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Faculty & Staff Stories in Fine Print, the Magazine of Rowland Hall

Doing What Real Scientists Do: Fifth-Grade Science Share Celebrates Inquiry, Process, and (Sometimes) Failure

Each August when students at Rowland Hall enter fifth grade, they receive a special assignment: write a letter to your teacher introducing yourself and expressing your hopes and fears for the year ahead. According to Sarah Button and Chad Obermark, two Lower School faculty members with a collective 23 years of experience teaching Rowland Hall fifth graders, 75 percent of incoming students are worried about one thing in particular—the science share.

"We talk about the science share from day one," Chad said.

The annual spring project, which has been part of the Lower School curriculum for over 20 years, requires students to develop a research question and then execute the scientific method, culminating in a public presentation of their findings. It takes approximately eight weeks for students to complete the entire process: choosing a question, forming a hypothesis, collecting and analyzing data, writing up their results using the claim-evidence-reasoning framework, and creating the presentation board and accompanying Keynote—digital documentation—for the science share.

The annual spring project, which has been part of the Lower School curriculum for over 20 years, requires students to develop a research question and then execute the scientific method, culminating in a public presentation of their findings.

The sustained timeline, coupled with the independent nature of the research, is what contributes to student anxiety about the science share, Chad explained. "They've really got to own it," he said, "and for some kids it's daunting."

For some fifth-grade students, identifying their research question is the toughest part of the process. Mackenzie White, whose project explored whether the duration of egg-whipping affected the height of a pound cake, said that finding a genuine question was her biggest challenge.

Sarah said that students' initial questions frequently fall into that category: those they already know the answer to. When she pushes them to establish genuine questions, they grow concerned. "They'll worry that their hypothesis might turn out wrong," she said. "So I have to reassure them it's okay if their experiment goes south and they find out something different than what they expected. That's what real scientists do."

At this year's science share on April 26, projects explored a range of questions, such as whether the type of string on a lacrosse stick impacts shot accuracy, or whether listening to music during a math test affects student performance. Faculty, parents, and other Lower School students made their way around the room, examining display boards, listening to presentations about the scientific method, and asking the fifth graders questions about their findings.

Some students were nervous about presenting their work to the community, though many spoke with pride about what they had learned. Will Chin, whose question was "does the temperature of a tennis ball affect how high it bounces?" described the painstaking process of data collection. After filming bouncing tennis balls—some of which had been cooled or heated—he pored over hours of video to extract precise height measurements, often slowing down and rewinding footage multiple times. However, his advice to future students was reassuring. "Once you get past the procedure," he said, "it's really fun."

They'll worry that their hypothesis might turn out wrong. So I have to reassure them it's okay if their experiment goes south and they find out something different than what they expected. That's what real scientists do. —Sarah Button, fifth-grade teacher

Gigi Brown, Jojo Park, and Bea Martin also had good suggestions for next year's fifth-grade class: Make sure you pick a question that really interests you. Choose a project that doesn't involve living subjects. Start early, and don't be afraid to ask your teacher for help.

Even though some students may struggle with the science share, Sarah emphasized that the process of engaging with a meaningful question—not the end product on display—is what creates a positive learning outcome. Additionally, the experience can impact the way students approach future projects in the Middle School and beyond. For one of Sarah's former students whose science share wasn't particularly successful, that meant helping his brother out when he got to fifth grade. "He didn't want his brother to make the same mistakes he had," Sarah said, "and his brother's project ended up being one of the best in his class."

The celebration of scientific inquiry and process, including the occasional failure, presents an opportunity for the community too, according to Chad. While many other Lower School performances or events focus on the arts or literacy, the science share offers a critical window into STEM learning. "It's a big deal," he said, "and it's a big deal about science."


Faculty Awards, 2017

Congratulations to the following teachers who received awards this June for outstanding service to their profession and to the school.

The Sumner Family Faculty Awards are given each year to outstanding faculty members in each division who have demonstrated a love for teaching and excellence in their field. It is an award given by a family who has shown an unparalleled commitment to the school for three generations. The award symbolizes the Sumner family's high regard for the faculty.

Congratulations to the 2016–2017 recipients of the Sumner Family Faculty Awards:

Beginning School: Melanie Robbins

Lower School: Chad Obermark

Middle School: Bill Shann

Upper School: Rob Wilson

The Cary Jones Faculty Mentor Award was established through an anonymous gift to the school in honor of Mr. Jones' dedication to the faculty when he was a member and chair of the Board of Trustees. This year Rowland Hall proudly honors Cindy Hall, music teacher in the beginning and lower schools, for demonstrating excellence in the classroom and service to the entire Rowland Hall community with the Cary Jones Faculty Mentor Award.


Colonial Day—A Fifth Grade Tradition

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be born in another time in American history? Each school year, at the beginning of the second trimester, the fifth grade has the opportunity to journey back in time to Colonial America as part of their yearlong study of American history. Each student reads, researches, and writes about one of the original 13 colonies, a trade, and the life of the period. Students may select to be an apothecary, blacksmith, miller, indigo planter, lighthouse keeper, milliner, wigmaker, silversmith, schoolteacher, innkeeper, printer, limner, tanner, homemaker, architect, peddler, glassmaker, weaver, potter, or paper maker.

Once students know what they will be researching, they create a colonial journal to record their work from the perspective of a colonial tradesperson. Students make their journals appear as if it was created during the colonial era. The old-world appearance of the journal is not the most important part of the project, but it is a lot of fun. Many students create a colonial name for the purpose of their research. After several weeks of research and writing, students are prepared to engage in hands-on projects during our annual Colonial Day.

On Colonial Day the fifth grade teachers, and many of the students, come dressed in colonial attire. Students learn how to cross-stitch with Sarah Button, engage in tin-smithing with Stuart McCandless, and pose for their silhouette with Chad Obermark. In addition, the young colonists sample johnnycakes made from a traditional recipe of the period. This experience enhances the fifth graders' appreciation of this time in our nation’s history and helps them as they continue their independent research.

Colonial Day would not be possible without our many amazing parent volunteers. Thank you!

Fifth grade students wrap up the unit by completing their journal writing and giving a two-minute presentation about their colonial trade using props to discuss how their job contributed to colonial times.

Students, past and present, fondly remember their Colonial Day experience as one of their favorite Lower School traditions.

Experiential Learning

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