Building Foundations of Scientific Understanding: A Science Curriculum for K-2

by Bernard Nebel

I wasn’t looking for a science text for Bella. I was quite content with a loose kind of nature study. Watching the birds at our feeder, following our observations and letting Bella’s questions guide our investigations with library books as a resource. But then in some comment box on some blog, I wish I could remember where, someone mentioned this title and something about their comment intrigued me. I looked it up on Amazon and browsed through the introduction and table of contents and suddenly found that there was a science curriculum that exactly matched my ideas about education, that exceeded my own plans and yet so perfectly slips into what we are already doing that it’s like it was made for us.

What do I like about Nebel’s science curriculum? First, it gives full credit to the youngest children, assuming that they are capable of real scientific understanding. And it pays attention to how children actually learn. The focus is on conceptual understanding not on memorizing scientific facts. Lessons lead children to observe carefully, to think about what they’ve observed, to reason and draw conclusions. And the lessons build on the children’s real world experience, creating real relationships with the ideas they are exploring. They build on what children already know to help them understand new ideas.

Second, the lessons are laid out as stepping stones that build knowledge and understanding logically and systematically. While I’m not really good at creating this sort of systematic approach, it really appeals to me. It fills in many of the gaps that I would otherwise not think to cover with Bella.

Third, this is meant to be a comprehensive science curriculum. It doesn’t pick and choose from a menu of topics; but rather lays the foundations for understanding in all branches of science. Lessons are divided into four categories or threads that are followed in tandem (the nature of matter, life science, physical science, earth and space science) and the lessons within each thread are designed to build on on another in a carefully designed path. But the threads are also interconnected so that some lessons from one thread will be foundational for later lessons in another thread. So the lessons in the first thread lay the foundations directly for a later study of chemistry and chemical reactions; the second thread builds toward biology, anatomy and physiology, etc. I like that the curriculum doesn’t shy away from presenting lessons on energy, generally omitted from early science curriculum as being too abstract; but Nebel argues, the omission often leads to false notions taking root that are later difficult to erase. Lessons also tie into geography and will also build reading, writing and math skills.

Fourth, this is not a textbook that the child reads but a handbook for the instructor. It lays out the full lesson, gives broad outlines for discussions, presentations, follow-up activities, review, ideas for teachable moments, and ideas for things you can do at home and it always points to how each lesson ties into what has gone before and what will come later. It very easily translates into a home school environment. It demands no special knowledge or preparation from the instructor, anyone can pick this up and teach real science. It also demands no special materials but uses things we’ve already got available in our home.

Each chapter provides a list of additional reading, books that we can check out from the library to read and reinforce the ideas in the lesson. This is perfect for Bella and me. She gets so excited by the real books that we bring home that tie in with our science lessons. We’ve been getting ten to fifteen books and reading through them. Usually she’ll settle on one or two that she wants to read over and over again.

We’ve been dipping into this book slowly and really letting each lesson sink in with plenty of time for activities, questions, and follow-up reading. I don’t feel we need to rush things at all.

So far we’ve done just a few of the chapters, which has involved several lessons on organizing and categorizing and several on solids, liquids, and gasses and some lessons on energy. Bella has thoroughly loved these, so much so that she told me she wants to be a scientist when she grows up. The activities are also fun games that Sophie gets involved in too.

Our most recent topic has been energy. This was definitely one that would not have come up in our nature study format and yet Bella has absolutely adored it. First we discussed that energy is what makes things change or move or work. Then we discussed four broad categories of energy: light, heat, electric, and movement and we went around categorizing everything that works or changes by what kind of energy does the work. Then we got a bunch of books from the library mainly on electricity and fuels. Bella’s favorite was one on electricity that had a diagram of a hydroelectric plant and showed how movement energy became electricity and how it travels through wires to houses and businesses. She has now been happily identifying pylons and transformers and electric meters as we drive around and happily pointing out that she has broken the circuit when she flips a switch to turn off a light.

I plan to do future lessons on distinguishing between living, non-living natural, and man made things as well as some follow ups on energy. After that we will perhaps dive into the difference between plants and animals. Then perhaps an investigation into sound, vibrations and energy. Or maybe we’ll do gravity. The fun thing about the four threads is that we can have a variety of topics and still be on the path. I can switch things up and as long as I don’t go out of sequence we can have fun moving between the various branches of science.

Last year I only did two lessons for Bella’s kindergarten. I hope to step up the pace this year and do maybe two a month. But I also do like to give Bella enough space to really delve into a topic and I don’t feel a need to rush. We’ve got two years to finish the book. I do plan to keep going through the summer. No need to take a break from science. And if I go too slowly and need to step up the pace considerably next year to get through everything before we move on to Level 2… well, I’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

And meanwhile we continue our relaxed nature study, our observations of the world around us, answering all of Bella’s questions, picking up books on topics that interest her like penguins and Antarctica and downy woodpeckers and anteaters. I don’t do any less of all the other science-y things I was doing already before I found this book. We read books about birds and earthworms, we talk about rocks and algae as topics come up. It’s just that on top of all that I now have a structured path that gives me an overall, systematic game plan to make sure she’s really building understanding and habits of scientific inquiry and that we aren’t leaving too many egregious gaps that we’ll have to scramble to fill later.

Nebel also has a second volume for grades 3-5 and a third volume for grades 6-8. Can I tell you how much I love that this isn’t separated by grade-level year but instead divides it into much more realistic sequences to follow over a much longer span of time? I don’t feel like I have to scramble to get it done on a timetable because I have a much longer view of where we are going.

One thing I am not so fond of: it is written specifically for classroom teachers and not homeschoolers so the outlines of discussions and activities assume the teacher as leader of a group. This means it takes a bit more mental work for me to translate them to discussions and activities that will work for my class of one—occasionally two. It isn’t a highly scripted book, it only offers a broad outline of a possible discussion. I thought I’d like that but when I sit down to prepare I’m often tired and distracted. And I’m a big picture thinker—I tend to see the forest rather than the individual trees unless I’m really focusing. Sometimes I have a hard time translating big picture ideas into concrete details of a lesson plan a more detailed script would at least give me something to depart from. However, this is really a minor quibble.

On the whole, I am very glad I’ve found a science curriculum that so neatly slips into our learning lifestyle.

 

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