Story 05: Memoirs of a Bubble Blower

Story | Print | eMail | Related Media | Archives

Teaching Science with Simple Materials

Written by Bernie Zubrowski

Instead of designing completely new activities to fit the afterschool program environment, I drew upon past experiences working for the Elementary Science Study and the African Primary Science Program. I adapted activities from these curriculum units for my new Boston audiences. One of the major challenges I faced while teaching science in both Bangladesh and Kenya was the lack of materials. Schools in neither country had any budget for science education. Whatever science experiments you did had to draw on materials available from the local environment. This turned out to be a great discipline that served me well in later years. In Boston I introduced program leaders and children to drinking straw construction, bubble explorations, batteries and bulbs, dyes and pigments, cake baking and other kinds of topics that used relatively simple and readily available materials.

In the early '70s, in the context of afterschool programming, there was a great deal of emphasis on giving children a fair amount of freedom to choose activities and to follow their own interests. The educational challenge was to find activities that were seductive, could engage children beyond a one-shot session, and had some meaningful content embedded in them. In expanding and redesigning activities from my original curriculum guides, I took another look at topics that had proven to be successful in other, very different venues.

For simple drinking-straw activities where kids built houses, I researched the different kinds of structural systems used to hold up buildings. I discovered that the truss system was basic to many structures. This same system occurred naturally when children tried to keep their drinking straw house from falling down. Expanding on what had been previously written in the ESS curriculum guide on drinking straw structures, more emphasis was given in the afterschool science programs to analyzing the components of a model house or a bridge especially in terms of what constitutes a truss system. I began to see that there were ways of choosing materials and setting up problems that forged a middle ground between a totally prescriptive presentation and one that was completely open ended. Although the complete concept of a truss was hardly ever explicitly developed, the activity could provide children with an experience upon which they could draw when encountering this concept—or related ones—later on in the context of formal schooling. Activities were neither totally driven by children's choices nor totally prescriptive; but, given sufficiently interesting activities, children readily went along with the posed problems and then added their own personal ways of constructing a house or other kinds of structures.

Next: What Holds Kids' Interest?