News & Views

Worm Wrangling and Snail Observing: First Graders Learn How to be Scientists

“I am trying to find the mouth and am also studying the design of the shell,” explains first grade science student Dylan Shah of Stamford, carefully examining the grove snail in front of him. “I also want to find the respiratory pore.”
“The snail has different colors on its shell. It is so slimy!” exclaims classmate Lily Burnes of Darien, holding her specimen in hands dampened with water, making it easier for the snail to move across her outstretched palms.
“There is no better way to teach science than to stimulate all the student’s senses,” explains New Canaan Country School Science Teacher Chantal Detlefs, who oversees the science program for the Lower School division (Grades 1-4). “We aren't afraid to get really messy and what's better than experiences with live animals?”
The first grade science curriculum is focused primarily on how to be a scientist. Skills to be mastered include careful observation (using the science circle method, a cyclical version of the scientific method), note-taking, formulating a hypothesis, experiment design, data collection and drawing conclusions.
“I want my students to learn about science as they are experiencing it,” continues Ms. Detlefs, who has taught at the school since 2005 and holds a master’s degree in Environmental Science. “We venture into our studies using our senses like scientists would, and learn how to make observations about the world around us.” 
Lesson plans are designed to be highly engaging, stimulating and sensory, as they cumulatively scaffold concepts and content. This learn-by-doing approach - a hallmark of a Country School education - gives students the opportunity to learn deeply, not just for rote memorization or a one-time assessment. It also provides the opportunity to do some worm wrangling. 
“This is where it gets particularly exciting and experiential,” said Ms. Detlefs. As part of their study and classification of various nonvertebrates, the students "experiment" with live, red wiggler worms and design and implement investigations to see if they prefer wet or dry and light or dark. Wiggling worm experiments are second only in popularity to grove snails.
“This one went up the cup and I was looking at it's head and it's little eyes with a magnifying glass,” says Rose Mallin of New Canaan, while simultaneously peering at a small snail balanced on the edge of a plastic cup and making notations in the pages of a scientific observation journal.
“The snails are always a big hit,” acknowledges Ms. Detlefs. 
The study of invertebrates is followed by a study of vertebrates, which typically begins with a focus on birds with the assistance of the Berry College eagle cam. This live-action, nest-view of bald eagles going about their business atop Mt. Berry, in Rome, Georgia provides students with a front-row vantage point from which to observe both the small daily rituals as well as the major milestones of bird life: eggs being laid and hatching, eaglets being fed and protected from predators and young fledglings attempting their first solo flight. 
Closer to home, they learn about reptiles by checking in with classroom resident-species which include a Russian box tortoise, bearded dragon and leopard gecko, followed by a virtual introduction to the fascinating lives of sea turtles. 
Students also learn about amphibians, carefully observing live tadpoles in small containers, developing queries and noting evidence of life-span development. 
“I absolutely love teaching first grade science. The students are so curious and are enthusiastic learners,” continues Ms. Detlefs. “Experiences and sensory projects particularly resonate with this age group. They think of it as an adventure of discovery. Once they have been introduced to the wonder of the natural world, achieved the skills to be a scientist and know where to look, they can then suddenly see it all around them. It’s literally an ‘A-Ha’ moment. And that, right there, is the goal.”
New Canaan Country School admits students of any race, color, national and ethnic origin and are afforded all the rights, privileges, programs, and activities generally accorded or made available to students at the school and does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, age, sex, sexual orientation, national origin or ancestry, or disability in administration of its educational policies, admissions policies, financial aid policies or any other school-administered programs.