Tag Archives: science

Ellen McHenry Materials: A Sort of Review

If you’re not familiar with Ellen McHenry’s Basement Workshop, it’s a really different curriculum provider mostly for homeschoolers. Most of the topics are science related, though not all. We’ve now used three of her programs and I actually own a couple more. I thought, since I mentioned that Mushroom used her program Protozoa last spring, that I’d give the materials a bit of a review. We previously did all of The Brain and part of Mapping the World with Art. I also own but ended up not using Botany and Excavating English.

Part of Mushroom’s Protozoa mural. A typical Ellen McHenry style assignment.

What they are: You can buy a physical copy or a copy on CD, but I’ve only ever bought the PDF versions. Each program comes with a central text that is written to the student. They’re illustrated with cute fingerprint characters, well done hand drawings, and some copyright free images. The graphic design is pretty decent and while scrolling through the PDF for the right page isn’t super easy, it’s not too bad. Each chapter has “activities” that follow it. Sometimes these are actually activities, but more often they’re fill in the blank worksheets and videos to watch (there are Youtube playlists). However, these were developed by the author to be used in a co-op and all include many actual activities at the end of the program listed as optional. These are mostly art and craft related activities as well as games and demonstrations. The materials are generally pretty simple. There is a wealth of printables included in each program, such as maps, cards, worksheets, and cut and paste crafts.

In a nutshell: I have very mixed feelings about these programs. Secular users should think hard about the science programs in particular.

Pro: They’re very creative and interesting. She covers interesting topics. She doesn’t talk down to kids at all. The text is at a high level, but is flexible and can be used with many different ages. I think most of the programs are best for middle school, but most of them could be used for about 4th grade up through high school, at least as a high school supplement or elective. The games and activities are interesting. We did The Brain with a group and some of them, like games to illustrate through metaphors how signals pass through the brain, were easy to implement and enjoyable.

Con: The text is at a high level, but sometimes it’s just too detailed. For example, in the Protozoa text, the big picture began to get lost in the details. And by details, I really mean details. Several dozen protists were described in incredible detail, but the big picture of what these tiny creatures do and the role they play in the overall ecosystem just wasn’t the emphasis. And the worksheets sometimes emphasize some aspect of memory that really isn’t all that connected to the topic. In the case of the Protozoa, it was Greek prefixes and roots. That’s interesting, but some of it went a little far for a science program. Also of concern for the biology programs is that she avoids discussing evolution altogether to try and please all audiences. That means that not only was the emphasis not on how protists fit into the ecosystem, but there was absolutely no discussion of adaptations in a book about animals.  The website makes it clear that this will likely be an even bigger with the new Rocks and Minerals text. It’s a geology text that never mentions the age of the earth and argues against plate tectonics.

Also, while they are riddled with activities, the cut and paste nature of the activities is too crafty for a science program for my taste. It’s fine for the humanities programs and while the map drawing methods didn’t work for us in Mapping the World with Art, I could see how it could be perfect for some families. However, she has two programs about cells that don’t require kids to pull out a microscope. In the case of the Protozoa curriculum, having a simple suggestion to do a hay infusion of some local pond water would be so unbelievably easy. The Brain does include the suggestion to order and dissect a sheep’s brain (which we did), but in general that’s the only suggestion of actual science included. The Elements, about chemistry, focuses a great deal on memorization and card games and very little on doing any actual chemistry. A science program that is all vocabulary cards and coloring projects just isn’t a full science program to me, even aside from the issue of whether or not it’s “neutral” on science like the age of the earth. Those things can be good for some kids, yes. And they can be tools for memorization, which is good. But I think they make kids miss the point. Getting messy and doing at least a couple of actual experiments is an essential component of science.

The Takeaway: They’re not bad programs. I have recommended them to people and some families adore them and it’s easy to see why. But I think the fact that they lack a big picture focus, don’t include actual experiments in the science, and aren’t secular are all things people should think about before diving in or while using. I think they work best when used with other resources. Unless I decide to use Excavating English, I doubt we’ll be using her programs again here. The issues I had with Protozoa and seeing the “neutral” stance on the age of the earth presented in her new book tipped me over the edge against them.

Science Fair! (without the fair)

One of the final things we did in the spring before the kids headed off in their summer directions, was science fair style projects. And they were excellent. We didn’t have a science fair to take them to (though there are a few homeschool science fairs around here during the school year, so I’ll save them and maybe we’ll attend one). But that was no big deal. We could still do a project as if it was for one.

