Pause to ponder

Posted by Susan Lee and Katy Ailes on 5/24/2018

In a society overwhelmed by instant gratification, quick fixes, and googling, Math, Science and Engineering Night at PDS was a moment to revel in the programing that makes our school special.  Progressive. Thought focused. A place that pushes back against modern wave of media that can sometimes make it so challenging for parents to parent and for kids to explore their inner curiosities.  


During the Math and Science Night event, and in the weeks leading up to it, we heard children excited to be experts sharing their thinking. We heard kids so versed in the vocabulary of the subject matter they were exploring that they could listen to and respond to questions asked using scientific language and examples. We saw kids fail even as the evening was underway,  and we saw kids explore iteration after iteration of a design, learning new things along the way, even if their original plans might not have worked.


For the past two years, we have been immersed in the Agency by Design Oakland fellowship. The opportunities and learning have layered well with Park Day’s progressive philosophy and educational mission.


For a moment, let’s look at two studies happening simultaneously on Math and Science night: An ocean study in first grade and a marble roller coaster project in second grade.      






The first graders in Katy’s class studied the ocean.  The project was fueled by the children’s curiosities- “I want to know more about how coral ends up in the ocean,” “How do whales float?,” and “How did salt get into ocean water in the first place?” (to name a few).  Through the project kids were asked to look closely at the interconnected systems within the ocean (parts, people and animals, and their interactions). We visited several local places (the Marine Mammal Center in Marin, Rodeo Beach in Marin, the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco and Saildrone in Emeryville) where ocean experts work and they taught us about how they are actively trying to help the ocean and why.  






The children were asked to find opportunities in how they might help the ocean and, as scientists and engineers, what they might design that brings more information to light about their important ocean questions.  They were asked to communicate these complexities in their sharing with guests throughout the evening. The children’s jobs as people who work with the ocean allowed guests to witness the essence of first grade- PLAY- while also seeing the students interact with one another in a way that showed the depth of their learning.  Some phrases overheard included, “Now we are entering the dark zone,” “This is a symbiotic relationship,” and “Watch out for those sea turtle nests!”





In their classroom reflection following the study, the children shared about the amount of choices they had-  which ocean animal they were going to research, design choices in making their Saildrones, and whether they were going to be tour guides, park rangers or Marine Mammal Center veterinarians when sharing the ocean with others.  One student went so far as to compare the Ocean exhibit to a more traditional “science fair” saying, “It’s not like we just brought our parents up to our work and they said, “Nice work.” This writing by a child articulates how this study will live on in children and shape their thinking as they encounter the deeper complexities and challenges in our world.  In response to the question, “Why is the ocean important?” she writes, “Because it is the heart of our world. It is also very delicate. And if the ocean didn’t live, we wouldn’t live. A lot of animals live there too! And earth is mostly made of water! And don’t throw trash please!”

In second grade, we build upon children’s natural curiosities to understand how systems are interconnected and how things work by capitalizing on their growing ability to observe and notice. Using a thinking routine, we looked closely at a picture of a roller coaster and dissected the parts, purposes and complexities in a single roller coaster. What feelings came up? What questions did they have about roller coasters? As the class discussed the roller coaster system, we began to see interrelated connections and questions - the discussion branched out quickly to questions about the forces at play and design elements which allow roller coasters to be “thrilling, yet terrifying!”.


Now a year older and more developed in their fine motor skills, the second graders looked closely at their marble experiments each step of the way and utilized patience as they tested variables against controls.







Throughout this project, students were asked to explore and test how materials worked in partnerships. They looked closely at the impact of materials and found opportunities in improvising ways to use the same materials.






They also explored the complexity of explaining whether or not scientific data supported their initial hypothesis. For many, it was a challenge to learn how to interpret the data that was collected and to learn how to extrapolate a response using scientific terms.  






As they became experts in how to make a marble roller coaster, children found opportunity as designers and engineers to resolve problems with creative solutions in real time with instant feedback. Multiple opportunities to iterate and re-iterate forced us to slow down and make careful, miniscule adjustments each time in order to re-calibrate each marble coaster.


Alongside learning physics principles, the children had an enormous amount of exciting fun. We capped off our marble coasters with a virtual ride on a roller coaster, which was a highlight for many of the second graders.






These are just two examples of the dynamic yet grounded ways in which making, thinking and learning are fostered here not just on Math and Science night, but on a daily basis. Making is an extension of our mindful approach to teaching- when you approach something with mindfulness, it helps you to discover things you never knew about how it works, who made it, and even leads to imaginings about how it could be designed differently.  We would argue that making and mindfulness go hand in hand, that children learn even more deeply by creating their own meaning and understanding through their made experiences and, that it is through this lens that children at Park begin to see the world as interconnected systems where everything has an impact and anything can be changed.


As you prepare for this summer, we challenge you to find these kinds of moments to make and learn together with your child. How will you consciously build a bridge to tie school, home and community lives together? Slow down the pace of life and examine the ordinary. Dive deep with simple questions. Pause to ponder. How, when, and where will you look closely, explore complexity and find opportunity together?