The goal of the Supermarket Science Project is to create a sustainable structure within elementary schools to teach science in an engaging way. To be sustainable it must be inexpensive, flexible, and respectful of teacher needs and capabilities. It must encourage and support parental involvement. It must be pragmatic. It must be adaptable to the needs of individual teachers: useful even if only adopted in part. And it must relate to the California curriculum standards for each grade level.
Existing Structural Problems
Most elementary science curriculum enhancements suffer from several structural faults. Companies tend to sell kits—materials and books which the teacher is expected to insert into their existing curriculum. These kits are generally designed to be both horizontal and narrow: horizontal, in that they are geared for a particular grade level; narrow in that they focus on a specific topic.
Except for some written instructions, teachers are on their own in utilizing these kits. Hands-on science is logistically hard. Anyone who has served birthday cake to 10 kids at a party can imagine what it must be like for a teacher to try to keep order while filling the beakers of 35 excited third graders with a foaming mixture of baking soda and vinegar. For hands-on activities, teachers need classroom help.
The kits are expensive so schools frequently adopt only a part of the curriculum. And because the kits don’t usually integrate either with the rest of the curriculum or with the students’ work from previous years, science becomes an isolated activity. By limiting science to particular niche activities, it’s harder to build upon concepts introduced in prior years as is usual in other subjects.
The Supermarket Science Project
At its simplest, Supermarket Science is a set of materials, frequently tied to local resources, together with a structured approach to teaching science as an integrated and sustainable element of an elementary school curriculum. It includes techniques for getting in-classroom help from parents who don’t currently volunteer. And it supports the simultaneous teaching of other subjects, especially math, language arts, and social studies.
Supermarket Science makes very specific requests of parents, allowing them to know exactly for what and for how long they are signing up.
Supermarket Science is built upon a pragmatic philosophy of analyzing existing resources and determining how to best access them. Parents are a resource, but many parents don’t volunteer because they balk at open-ended time and subject matter commitments. Not all parents can teach, but all can help in gathering materials, copying handouts, managing experiments, and so forth. Supermarket Science is successful in getting parents to volunteer because, among other things, it makes very specific requests of parents, allowing them to know exactly for what and for how long they are signing up. And those that can present are supported by materials which show them how and a structure which makes their contribution meaningful. A physician parent, for example, potentially has a lot to contribute but his or her expertise isn’t necessarily in teaching. Supermarket Science helps support parents as they teach subjects of their particular expertise.
The “supermarket” in Supermarket Science’s name is meant to evoke the tremendous learning potential of seemingly mundane local resources.
Local resources are identified and tied to specific curriculum materials. So a trip to the zoo, for example, isn’t merely an enjoyable diversion, but it’s also a learning experience enhanced with grade-specific pre– and post–activities which tie into the rest of the science curriculum. The “supermarket” in Supermarket Science’s name is meant to evoke the tremendous learning potential of seemingly mundane local resources. Supermarket Science seeks to enhance limited classroom resources with external, but affordable, educational opportunities.
Supermarket Science is designed to be both vertical and wide. It’s vertical in that it isn’t structured by subject area: a year in biology, a year in physics, a year in geology, and so on. Instead, the subjects are interconnected from kindergarten through fifth grade so that students receive an evolving, increasingly sophisticated view of these concepts as they progress through the grade levels. Supermarket Science is wide in that it allows for multiple access points to scientific concepts: there are art projects, hands-on experiments, writing, discussions, math problems, and so on, all designed to work together. Kids don’t do a unit on graphing merely for its own sake. Instead, they collect data and make records of authentic scientific work. This gives the math a real-world relevancy that engages and stimulates. A multi-faceted approach also helps support a variety of learning styles so that more kids are successful.
The Supermarket Science Project has been in development since 2002 and is currently being tested and refined at Alamo Elementary School and the Presidio Middle School in San Francisco, both public schools that are part of the San Francisco Unified School District.