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Before joining the ranks of the elementary science world, I held a variety of related roles and experiences. Early on, I taught first-year chemistry labs at a community college and did adjunct graduate coursework in science teaching methods. And I was a research chemist in the pulp and paper industry before ever setting foot in a K-12 classroom. I’ve also hosted science training locally, regionally, and nationally over the years.

But the role that lasted the longest was my 17 years as a high school chemistry and materials science teacher. After teaching in that setting for so many years, I needed a change. It wasn’t the students, whom I adored. It really boiled down to the fact that I had done all the chemistry problems many times over, and was simply bored.

One day in 2023, a local elementary school that I had ties to announced they had an opening for a fifth- and sixth-grade science teacher. Based on my experience, they convinced me to leave my high school job, and instead revamp and teach their fifth- and sixth-grade science curriculum. They also tacked on the duties of STEAM Director as well. It was a change of pace that I yearned for at that point in my career, and I accepted the offer.

Challenges change

The fundamental teaching goals in any science classroom are the same, no matter the grade. I think that most science teachers would agree that a science teacher’s job is exposing students to the language of science, generally through the students learning vocabulary and doing technical reading. We are also helping them develop lab skills, as well as teaching them how to observe and think.

As we encourage students to make observations and express them in scientific and artistic forms, we’re laying the foundation for each subsequent science course. My personal hope is that, through our lessons, we are collectively conveying our deep love and respect for what science offers about the world around us — and at the same time, helping the students actually learn (and not just regurgitate information).

When I was a high school chemistry teacher, I used to take it for granted that students had to take my class as a graduation requirement. In fact, my sense was that in almost every effort they made involving science — from AP coursework and after-school activities, to state testing, ACT and SAT performance, and college acceptance —many kids were working hard to better their college admission chances, rather than pursuing things they were truly passionate about, or loving the process of learning.

With fifth-and sixth-grade students, in contrast, the love of learning is still alive and visible each time they walk into class. At the same time, they can present their own challenges to teaching, and particularly for me. I quickly realized that they were in a different place in their educational development — even in the motor skills that lead into lab skills, for example. And most definitely, they are also in a different place in their emotional maturity. Additionally, as an elementary science teacher, I don’t have the same amount of contact with them as do their teachers in language arts, reading, and mathematics. Instead, we typically meet just once a week — and as an elective for the students.

Multiple perspectives

Now that I’ve taught at both ends of the K-12 spectrum, the biggest difference I see between teaching upper elementary and high school is how much easier it is to facilitate and encourage younger students’ excitement, wonder, and pure joy of learning. My experience in the classroom, as both an educator and science volunteer, is that most students in upper elementary grades are truly and whole-heartedly enthusiastic to learn about the world around them.

After 17 years of teaching “the big kids” (as I now call high school students), the changes that came when I started teaching upper elementary were quite drastic in many ways, and not so much in others. Surprisingly, it wasn’t the teaching of science that was the biggest change. The most difficult thing for me to wrap my head around was having to escort students everywhere — to and from special classes such as music, E-Lab, and wellness — but also, having recess every day in the blistering heat or the freezing cold (heat indices and wind chills always taken into consideration, of course). Outside of that, there aren’t many fundamental differences between teaching high school and upper elementary school.

Looking back on my years in the high school classroom, I realize that I had a very straightforward relationship with my students. I was not there to trick them or to try to catch them doing something wrong (my high school teaching career was in an all-boys school). While they were loud and obnoxious some days (think homecoming!), they could also be sweet, kind, and vulnerable.

I made sure there were days where they did nothing but work on tough word problems, helping each other when they got stuck, but trudging on. This also helped them realize which topics and concepts they understood and where they were lacking. At every holiday or school event, I tried to dress up. I kept up with the accolades they’d earned outside of the classroom, and acknowledged that they were more than just my chemistry students.

