Love of science is the goal, now that every Pinellas elementary school has a lab


SEMINOLE — It was hard for the second-graders at Orange Grove Elementary to resist the urge to rush into the school’s science lab and tinker with the colorful objects neatly arranged on each table.

Thursday was just their second time in the lab this year, so before they got to place weights on a balance scale and watch it bob, they needed a primer on lab procedures and a refresher on measurement.

Science labs are a relatively new feature for elementary school students across Pinellas County. Since 2013, the school district has worked in phases to convert a classroom at each school into a lab at cost of $40,000 each.

In 2016, Orange Grove was among the last batch of schools to get one of the labs, which typically have been used by third, fourth and fifth graders. But this year, for the first time, second-graders get to participate.

"It’s fun and we can do a lot of science and measuring tools," said 7-year-old Zyon Robinson.

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No Bunsen burners or chemicals are required. Students build vehicles out of K’nex sets to see which one can speed off a ramp the farthest. They dissect owl pellets, and reflect flashlights off mirrors.

The labs were created to address weaknesses identified in student test data. For example, fifth-graders last year didn’t do so well on test questions about rocks and minerals, so this year’s experiments are tailored to weathering and erosion.

District officials also noticed that third-graders struggled to measuring to the exact degree. So they preemptively made labs to strengthen their skills.

"What we’re trying to do is build their capacity to understand how to measure," said Julie Poth, the district’s kindergarten through fifth grade science specialist.

On Thursday, second-grade teacher Judith Christie brought her 13 students into the lab at Orange Grove during first period. She sat them down in front of a smart board and went over expectations, like writing down your results on a sheet of paper.

Once they got to their tables, many students didn’t wait for directions — they played with the weights, adding weights to both sides and watching the scale seesaw. To warm up, they placed several lighter weights equivalent to a 10-gram weight to get the idea of how to balance for an accurate measurement.

"They’re pretty excitable but they love it," Christie said. "It gets them excited for learning in higher grade levels."

The students moved on to their lab: assembling a car out of wooden parts. They had to place each piece — the two sets of wheels, the axles, the body — on the scale and pair it with the appropriate weight to get an accurate measurement.

Arianna Bellitt, 8, marveled when the scale balanced to a standstill on the first few tries.

"I love science. My mom was a mad scientist," she said as she finished jotting down her measurements. "It was kind of easy. I like how we measure, like real measuring."

Time was up, and the class would finish their lab the next day. It was time for the fifth-graders to come in. And, in a different yet similar experiment, they picked up where the second-graders left off.

The fifth-graders’ K’nex creations had to be "cost efficient" because each piece had a price tag. They raced their vehicles down a ramp and measured how far they went.

"I like constructing things. It’s more fun than writing in class," said Liberty Jagel, 11. "I don’t really like science that much, but when it comes to lab it’s much more fun, especially with tools and stuff."

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Fifth-graders will put their skills to the test at the end of the year when they take a statewide science assessment. Many questions on the test come from standards learned in fourth and fifth grade.

"It’s been good for them to get hands-on experience," said their teacher, Merrideth Schaefer. "This is nice because they actually get to test out all the learning targets."

Poth, the district’s science specialist, sets her sights beyond the exam.

"Our real goal is to impact them so they love science, so they’ll go into the higher level courses in high school," she said. "We’re hoping that the outcome at the other end has students go into engineering and the medical field."

Contact Colleen Wright at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.