Science Focus at Vargas Elementary

Inspired by a desire to support inquiry and hands-on learning, Vargas Elementary School Principal Annette Grasty and her 4-member Science Committee are leading the way to a science-focused school. A Science Committee comprised of teachers representing lower and upper grades meets regularly and works on science projects and ideas for students in the entire school. They serve as mentors to their colleagues. Many schools might focus intensely on scientific methods around Science Fair time. At Vargas, the scientific inquiry process is part of every school day. Each class visits the Science Lab and conducts scientific inquiry/experiments according to suggested activities designed by the Science Committee. This year, Vargas students have enjoyed an engaging, hands-on science program which include school-wide scientific inquiry exercises, participation in Hour of Code, science fair projects, assemblies and field trips.

Plant inquiry project at Vargas
Plant inquiry project at Vargas

Members of the Science Committee started off the school year by attending the STEM Symposium in Sacramento and the Bay Science Exploratorium Training and brought back information to share with other teachers at Vargas. Committee members have also been in year-long training focused on Next Generation Science Standards, teaching lessons through inquiry, teaching students to keep science notebooks, and a concentration on science talks after experiments. Committee members presented professional development training for other teachers at Vargas on these topics, as well as on ways to inspire and guide students in their science fair projects.

Obtaining data (measuring plant growth)
Obtaining data (measuring plant growth)

The Science Committee members helped kick off the first school-wide inquiry exercise with participation from all Vargas students. The inquiry topic was parachutes. Teachers and students created the inquiry questions together. All students made at least one parachute. Upper grade students made different parachutes depending on their inquiry questions. Kindergarten-2nd grade students worked on the inquiry questions as a class while 3rd through 5th grade students did individual inquiry questions. Students might explore different materials used to build their parachutes or different ways to build them. In an inquiry on plant growth, students asked questions such as “Will a leaf stay green in a dark closet?” Will a seed grow in water only?” “Will a lima bean grow faster in soil or in sand?” These questions were completely student-driven. Teachers found it fascinating to see all students working on a similar task with varying levels of sophistication and difficulty.

Records of observations
Records of observations

Teachers also received training on ways to mentor students through scientific inquiry with discussions in the classroom, “Science Talks.” Every teacher put forth a science question or topic that was related to a reading assignment or other parts of the curriculum. Teachers then encouraged student-led discussions which incorporated inquiry questions and key vocabulary. Vargas teachers guided students to arrive at discoveries and conclusions on their own rather than leading discussions and lecturing to the students.

Vargas_Science_3_plant_drawings

Students at Vargas kept a Science Notebook in which they recorded their curiosities, their questions about these topics, the inquiry process they went through, research, tests and experiments they conducted, recorded data from experimental measurements, and documented observations. Based on all the information they collected and documented, they tried to understand what they saw and come up with conclusions for their inquiries. The primary grades kept class notebooks while upper grade students had their own individual science notebooks. Recording in these notebooks incorporated more writing into students’ daily activities.

 

Chart showing Vargas' plant inquiry exercise
Chart showing Vargas’ plant inquiry exercise
Another inquiry question on plants
Another inquiry question on plants

Vargas students participated in the Hour of Code this year. Sponsored by international technology companies and aimed at introducing coding to young students, this event was a week-long program where students spent time learning how to code simple commands. The website (http://code.org) was easy to navigate and students had fun and a great sense of accomplishment when they successfully completed tasks in this exercise. Students were able to create individual accounts, and several continued to code on a weekly basis.

This year, 5th Graders at Vargas had the opportunity to dissect lamb hearts and lungs, illustrating how the respiratory organs worked, and identifying the pathway of air and blood flow in our bodies. Students were hesitant at first but, after donning protective gloves, they were successful in inflating part of the lungs to observe air flowing into the lungs.

Students also enjoyed a variety of science-oriented field trips: The Tech Museum and the Exploratorium for the 4th and 5th graders, Science Camp at Walden West for 5th graders, and De Anza Planetarium for the 3rd graders. 2nd grade students went to the Gizdich Ranch and Apple Farm and the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

There have been assemblies and other science-related enrichment programs this year:

  • Dr. Pascal Lee from NASA presented at two school-wide assemblies discussing the proposed Mission to Mars. The Sunnyvale Elks Club purchased copies of Dr. Lee’s book, Mission: Mars, for every student in the school and for each classroom and the library.
  • Teacher Dennis Vaughn arranged for The American Vacuum Society (AVS) to present at an assembly illustrating the science of vacuum technology. Students got a chance to see a marshmallow expand and shrink with the change in air pressure. The presentation certainly made a lasting impression on the students.
  • The Mobile Dairy brought cows to the school, helping students learn about the cow’s digestive system. Students observed a full-grown cow eat, and had an opportunity to pet a calf.
  • Vargas hosted an Astronomy Night as part of the school’s annual Open House. Members from San Jose Astronomical Association brought telescopes to the school and gave the students and their families “a Star Party.” Attendees learned about planets and constellations. They had the opportunity to look at several planets in the night sky.
  • Vargas held a Science Night where families came together and tried out hands-on activities involving trial-and-error problem-solving and collaboration with others on their team: friends, classmates, parents, siblings.

At Vargas’ Open House this year, students’ Science Fair projects were displayed all over the school, in each classroom. The Science Committee members served as judges. Kindergarten to 2nd grade students did class projects while 3rd through 5th grade students did individual projects. All students who submitted a science fair project received participation certificates and stickers. First, Second, and Third place projects were selected from 4th and 5th Grade projects (for a total of six winners). The six winners received 1st, 2nd, or 3rd place ribbons and their project boards were displayed in the multi-purpose room during Open House for everyone to see. Vargas has held Science Fairs for at least seven years; however in the past, participants had been 4th and 5th Grade students. This year the entire school was involved and participated.

The Science Committee members had acquired basic lab supplies which complemented all the activities they implemented this year. They are already meeting to make plans for next year, to further equip the Science Lab and plan for next year’s school-wide inquiries.

Contributors: Vargas Science Committee Members: Shannon Gordon, Cecilia Mendoza-Torres, Joe Segal and Heather Willhalm; Nina Wong-Dobkin

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