Baraboo elementary students engage with hands-on science

February 2, 2019

It took about five years to develop and implement a new elementary science curriculum, but now Baraboo’s youngest students are making observations and actively seeking information themselves.

Developed largely by retired Baraboo teacher and now education consultant Karen Mesmer, the curriculum focuses on hands-on activities that are meant to allow children to explore rather than simply being told lessons.

“Kids love it,” said first-grade teacher Emily Culbertson. “We’re doing kazoos, and I had one student just running around the room, way over-excited, screaming ‘I love science’ at the top of his lungs. It was just absolutely precious.”

Sometimes the lessons get noisy and look chaotic, but “you know in that moment, you’re doing something right — even though it’s too loud — because you’ve got kids actually engaged and thinking and excited about what they’re doing,” Culbertson said.

The curriculum is based on the Next Generation Science Standards, which the Baraboo School District adopted in 2015. But Mesmer said she had started working on it in the 2013-14 school year, implementing changes “bit by bit” with help from other teachers. By last year, all of the elementary units were in place across the district.

Previously, the elementary science curriculum — described by Culbertson as “boring” — consisted largely of worksheets, which failed to engage students.

“They weren’t asking questions, they weren’t actively seeking to be scientists,” Culbertson said.

Elementary schools in Baraboo now cover three science topics throughout the year in each grade level: biology, earth and space science, and physical science.

During a lesson Friday on sound waves, more than one student proclaimed, “I made a discovery!” They were making “cup-a-phones,” the classic cups attached by a string, guided by Culbertson to notice the way their voices traveled as vibrations through the string.

While other Wisconsin districts are in the process of making similar changes, Baraboo is ahead of most, said Mesmer, who has consulted with roughly 60 districts since retiring as a teacher. Many elementary schools still don’t dedicate much time to science.

“We’re very fortunate here,” Mesmer said, noting an $800,000 trust that was donated to the Baraboo School District specifically to fund elementary science programs.

Besides increasing student interest, the new curriculum ties in with other subjects, such as reading and math. That’s particularly beneficial, Culbertson said, because then children are continuing to think about science topics outside of science lessons — which they don’t have time for every day. Some are so interested in what they’re learning, they’re even researching the subjects on their own.

Mesmer noted that while she guided implementation — along with help from administrators — “the hard work has been done in the classrooms by the teachers.”

“The teachers have been very receptive to doing this because they see the excitement and enthusiasm with the kids,” she said, “and they see how the kids are able to actually think through things better and not just parrot things back to them.”

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