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

Mark Nichol

Editor / Writer
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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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Mark Nichol

Editor / Writer

Comments (10) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Tabitha's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As I was reading your post about using the FOSS kits I could picture myself doing the same thing with the materials that come in our FOSS kits. I am what you call a FOSS-enabled educator. I have taken many teacher trainings on the FOSS kits and I am now instructing teachers on using the FOSS science kits as well. I love using these kits in my science class! I have to admit that I love science and teaching science so I was really excited when my school district decided to use these kits to help us teach our state standards. We still have to supplement some of the material, but it is wonderful having all the materials for hands-on activities.

I like you do not remember ever using anything hands-on in a science class until I was in junior high school. My third graders love science class when they know that we are going to be doing an experiment. I wish that someone could invent social studies kits to use in the class as well. The more hands-on we can bring into the classroom the better off our students are at relating what they learn to the real world.

Erin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

FOSS kits are wonderful! I've taught elementary science for many years now, and I have seen wonderful learning take place with the help of hands-on science. STC kits and AIMs are different companies that do the same type of thing.

The magnetism & electricity kit that you mentioned has to be one of my favorites! I love how the activities lead the students to discover the information on their own.

I've also found that the kits, especially the FOSS kits, are very user friendly.

VERY valuable resources!

Jill Abbey's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have had very limited experience with the FOSS kits. At college they had some of the magazines from FOSS, but I did not encounter any of the kits. It sounds like a great hands on learning experience. I am very much interested in teaching in a hands on manner. I will have to look into the program more closely.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I hate to be the odd man out, but we used FOSS kits in our district and gave them up because they were too time consuming and not user friendly at all! Planning and preping for these lessons took more time than any other subject! With the demands of NCLB, we needed something we could ALSO read with students during reading time, etc. FOSS did not provide age appropriate or leveled materials for students to read. Our current program provides guided leveled readers AND hands-on materials. This is a much better combination for classrooms who need to integrate science and reading, science and social studies, etc. to get through the ever-increasing list of expected curriculum.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The very small and poor district (failing for 2 yrs MSIP) I teach in uses the Foss and STC kits. The idea is great, the problem is that the District is under the assumption that all the students are on grade level in all areas. In my experience the Foss and STC seem to be written on a grade level above that which they recommend, especiall the STC kits. In addition, STC is very time consuming in prep. I do have alife outside of my job. Half the kits don't meet state curriculum guides in scope and sequence. The Districts is under the misconception that their students are very bright, but I am finding that many are struggling to just achieve C's and D's using these kits. The kits do not allow for very much deviation to take in consideration modifications or learning styles. I have resigned from the district, laziness and lack of responsibility is being perpetuated and my principal is a newbie and looking to move on. I am also leaving the field of teaching, to much pressure on state test results that teachers are getting blamed for. Not the fact that my two grade levels have maintained a 65-70% attendance rate. Very depressing.

Lindsay's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have been teaching with the FOSS Science Kits for 3 years now. I have noticed that my desire for the kits depends on the group of students that I have. This year, I have a brilliant bunch of little sponges who love to learn and go above and beyond the expectations. This makes the tedious set-up and extensive planning time that FOSS requires a little easier for me.

I notice that after having taught with the kits in previous years, it is relatively easy for me to pick back up at the beginning of the next year. Sometimes I cringe at the sight of a certain experiement and other times I can't wait to teach it. I have learned to make the best of the program. I love creating extension activities for the kids to complete. We are lucky to teach in a county that provides us with booklets that map out the investigations and written assignments.

Overall, time is certainly a restraint when it comes to FOSS, but the kids love it and that is enough for me.

Michelle - Kentucky's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Dear Mark,

I agree with you that students learn so much through investigation and inquiry based instruction. I, also, did not have much experience in my elementary years with this type of learning. I had a wonderful professor in science that taught me the benefits of inquiry based instruction. I try to incorporate it in my class, but I teach every subject and find that time restraints limit me. What do you suggest? Great news, I just got back from a conference and was the winner of a FOSS kit. I chose Landforms!


Michelle- Kentucky's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Have you worked with the "Landforms" kit?


Steve's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is my first year using FOSS in an 8th grade science classroom and I have to say I am VERY disappointed!

The planetary science is extremely out of date, the population and diversity is cumbersome and takes up a lot of time. The chemical interation is OK ..but ... FOSS only meets about 40% of the MASS state science competencies.

Given my preference, I would use it sparingly because with NCLB I would be out of a job in a few years if I stayed exclusively with FOSS.

Susan Stock's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

For Social Studies, take a look at the "History Alive" program. Our 5th graders love it and I have used the 6th level also. It is the most hands on social studies I have seen

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