We’ve never done a science project like this. We’ve done loads of experiments over the years and of course I’ve taught the scientific method. However, doing a kid-chosen project like this was definitely a super valuable experience that emphasized the scientific method in a new way. I’m glad we waited until middle school because I’m not totally sure if they’d have gotten as much out of it at a younger age. However, this was so good that I think we’ll do it again next year.

Mushroom was doing a study of cells for school. Then I had him read through Ellen McHenry’s Protozoa and he did some of the worksheets and activities. When it came time to do a project, I suggested he do something with the topic he’d been studying already and he came up with a project comparing two different infusions of stream water. He hypothesized based on his research that they would cultivate different types of protists.

That hypothesis turned out to be wrong. However, they did have different effects (hay is better than rice, at least with Rock Creek stream water). He took photos using a microscope camera. He then made an amazing board and wrote a really solid science report about his method. Overall, he worked really hard and breezed through.

BalletBoy had a longer trek to figuring something out. He’d been studying meteorology for school and I suggested he find a project that would go with that. He initially wanted to try a project having to do with charting the temperature. But that fizzled. Then he decided to try this project where you test the humidity by making your own hygrometer. If you don’t know the website Science Buddies, it’s a great search tool for finding science fair project ideas. Unfortunately, after two attempts at making the hygrometer, he couldn’t get it to do a thing.

Frustrated, he asked if he could poke around and do something else entirely. He found a project making bath bombs and decided to try that. He altered the project from the website, doing some research and coming up with his own recipe. Then, while it turned out to be a pretty grueling day of messing up and not measuring properly, he made and then tested the bombs. His hypothesis was also disproven. The recipe he invented wasn’t the fizziest. But that was fine. He had some data to show for his project. And while he didn’t quite have the graphic design flair that Mushroom did and I ended up having to direct his report and project board more, he felt really good about what he’d done in the end.

This is one of those “school” experiences that I think it’s worth trying to provide for homeschoolers but that it’s easy to forget about in the rush to finish a curriculum. It can also be a messy endeavor for families (we had large tupperwares of stream water growing small beasties on the mantle for weeks) and I know that some families recoil just thinking about managing it. But it was very worth it here, even if there wasn’t a fair and blue ribbons at the end of the process. It was great for learning organization, writing, and presentation skills, not to mention really emphasizing the scientific method.

 

Chemistry from ACS

I know that the blog hasn’t had the big science focus that I had a couple of years ago. However, we do still do science regularly with a small group and I facilitate hands on learning and occasionally experiments. Since we did a full cycle of science topics over the course of four years, I decided to ask the kids what they wanted to revisit. First, we did some physics, but next they wanted to take on chemistry, so that’s what we’ve been doing for the last couple of months.

I looked at a lot of different potential resources for teaching chemistry and I thought about using Inquiry in Action from the American Chemical Society, but it seemed too simple with too many things we’d done in the past. I considered doing The Elements from Ellen McHenry, but it was so focused on a single aspect of chemistry and after doing most of The Brain, I knew I liked her products, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to tackle this particular program. I thought about doing chemistry the way we always have by doing our own demonstrations and explorations. I bought an excellent book called 150 Captivating Chemistry Experiments Using Household Substances with that in mind. However, in the end, I decided to go with the American Chemical Society’s free middle school program. Some of the information has to be scaled down a little since I am working with a group of mostly fifth graders and a few younger kids. However, it has been interesting to use an actual, full science curricula for the first time ever.

The cover page of Middle School ChemistryThe program is not long enough to take the whole year. There are six chapters. Doing the bulk of the experiments from each chapter with a small group is taking us about two weeks per chapter. If I had the kids filling out every table and worksheet, this would be different, but often we do most of the hands on stuff together as a demonstration and discussion and I choose one or two activities to have them really do fully on their own with more writing and recording. I haven’t had them do many of the worksheet elements at all. Instead, we’ve talked about the questions on them. However, even if I did, I doubt it would take a full year.

