George Lucas Educational Foundation
Professional Learning

The Learning Lab: A Science Center Is an Ideal Model for All Classrooms

December 21, 2007

In my last entry, I described a favorite experience from my short teaching career: the opportunity to use free and freely available science manipulatives and materials to enable hands-on discovery in the classroom. It reminded me of one of the most remarkable learning environments I have ever had the pleasure to spend time in.

While I was still a substitute teacher in a large northern California school district, I covered for the teacher of a science center for Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) children. I met with Mr. Bogardus for a briefing the day before his absence, and although I took charge during subsequent assignments there, that first day I basically assisted his classroom aide.

The science center was a converted house at the edge of a large suburban park, and, in and around the unassuming structure, some vivid learning took place. During an intensive week of study, fourth graders examined animal skulls and identified them by their characteristics, such as the placement of the eyes, the form of the jaw, and the shape of the teeth. They took meteorological readings. They performed experiments and made observations and did everything else scientists do, much of it with little guidance or supervision.

On the last day of their weeklong session at the science center, the students circulated through the small building, visiting various workstations and observing and recording phenomena and data, demonstrating mastery of the skills they had acquired during the week. That was their final exam.

After enjoying my time there, I realized that every classroom -- not just those available in rotation to GATE students for a single week -- should be like the science center. All learning environments should offer young, kinetic learners a place to get on their feet and look, feel, listen, and experience learning with their senses and acquire knowledge and understanding the way adults do, by engaging in authentic activities.

Alas, though when I was hired as a full-time teacher I did give my students experiences with science and math manipulatives, I was never able to comprehensively achieve this vision of active, experiential education in my own classroom. I did observe it once again, however, in another school district.

Mrs. Gillfillan's fourth- and fifth-grade classroom featured shared tables, not desks, plus enough fiction and nonfiction books to stock a small school library and a wealth of implements, artifacts, and specimens. Her students spent a lot of time out of their seats but into their learning, including the occasional overnight field trip. I suspect they remember Mrs. Gillfillan's class to this day.

Classrooms and teachers like these have always existed and have become more numerous in the intervening years. However, bureaucratic directives and regressive legislation have doused many sparks of learning and dampened many young spirits that might otherwise have been animated by creative educational environments and experiences.

But even in our retrograde pedagogical climate, such forward-thinking places like the Science Center still thrive -- we've covered many in our magazine and on this Web site, and there must be many, many more. We hope you'll share with us your efforts to help active learning occur, your knowledge of learning laboratories, and your discovery of -- or professional resemblance to -- great teachers like Mr. Bogardus and Mrs. Gillfillan.

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