When it comes to teaching science, it's all about the hands-on.
Sure, you can read about kinetic energy in a textbook, but it's a lot more fun to see it in action by rolling marbles down a ramp or swirling a golf ball around a green plastic bowl.
And maybe the lesson will stick.
That's the thought behind a new science lab being offered this year to intermediate students at Mary Giella Elementary School.
Since the beginning of the school year, Annie McCallister has led a variety of 45-minute lab activities for students using some rather simple and inexpensive supplies: marbles, golf balls, coffee cans, plastic bowls and containers found around the house. She has even used her own guitar to teach a lesson in sound energy. Coming up? A lab on soil erosion using sugar cubes, and perhaps a little dabbling in physics by making miniature roller coasters out of pipe insulation she picked up at Home Depot.
So far the Science Lab is getting some pretty good marks from students and teachers.
"It's fun that you get to interact with other things besides a book," said fifth-grader Krystal Smith.
"It's my second favorite thing after P.E.," said third-grader Gavin Ybarra. "We get to do fun stuff."
"I like it very much," said classmate Raven Ringley. "You learn a lot of science, and it helps you get smarter."
"They get excited when it's time for Science Lab, said his teacher, Hayley Williams. "They like the hands-on."
And while fifth-grade teacher Lisa Good says it's too soon to measure the impact on her students, she'd like to see more.
"I think it would be better to have it more than once a week and a little longer time," she said. "But they (students) are using more critical thinking skills and it gets them enthused, so those are real pluses."
Getting students excited about science has been a high priority at the Title 1 school, said principal Katie Lail.
"We took a look at last year's (FCAT) science scores and realized we were really missing the boat in providing hands-on labs for our intermediate students," she said.
Providing those kind of lessons seemed somewhat daunting, especially for elementary school teachers who already have a lot of ground to cover during the school day.
"A lot of our teachers are reading teachers by nature, and that what a lot of our focus has been on," Lail said. "Science can be a little scary. And even if it's not, it can be difficult for a classroom teacher to do their own labs because it takes so much time to get the materials and set things up. There's just not enough time."
The idea to have one teacher oversee the program made sense, especially since Lail had already seen the success of a similar program at West Zephyrhills Elementary, where she previously served as assistant principal.
McCallister, who taught fourth grade at Giella, seemed the perfect candidate to take on the job as lab teacher.
"She has a lot of background in gifted education, and she is a very technology-sound person," Lail said. "And as a classroom teacher she did so many hands-on activities with her students. We felt she was someone who could jump in and get it off the ground. And she has."
Title 1 funding pays for some of the lab activities, but McCallister has done her share of pounding the pavement to secure grants and donations from local businesses. A $600 grant from PetSmart helped pay for a program on animal care.
"Home Depot helps out a bunch," said McCallister, adding that she made $106 at the school carnival to help pay for aquarium supples by selling "slime" made out of borax, water and glue. And she makes regular trips to the district's recycling center, "Creation Station" in Land O'Lakes, where she picks up supplies for free.
While McCallister runs the show in the science lab, she also works closely with classroom teachers, who help out with activities and offer input on what skills and standards they want covered. Students either get a preview of what they will be learning in the classroom with their teacher, or the lab is a culminating activity for the lesson.
"We do pull a lot of questions from the FCAT to work on, but I try to make it fun," McCallister said, as she gave a quick demonstration of the roller coaster activity she had planned for the coming week. "I think of myself as the student sitting in that chair, and I ask myself, 'Is this going to be boring?'
"I'm always searching for that thing that they're going to say, 'Wow that's cool!' "