Schools stoke interest in science with new kits | AspenTimes.com

Schools stoke interest in science with new kits

John Colson

Kyra Ward, 11, creates a vortex inside a soda bottle in Jo Mueller's sixth-grade science classroom at Aspen Middle School on Monday. The experiment was part of a new science kit donated to the Aspen School District. (Jordan Curet/The Aspen Times)

The Aspen School District’s new “science kits” will revolutionize science education because students will come to love classes, not loathe them, according to the two men who introduced them to area classrooms.The kits, which resemble laundry baskets with lids, contain a variety of materials for conducting experiments in geometry, physics, chemistry, biology and more.Students in first through eighth grade will conduct the experiments, using the materials in one-week or two-week “units” of class time, then return the kits for replenishment and ultimate reuse by the next crop of budding scientists.The materials vary widely, depending on the discipline, but none are hazardous or explosive, according to educators and the citizen activists who are behind the entire effort.

This is the second go-round for such science kits, said local educational activist George Stranahan, who with Kevin Ward of the Aspen Science Foundation was instrumental in getting the FOS (which stands for Full Option Science) kits in the schools this year.Stranahan said he donated similar kits to schools throughout the valley a decade ago, in hopes that the school districts would recognize their value and take over purchase of kits for subsequent years. But the districts did not follow his lead, and the program went on hiatus.But this year, largely because of the support of Aspen School District Assistant Superintendent Bev Tarpley, the kits are back, and teachers seem happy that they are. Tarpley was not available for comment.”These kits are bringing great science into our schools,” said sixth-grade science teacher Jo Mueller, who started using the kits back in the mid-1990s when Stranahan donated them and is gleeful about the fact that the new kits are available. She will be the teacher mainly responsible for seeing that the kits are returned to the Aspen Science Foundation and refurbished, according to Stranahan and Ward.”People know that kids at a young age can learn a lot of science,” said Stranahan, a wealthy physicist, as well as an educational activist and for decades the main patron of the Aspen Community School.

“Developmentally, habits of the heart are formed by age 5, habits of the mind by grade five,” he maintained. “After that, it’s all remedial.”And teaching science is more effective if it is hands-on, he said, rather than mainly through the reading of textbooks.”It’s so student-friendly, it practically teaches itself,” Stranahan continued. “If the teacher can get the lid off, she’s got two weeks of good science education.”Mueller, who has a master’s degree in science education, noted that “a lot of [teachers] don’t have the background in science, that are [teaching] elementary [classes],” she said. Pointing to a resource manual that comes with each kit, she said, “It gives them all the background that they need to know to teach the concepts in the kit that they are using.”

Stranahan said the concepts behind the kits were developed about a decade and a half ago by the National Science Foundation, working with the Smithsonian Institute’s National Science Resources Council and other organizations.According to Ward, the NSRC spent $10 million to develop the idea, and the kits represent “the absolute high end of science education.” He called it the silver bullet that will banish the long-held belief among many children that science class will inevitably become dull and meaningless for their later lives.Stranahan said that some teachers in the valley, such as Mueller, were so taken by the kits a decade ago that they continued using them year in and year out, replenishing the supplies by raising money through such events as a Basalt Middle School apple sale.But the new kits at Aspen Elementary and Aspen Middle schools has the full backing of the Aspen School District administration, which spent more than $90,000 on the program. The rest, roughly another $20,000, came from a grant through the Aspen Community Foundation, Ward said.John Colson’s e-mail address is jcolson@aspentimes.com