George Lucas Educational Foundation
Professional Learning

A Fortune from FOSS: Treasure Chests of Hands-On Science Learning

December 13, 2007

While walking through my neighborhood recently, I noticed several large, colorful cardboard boxes in the back of a pickup truck parked in a driveway. Upon closer inspection, I recognized their labels: Each read "FOSS," the acronym for the Full Option Science System, a science curriculum developed about twenty years ago by staff at the Lawrence Hall of Science, a museum and learning center at the University of California at Berkeley.

As a novice teacher in the late 1980s, I had vaulted at the chance to join the FOSS pilot program, because it meant I would receive veritable treasure chests: cardboard boxes full of science manipulatives for group activities.

When I was a child, I had avidly read my science schoolbooks, despite their dry, lifeless, simplified passages, but actual experiments and explorations in the classroom were rare in my classes. Science learning had consisted almost exclusively of, for example, reading in a textbook about how seeds develop into plants, watching filmstrips that demonstrate how levers and pulleys and inclined planes work, studying charts illustrating how weather systems form, and viewing a movie about how animals adapt to their environments. But I could not remember actually handling a scientific implement until junior high school.

I know that even now, many elementary school teachers avoid teaching hands-on science because of their own uninspiring experiences and lack of scientific literacy (or, because of the demands of standardized testing, are given insufficient opportunities to teach science the way it should be taught).

Because of time constraints and my inexperience as a teacher, my science instruction was initially just as dull and textbook driven, but I wanted it to be different for my students. So I eagerly attended workshops on using the FOSS materials, and I happily hauled away box after box: one about magnetism and electricity, another that covered anatomy, another on geology, another that involved plants, and another full of weights and measures. More than fifteen years later, I can still picture the neatly packed materials and the anticipation with which I unpacked them.

Although my classroom-management skills were modest, and I had some difficulties with some students when I taught these science units, by and large I enjoyed the experience, and most students got a kick out of them, too. They assembled Halloween-style cardboard skeletons without my guidance, working in groups to figure out which leg bone connects to the hip bone, in what order the various bones of the hand are arrayed, and so on until they had assembled their own model of the human body's chassis.

Again without being told how to do it, they assembled battery-powered motors and ventured around the classroom to find out what is magnetic and what isn't. They examined samples of the minerals that compose granite (careful with the thin sheets of mica!) and picked apart flour-based "rocks" I had baked with pebbles, seashell fragments, and other components to simulate the constituent "ingredients" in stone.

My biggest triumphs in my three years of classroom teaching were associated with the wealth of hands-on materials FOSS provided. And I look back now and realize that I was enabling a basic form of project-based learning, even though it wasn't called that back then. The activities required math, writing, art, and other scholastic components to achieve the various objectives, and I was able to share with my students my own joy of learning by doing, not just by reading, and of making scientific discoveries.

I'm happy to see evidence that FOSS is still going strong. Are you a FOSS-enabled educator? Have you benefited from a similar program, or from assembling your own science laboratory of learning? Share your successes with hands-on science education.

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