Posted 12/01/15 (Tue)
By Kevin Killough
Pingpong balls, hula hoops, solar panels, and a plastic skeleton named Mr. Bob Skelly Bones.
These are just a few of the supplies Nikki Holte uses in her science lab at Central Elementary School. The lab takes learning science out of a textbook and turns it into a collaborative activity.
“The lab is all hands on,” Holte said.
It’s also very busy.
All students from kindergarten through sixth grade participate. All together, they have 14 groups of students every week.
All day long, one class after another shuffles into the room for daily science lessons.
“We literally have one class in lab and another waiting at the door to get in,” Holte said.
With nearly 290 students to instruct, Holte couldn’t do it alone. Peggy Anderson, a Central teacher aide, supports the lab as well.
“I’m so thankful for her,” Holte said.
Anderson said the lab gets kids engaged in science because they’re taking what they learn and applying it to an activity they’re doing.
“They aren’t just sitting in their chairs,” Anderson said.
The whole idea for a dedicated science lab began when Holte and Principal Tim Schaffer toured a science program based on the same curriculum at a school down in Larimore. They were both impressed and wanted to start something like that in Tioga.
At one point, they considered having each grade’s teacher conduct the science lab for his or her own class, but after looking at the potential for the program it was decided a dedicated science teacher would be the best way to go.
And Holte is well suited for it. She studied forensic science as a pathway to a career in either medicine or law.
Later she decided a career in teaching more suited her, and her background in science made her ideal to head up the lab at Central.
With brand new classrooms, Central also has the space for it.
In addition to their affectionately named skeleton, the lab has a couple closets full of microscopes, scales, beakers, latex gloves, magnets, stethoscopes, and glass slides.
The new classrooms are full of technology, which benefitted the lab. In addition to a touch-screen overhead computer projector, Holte has a wireless microphone that projects her voice through speakers in the ceilings.
The labs are taught through all seven elementary grades and the lessons are divided into sections called cells, which are spread throughout the year.
The lessons sometimes overlap between different grades. So students in third grade will do activities in the lab that illustrate the properties of electricity and the students in fourth grade will be learning about other forms of energy.
Holte requires her students to use proper spelling and the lessons contain quite a bit of reading and math. So there’s a lot of cross-over between the lab and subjects the students are learning elsewhere.
Since the labs are collaborative, students are also learning a lot of social skills.
Holte said it can be a challenge for some students who are used to working independently in traditional teaching methods. It can take them a while to learn to exchange ideas and take turns with the equipment, but she said they are catching on.
Even the kindergartners are in the labs, getting some initial exposure to science fundamentals. They learn about making and recording observations, naming shapes, and making measurements.
“It’s pretty basic but they’re getting something out of it,” Holte said.
One of her first-grade students is Caden Holte, who happens to be her son. He’s learning about the five senses.
“He’s my stinker,” she said.
The six cells are spread out over the entire year and vary in length depending on how challenging the lessons are and how quickly the students’ progress. But Holte said when the students go on to high school, they are well prepared to continue their science education.
“They’re getting confident about doing science,” Holte said.
The lab is very popular among the students as well. It’s not uncommon to see Central students walking the hallways in their lab coats.
Holte set up a display in the cafeteria to acknowledge lab students who work well with other students, show active class participation, and good behavior. Every month several students are selected for the award and are pictured in their smocks.
“All we had for awards was the ‘character counts’ awards,” said Holte.
The students take a lot of pride in being selected. Holte talked about one girl who was nearly in tears because she had never won an award before.
Emma Taylor and Kiana Longie are just two of Holte’s lab students. The fifth graders are learning about weights and measurements.
The girls seem to know what they’re doing. After Holte set out some scales, weights and rulers, the two girls went about independently performing observations together.
Longie has been at Central her whole school life and said the labs are helping a lot.
“This is a lot better. We actually get to do science instead of just being in the classroom,” she said.
Taylor moved here this year and said the lab is a whole new experience for her.
“I didn’t do much science before I came here,” Taylor said. “And we have great teachers.”