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Clayton Schools exploring elementary science labs

Photo by Heather Middleton

Photo by Heather Middleton

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Mt. Zion Elementary School fourth-grader, Latavious Elam, held an owl pellet inches from his face and carefully picked it apart in a quest to discover what could be found inside.

"That looks like a tooth," Elam said as he picked fur away from a piece of bone with a pair of tweezers. "Whoa, that is a big tooth."

In another part of the school's science lab, a group of fourth-graders called to their teacher, Sherry Reynolds, to show her what they had found in one of their pellets.

"We found a claw! We found a claw!" they exclaimed in unison.

Mt. Zion Elementary School's science lab, which opened in August, is somewhat of a rarity in Clayton County elementary schools. The school is one of nine elementary and primary schools in the district which have designated rooms set aside for science labs, said Clayton County Public Schools Elementary Science Coordinator Vicki Jacobs. There are a total of 38 elementary and primary schools in the district.

Jacobs said the first school to establish a science lab was Harper Elementary School, which implemented the idea during the 2008-2009 school year.

At the beginning of this school year, Mt. Zion, Callaway, Kemp, Jackson, River's Edge, Smith, and Swint elementary schools, as well as Mt. Zion Primary School, opened their own science labs, according to Jacobs.

These science labs are stocked with the types of equipment, such as microscopes, scales and magnifying glasses, that are mainstays in science classrooms in high schools, and some middle schools. Jacobs said exposing the children to science experiments at the elementary-school level "just opens them up to more science."

She also said the district's science department is trying to make sure there is a seamless transition from elementary to secondary science, by exposing children to science experiments and equipment at a younger age.

"We're very conscious that there is a link between what the students are learning in elementary school, and what they are learning in grades six through 12," Jacobs said. "In fact, if we get something that is designed for six through 12, we just bring it down to the elementary schools as well."

The experiments the students perform in the science labs at each school are designed to be a supplement to the topics they are studying in science class, Jacobs said.

Mt. Zion Elementary School students said some of the experiments they have done this year include a gravity-themed experiment involving the dropping of eggs onto concrete, a weather-themed experiment involving the construction of weather vanes, and a condensation-themed experiment that involved heating water until steam formed.

"I like being able to do science experiments in school. It makes me feel like a scientist, and I'd like to do it more often," said fourth-grader, Gerardo Cruz, 10.

Fourth-grader, Edith Courtney, 9, said she believes performing the experiments at a young age will help her understand science concepts when she gets to high school. "You get hands-on with science, and that helps because when you get older, it's easier to do science because you'll be familiar with it," she said.

Reynolds, the Mt. Zion Elementary School fourth-grade teacher and one of the teachers who asked school Principal Charles Wilkerson to establish a science lab last year, said teachers at Mt. Zion Elementary had been interested in starting a science lab for a few years. The problem was space. "Every room in this building was being used," she said.

But last year brought a change to the school, when Mt. Zion Primary School opened next door. With the opening of the primary school, students now go to that school for kindergarten through second-grade, while the elementary school only houses third- through fifth-graders.

"When the lower grades moved out, we had some rooms available, so that's when we got started on planning the lab," Reynolds said.

Wilkerson said he supported the idea of establishing a science lab at Mt. Zion Elementary School because it gives students at the school an opportunity to be exposed to lab equipment.

"The students have been able to learn about science in an appropriate setting," Wilkerson said. "I feel it builds excitement among children who never would have a chance to do experiments in a regular, classroom setting."

Right now, the nine schools are serving as a pilot program for science labs at the elementary-school level. If Criterion-Referenced Competency Test (CRCT) data at the end of the year show the addition of these labs has been beneficial to student achievement at the schools, Jacobs said she would be open to putting science labs in every elementary school.

"I want to see some results before I take this countywide," Jacobs said.

Reynolds said she sees the results every time she takes her students to Mt. Zion's lab, and lets the youths explore science.

"When you are doing an experiment, you see that look come across their face where they get what you're teaching them, and they say 'Oh yeah, that's how it works,'" she said. "That's when they learn."