Each chapter is divided into sections. The sections have student and teacher pages. The student pages are extensive instructions with worksheets and tables to fill out. There are often sections with additional science background for the teacher, which I found very useful. Each chapter has a section of student reading, which we have used for each chapter. I like the progression of information, both overall in the program and within each chapter. Sometimes the organization of the information feels a little overwhelming. It would be much more usable as a physical text, but since I have only the pdf, there is a lot of scrolling to do, which isn’t always ideal. There is multimedia available for every chapter, however those pieces are pretty simplistic. Most of them are short animations of models of molecules interacting to imitate what students have just done in their hands on explorations and experiments.

chemistry

The heart of the program is really the hands on element. I liked that the experiments are tied very closely to the information. For the most part they have “worked” the way that we expect. This was not a “household substances” sort of program. Most of the things we’ve needed have been things we have around the house like water and salt, or things that are easy to get like Epsom salts, rubbing alcohol, and clear plastic cups. However, many experiments also call for chemistry glass like graduated cylinders and a few call for chemicals you need to special order or seek out particularly, like calcium chloride. Also, special equipment like a ball and ring apparatus, density rods, and density cubes is called for. I spent a decent amount on supplies at Home Science Tools. However, I figure we’ll be glad of having the science glass later on and all of the special equipment I bought turned out to be great fun. The ball and ring apparatus shows how molecules expand when heated. We did that demo several times over because it was fun to see. And the density cubes were great fun to play with. We really enjoyed having them, so they were worth the money. The fact that the program is free helps offset some of the costs of buying classroom type equipment.

Overall, I really like this program. We have shied away from science curricula because nearly everything I’ve seen has felt like busy work with very little hands on components and only poorly written text. This program is really all well-organized, worthwhile experiments. I would still love to have a more engaging, longer text than what the ACS program has, but at least it’s succinct and well-written. I’ve also had to supplement with videos I find myself, but we’ve found a lot of great ones. We’ve especially been enjoying many of the TED Ed videos and we’ve returned to using a lot of the old Eureka! shorts, which have covered the information perfectly. Here’s the TED Ed chemistry playlist. And here’s a playlist for all the Eureka! videos.

I think we might have been better off waiting a year or two to try this program so that some of the things I’ve had to simplify could have been more fully explored. But that’s what happens when you put the kids in charge of what they want to learn. Overall, we’ve been pleased and it gives me hope that while elementary science programs weren’t our cup of tea, we may find more options for serious home science study in the upper grades.

Monster Science: Simple Machines

I’m still working on my monster sized science project.  To keep myself on track, here’s another section, this one from the physics unit.  It’s been eons since we studied any of these physics topics, so input is extra appreciated!

Again, this is just a tiny piece of a larger unit so some concepts are explored elsewhere.  Stars next to books and resources mean they’re extra awesome.  One of the pieces of feedback about the first section was a need for illustrations about a few of the activities.  I’ve put in a few with my meager art skills, so feel free to tell me that it’s fine without them or that I should really hire an illustrator or that they’re okay, though, honestly, I’m not holding my breath for that last one.

simplemachinesbutton

 

A Monster Sized Science Project

So I used to post a lot about science, but lately, I haven’t been.  One of the reasons is that I’ve been working on making a curriculum for elementary science, based in part on all the stuff we’ve done over the last several years.

I have to confess that I feel woefully inadequate and odd doing this.  While I love science, I have exactly zero formal training in it.  However, what I wished we had for science simply didn’t exist (none of the curricula out there were right for us…  trust me, you’re not going to mention something I haven’t seen!).  I would like to create just a piece of that for others if I can.  What I wished for was two part.  First, I wish there was a wonderful, narrative, engagingly written book about science for elementary schoolers.  There’s no way I could create that.  Second, I wish there was an overarching activity guide that lists resources and projects for science.  Well, that I am trying my hand at.

It has turned out to be a larger project than I originally intended.  Since I’m slowly working on it, I thought I’d share some of it here as I go.  Maybe just one section a month until I manage to finish.  I’d love to hear your feedback, whether it’s typos, activities, clarity, organization, or anything else, even “I think this is a waste of your time!”

Eventually, the project will be a guide that covers all of elementary science for kids K-4. Below is just one section from one unit.  The idea is that you use living books with videos and activities, which is basically what we’ve done.  It’s meant to be a pick and choose curriculum.  You don’t do every book and every activity and experiment (that would be way too much), you just do the ones that are right for your family (or the resources you manage to find at your library and the activities you have time for).  The options are there so it can be used by kids in this wide age range, so that you can breeze through some topics and explore others in depth, and so that you can get the books and materials that are easiest for you instead of trying to track down things your library or grocery doesn’t have.

