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Independent Activities for Middle School Science
Kathryn L. Stout, B.S.Ed., M.Ed.
Published: March/April 2007
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Whether homeschooling one child or several, we all tend to look for resources our kids can use independently for at least part of the school day. If we give them something to investigate and the opportunity to share that information, they will not only have the benefit of developing research skills, but they will also gain confidence in their own ability to learn. Specific and narrow topics in science can be assigned regularly to give kids a chance to find answers. Mom doesn't have to plan or teach—just check it off.
Science Scope, a K-12 guide, lists specifics that kids can use as a working outline—whether it's one point or several. Of course, if they're told to come back with a written report to be graded or that they must then take a test, all motivation may be lost. On the other hand, there are numerous alternatives for presenting their findings that can serve as proof of their knowledge while giving them a chance to be creative and hone other skills. For example, models, displays, and posters involve art skills. Illustrated booklets use both art and writing, and skits allow them to both compose a script and perform dramatically. Oral reports serve as an opportunity for practicing speeches. Power Point presentations offer a creative outlet for those who would want to increase their expertise with this computer program. Choices for presenting findings will keep kids interested in this approach, allowing it to become a regular part of the curriculum.
There's another benefit to this approach as well. When kids read a nonfiction assignment, they passively absorb information which may or may not be of interest. If they are given a question or two and then supplied that same content, their minds will shift into active mode, sorting through, finding what's relevant, and often noting something of interest that they then want to investigate more thoroughly. My daughter always enjoyed reading and was quite content to read anything assigned. However, when we started a study on the solar system, I wanted to use this approach to whet her appetite. I had her chose a planet and told her to find out anything that seemed interesting and share it with us. She made a poster as an illustration for her oral presentation. That simple assignment, that active instead of passive approach, sparked her interest in astronomy to the point that it became a hobby.
As we proceeded with our study, I used a variety of resources and methods but continued to include opportunities for my two children to investigate by using the list of terms to be defined or explained in the solar system section of Science Scope. On the day they were to teach about equinox and summer and winter solstices, a friend came over. They went to the book, assigned her another term on the list, and all gathered information and built models with Styrofoam balls. After taking turns teaching the rest of us (I was always part of the supportive audience, never a judge), their friend asked if she could be homeschooled, too.
Topics that may seem dry can become appealing by connecting them to something real and meaningful. For example, hearing about tornadoes (or hurricanes, earthquakes, etc.) in the news and the damage they've done creates a desire to learn more about tornadoes—their causes and what to do when they threaten. Watching a movie—fiction or docudrama—involving a volcanic eruption can spark an interest in discovering further details about volcanoes. Studying climate as it affects a group of people—their homes, diet, clothing, and so on—may be easier to digest than a textbook chapter of facts without such a connection.
Since animals and their habitats make up a large part of the elementary curriculum, I gave my kids a list of six points* to use regularly as a working outline. With each culture we studied, they would choose an animal found in that region to investigate. We kept a three-ring notebook with divider tabs listing the vertebrate classifications*: amphibians, birds, fish, mammals, reptiles. We didn't always have time for a formal presentation, but their written (or typed or dictated) report and illustration were always placed in the proper section of the notebook for everyone to look at. The fact that these also served as their English compositions for the week kept them motivated even though, in this case, it was a traditional written report that had to go through the editing process.
They were to include their name and date, a picture of the animal, and the following information:
- Structure: diagram with labels or a drawing with a description.
- Development (growth): birth to death (life cycle), reproduction, life span.
- What is needed for life: home, diet.
- What kills and eats it, if anything.
- Places where it is most common.
The amount of detail varied according to their age and ability. At seven, my son's report was one short, dictated paragraph with a photocopy of a tiger. A few years later his entry on frogs contained hand drawn illustrations of each stage of development along with several paragraphs of information.
When kids are mentally involved, given an outlet to express their own personalities, and allowed to present what they've learned without feeling judged, there will be a major boost to their confidence and love of learning. The ideas offered here encourage all that and give mom a break, as well—a much needed bonus.