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The Power of Doing: Hands-On Science Activities Boost Student Learning in CPSD

“Ohhs” and “Ahhs” fill the room as the sixth graders in Eric Fredericks’s science class get an up-close look at the cells inside their mouths. The Thomas Middle School students scrape the inside of their cheeks, create their own slides and peer into microscopes to see cells at 40 times their normal size. They are astonished by what they see. Hands-on experiences like this are a critical part of science education in Clover Park School District (CPSD).

Research shows that hands-on activities help increase student achievement and engagement in science. Students are not just learning more by seeing things for themselves, they’re getting more excited about the idea of science altogether. At every grade level, students apply what they learn in class to immersive projects and activities that put them into a scientist’s frame of mind. LEARNING AT LAKEWOLD GARDENS Fifth graders from D’Andre Shaw’s Four Heroes Elementary School class huddle around a tall tree in the middle of a grassy field. They run their fingers up the bark and feel the leaves coming down on top of them. It’s a literal hands-on learning experience.

CPSD partnered with Lakewold Gardens this year to provide field trips for fifth graders at each elementary school. Students visit the conservatory as part of a series of seven lessons connected with their regular science curriculum on Earth’s ecosystems. “With anything you’re learning, getting a hands-on experience helps you learn so much more than just sitting down and taking notes,” Shaw said. “Just being able to feel and smell and see something heightens the entire learning experience.” Lakewold Gardens received a grant to pay for all field trip transportation, and volunteers act as field guides for students during their time at the garden. In the conservatory, students explore the gardens and observe the plants and trees around them. They touch, feel and examine different plant species up close and take field notes so they can discuss these important discoveries with their classmates. At the end of each visit, students participate in an activity designed to stimulate their brains even further by re-examining what they’ve seen on the trip and reinforcing what they’ve learned in the classroom. “We’ve had groups of students go on field trips to Lakewold Gardens in the past, but being able to send nearly every fifth-grade class is new for us,” said Teaching and Learning Science Teacher on Assignment Dan George. “It’s a unique opportunity and a wonderful partnership that gives students a learning experience they won’t find in the classroom.” LEADING THE WAY ON SCIENCE AND CAREER Making mistakes is a part of life. For CPSD’s middle school science students, it’s also encouraged. During the 2020-21 school year, CPSD implemented a program called Project Lead the Way that encourages students to learn through trial and error. Students design projects and then test to see how they work. Occasionally they get it right on the first try, but most of the time, they go back to the drawing board to come up with new ideas. In one unit, students design an orthotic to help combat leg issues for a child with cerebral palsy. They work together to brainstorm and create the device in the classroom. Once complete, they test to see how it works, then re-work it based on the results. They often have to re-design the orthotic multiple times to get it just right. Students are learning what it’s like to be engineers. “Project Lead the Way is focused on engineering and gives students an introduction to the design and modeling processes,” George said. “We are relying less on textbooks and more on technology and hands-on learning.” Science teachers are required to earn Career and Technical Education certifications to teach Project Lead the Way lessons. That focus on career education means students are learning career skills while exploring science in their classrooms.

GETTING SALMON STREAM READY Students at six CPSD schools recently said goodbye to some aquatic friends. The salmon they raised in their classrooms were set free in the waters of Chambers Creek. It was a bittersweet moment but one that will help strengthen the regional ecosystem. It was also the final step in a learning experience that let students get up close and personal with the Pacific Northwest’s most famous species of fish. Classrooms at Tillicum and Custer elementary schools, Lochburn and Hudtloff middle schools, and Lakes and Clover Park high schools received salmon eggs in January to keep in a large water tank. Students and teachers charted their salmon’s development as they grew from embryos to young fish ready to face the harsh conditions of Washington’s wild rivers. “We live an area where salmon is a big part of our economy and culture,” said CPHS Science Teacher Phil Aponte, who has hosted salmon in his classroom for each of the past 20 years. “Being able to see an actual representation of that and what they look like helps make it real for them and connects more vividly with what they’re learning in class.” The salmon in the classroom program is funded in part by a grant from the Pierce Conservation District to help pay for supplies, and the salmon eggs are provided by the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife. Students in salmon classrooms learn from a special curriculum that teaches about salmon life cycles, ecosystems and the role they can play in fostering habitats for salmon to flourish. Before releasing the salmon into the wild, students make sure water quality in the tank is at a comfortable temperature and that chemicals are at acceptable levels. Many of the topics students learn help advance their understanding of how humans impact the salmon’s ability to survive. “Of the 100 salmon we send out, only about two will make it back here to breed the next generation. That’s part of nature,” Aponte said. “We can’t control the whales and other threats they encounter on their life journey but there are steps we can take to help them along the way.”

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