Below is the first section I’m sharing, about the bones and muscles.  I’m playing around with calling it the Monster Science Guide, thus the little monster doodle in the button.  Click on the button to get the pdf.

bonesbutton

Scientists in the Field

trackingtrash_RLprariebuilders_HChiddenworlds_RLprojectseahorse

We have recently discovered the Scientists in the Field series and have been loving them.  This is a relatively recent children’s book series written in partnership with the Smithsonian.  The books are very detailed and meaty.  Most have several chapters and more than fifty pages of small text with beautiful color photos.  They’re too detailed for most early elementary readers and are perfect for upper elementary and middle school.  They cover topics in every major branch of science, but like every aspect of children’s books, there are vastly more about the life sciences than anything else, which is part of why I didn’t know this series until someone mentioned it online.

Once I looked it up, I realized I had seen several of the titles already, including one about oceans and waves and another about Mars that I deemed cool, but too complex for the kids way back in first grade.  We had also read one, the book Hidden Worlds, about microscopy.  I raved about how excellent Hidden Worlds was here back in the fall and it’s still one of my favorites of the ones we’ve read.  I was thrilled to discover that there were dozens more like it out there!

Unlike so many science books for kids, the goal of these books is not to introduce vocabulary and concepts about a topic, though they may do that too.  Instead, the books follow a scientist or a group of scientists and use that as a jumping off point to tell a story.  Some books talk about a specific project or expedition.  Others talk about a scientist’s life and work.  I love how detailed the books are not just about scientific theories and methods, but the practical parts of being a scientist.  In Quest for the Tree Kangaroo, the expedition’s packing list is included to give you an idea of what it’s really like to do field work (don’t forget the 48 rolls of toilet paper!).  In Project Seahorse, we learn about the life of a fisherman whose livelihood is impacted by the scientists’ work.  

It’s also great that each book shows different types of scientists at different points in their careers.  In The Bat Scientists, one of the scientists is the founder of a worldwide group and one of the foremost experts in his field, but others are field scientists doing different jobs and with different backgrounds.  In other books, we meet students and interns.  All of this is a great way to show kids all the different types of careers and paths there are in science.

Read Alouds to go with Nature Study

I was lamenting as I wrote my post about fiction books about science the other day that there are so few great children’s books that really focus on science.  Then, I suddenly realized that there are actually plenty of books for nature lovers.  After we wrapped up Sassafras Science, we dove into The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate and the relief I felt reading aloud rich, quality language was pretty excellent.  So here you are, a list of fiction books with nature themes.  May reading them bring on spring!

My Side of the MountainChasing RedbirdThe Evolution of Calpurnia TateGone-Away Lake (Gone-Away Lake, #1)

My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George
This is the classic story a boy who runs away to live in the woods alone.  The details about survival and nature bring this story to life.  It’s been in our required reading list this year but so far neither of my children have picked it out.  I’m thinking of doing it as our first all together read next month.

Chasing Redbird by Sharon Creech
I think of Sharon Creech’s work as the middle grades answer to Barbara Kingslover because she weaves nature and everyday life together so well in several of her stories.  This one is about a girl who, in the middle of lots of pains about growing up, decides to spend summer clearing a path into the forest behind her house.  Note that there is a family death in this book.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly
As I said, this is our current read aloud and a story with lots of rich language.  It’s about a young girl in turn of the century Texas who wants to become a naturalist under the tutalage of her science-loving grandfather.

Gone-Away Lake by Elizabeth Enright
I could have listed almost any of Enright’s books.  The Four-Story Mistake contains an entire chapter about a boy watching a moth at his window which is one of the most beautiful passages in any children’s book anywhere.  However, the entire focus of Gone-Away Lake is on the restorative power in nature and the descriptions of the wild plants and the progression of the summer season are the overpowering features of this book.  Don’t read it in winter like we mistakenly did.  Be sure to do it when summer is on the horizon.

A Week in the WoodsOperation Redwood

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Most people probably already know this classic about a girl who is revived by finding a mysterious overgrown garden.  It’s a lovely way to celebrate nature, gardening and life, especially in the spring.  As I’ve posted before, when we read it aloud awhile back, we especially loved the Inga Moore illustrated edition.

A Week in the Woods by Andrew Clements
Clements’s book about a rich kid who finds his place in a small town is more about teachers and students than about nature, but there is an enthusiasm for being outside and getting to know the woods in the story.  Clements has a knack for making characters that kids relate to, so this book may make readers feel like anyone could spend a week in the woods.

Operation Redwood by S. Terrell French
This book is full of humor and adventure.  Through a series of accidents, a boy takes on saving a small patch of redwood trees.  The redwoods are obviously the nature focus and the reader learns about these amazing trees as the main character struggles to fight his own family to save them.