In our high school classroom, I readily told students when even I thought a particular chemistry concept was a bit of a mental stretch. As a teacher, I feel this is important. After all, students who are struggling with a new concept will so often say to us, “Of course you understand this! You studied it in college!” Chemistry did not come easily to me, but my interest in it carried me through difficult courses — and I want my young students to feel the same way. I’ve never taught them shortcuts, but rather always tried to teach them the proper way to do things. (For example, I cannot STAND the “criss-cross” method for balancing formula units in ionic compounds!) If there was a song, dance, or mnemonic I could offer to help them, I did it. I used crazy voices (like Robochemist, a fictional science robot) when we were doing calculation after calculation, and I frequently used other ridiculous voices to keep my classes lively.

One of my favorite times to be with my students was in lab. Even when I couldn’t dedicate a full class period to doing a lab, we would do small activities — many of which came from ACS and AACT! — to help students explore the real-world “why” about the current topic. A former colleague and I worked to develop several themed days during the year. These included a Halloween demo show, where we talked about the chemistry of special effects and chemical reactions, the chemistry of food for Valentine’s Day, and then the chemistry of Easter egg dyeing. (And yes, there were both Christian and non-Christian students in my classes, and all expressed interest in learning about applications of chemistry, no matter what our theme was.) We worked very hard, but we played equally hard.

While our special topic days were well received by my high school students, with my elementary students, I’ve felt more open to playing games based on content standards. Whether it’s a Jeopardy-like game, a Gimkit to review topics, or an escape room-like set of task cards to review, I feel that the younger children can benefit from getting away from a solely traditional lecture.

When I began teaching this year, I realized an elementary student’s note-taking ability was limited, and on more traditional lecture days, I have utilized guided notes to get them into the habit of listening, writing, and following along during lectures. While we do have lectures a couple of days a week to dig more deeply into content, I also readily do activities, games, and projects with them as well. These types of activities support deeper learning (application, inference) instead of rote memorization, which is all that many students have been exposed to at this age.

I also love to give vocabulary tests in fifth- and sixth-grade science classes, because expansion of vocabulary is such a critical skill for middle and high school preparation. I make the students write their lab notes in pen (granted, it’s erasable blue pen) — and you would not believe the amount of respect shown to labs as a result! It’s a simple but important skill they need to have. High schoolers may show their enthusiasm for science in their own special teenage way, but with upper elementary, you can tell it is pure joy in the classroom.

This being my first year dedicated to teaching elementary science, I’m still learning about how our school’s former curriculum wasn’t the best fit for either teachers or students, and which skill sets are age-appropriate for each grade to strive toward in Science Lab. I am working to rewrite and fill in gaps in the previous curriculum, and reteaching when there are inaccuracies.

As with any teaching position, there are some days when activities just don’t go as planned. Just as I would do if a high school lab didn’t go as anticipated, I converse with my fifth- and sixth-graders about how I could make a confusing lab easier to follow, or how I could help them fill in any unexpected gaps in their knowledge. These conversations have gone better than I could have hoped, and have also helped my younger students indirectly develop their understanding of the scientific method and engineering design process.

Looking forward

If you asked me right now to choose my favorite age group to teach, I don’t think I could. Interacting with both groups is much like how someone described parenting to me: each stage has its positives and negatives, but the overall process is rewarding. You can have just as much love, laughter, and learning in any classroom when you set boundaries and expectations, but also let the students know you believe in them and their abilities. I don’t change my goals because they can’t yet perform a particular task; I fill in the gaps and we work together to meet our goals.

It takes all of us teachers — from kindergarten through 12th grade — to produce the next generation of scientists and engineers. It sometimes takes a lot of creativity to introduce students to science in silly, humorous, and practical ways, while still holding true to standards that must be met.

It takes a village to raise a child, so why are we trying to do so alone in our individual schools? Instead, let’s work to reinforce our village to be the strongest it can be. I challenge high school teachers to reach out to elementary colleagues in your area to form relationships and collaborate. I likewise challenge elementary teachers to find a great high school science teacher (or two) in your area and connect with them.

Joining forces will make the best use of all our time in the science classroom. Doing so will also allow all areas of the K-12 science learning experience to work more cohesively and deliberately in doing what we do best: sharing our love of science in the world around us.

Matt Perekupka

Analice Sowell
AACT Elementary School Ambassador