Achieving Positive Results
By the time we finished the unit, students were able to label the parts of plant and animal cells, explain the similarities and differences, and explain the functions and the importance of each part. The combination of hands-on, computer-based, and classroom activities helped students master our state performance objectives. Instead of simply memorizing facts, they developed a deep understanding of the science concepts.

Some students even said they wanted to extend the unit, so I gave them time to continue their exploration of cells and complete additional projects. I know I've had a successful unit when students ask to learn more!

About the Author

Erika Fosgreen is the accelerated program coordinator at Imagine Rosefield and Imagine Prep Surprise in Surprise, AZ, part of a national family of public charter school campuses.