Science Centers in a Secondary Classroom

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Science Centers: a hands-on approach to learning, that encourages students to experiment and explore using interactive activities. My thoughts about using science centers in my classroom began with my daughter and how she learns. Here’s a little back story:

My daughter is a very energetic child that has a hard time focusing. Pre-K was repeated because of this (which was one of the hardest parental decisions I’ve had to make so far but boy did it make a difference!). Year 1 in Pre-K students learned their letters based on the order of the alphabet; seems logical right? I mean, we say the letters in a particular order so why not learn them that way? But have you ever stopped to think why letters are in that order? Does it really matter? The answer is no, it doesn’t matter. We’ve put letters into alphabetical order for so long that the reason we continue to do so is simply because that’s the way it has always been done. Now put yourself in the shoes of a 4-year-old. Doing something “simply because that’s the way is has always been done” doesn’t really interest you. You want to explore the world around you. That’s how you learn and very rarely is this done in a logical order. Learning “a” then “b” and now “c” and finally all those letters mixed together to spell something called a “word” can be overwhelming! This is what happened to my daughter. She wanted to learn. She tried very hard to learn but learning this way did not work for her. So we repeated Pre-K, this time in a new District where learning was done differently. At this new school students would move to different centers when learning. My daughter had options of drawing the letter, coloring the letter, and recognizing the letter in words that had meaning to her (mom, friends, names, etc…). This made a HUGE difference in my daughters success at school.

In the short, six years I’ve taught I have noticed that my student’s attention spans have shortened, natural curiosity is rare, a desire for the “right” answer in the fastest way possible trumps working through a tough problem, perseverance doesn’t last long, students want to know the short-cuts, and many would rather cheat than admit they don’t know. Of course this does not describe all students but this has become my “average” student and it saddens me. I understand there are many factors that influence these behaviors (testing culture, technology, changing of standards/order of courses to name a few) and I can either spend time complaining about the complexity of teaching or I can see it as a challenge and find a way to overcome them.

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I think about my daughter and how she learns best. I think about how her elementary teachers teach concepts and wonder, why not secondary? After all we are teaching the same children, my students are just taller.  So I’ve thought a lot about learning centers and incorporating them into my chemistry classroom. This has been a challenge. There isn’t much out there for secondary science (especially chemistry) which means I’ve had to come up with most of what I use. Developing/writing curriculum/hands-on activities is time-consuming but is has been worth it! Just like my daughter’s Pre-K class, I’ll have centers that apply the same concepts but in different ways. Students chose where they need to work and move around to those centers. Science Centers don’t always have to be fancy either. You can break up a boring worksheet by spacing out the problems at different locations, ask concept/application questions about the problems, identify mistakes in something you provide or what the group before them did, etc… Some classes take more monitoring than others but it has always been a positive experience. You’ll find descriptions and pictures of what I’ve done this last year:

Reaction Rates: While my Chem 2 students were learning about the difference conditions that affect reaction rates I set up investigation stations where students could alter a condition and make observations. One station students watched a video and performed a lab (two different examples) focused on catalysts, another station focused on temperature (hot/cold water & glow sticks), and a third station focused on surface area (alka-seltzer and water). We then applied surface area to the interaction between mentos and soda. I have mostly videos of these investigations but I did get one photo!

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Reactions: While my CP and regular Chem 1 students were learning how to balance equations, write formulas, and identify types of reactions I set up stations that focused on sorting cards into particular categories, putting puzzles together based on coefficients for balanced equations, and identifying mistakes in formulas.

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Thermochemistry & Enthalpy: Here I used the same concept as above.

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I have a long ways to go before I’m great at using Science Stations. Even so, my students enjoy learning through interactive activities, I enjoy teaching with them, and I’ve seen their understanding of concepts deepen through application of the concepts rather than simply trying to memorize them. If you do decide to try implementing science centers in your secondary classroom, remember to not let that one student dampen the mood 🙂

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Happy Teaching!

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