Wednesday, July 24, 2013

How We Create Our Own Science Units. You Can, Too!

Our resident toad

I have never found a formal science curriculum that I liked. At least not enough to pay the sticker price for. 

Instead, we use living books and documentaries, nature studies, community classes, human resources-including me, museum exhibits, and any other resource we stumble upon. 

The wonderful thing about science is that it's everywhere. We are science. Our very existence- our bodies, our homes and gardens, the night sky-all science. 
I love science. 
Green anole
When my little ones were little, I read to them from the Usborne First Encyclopedia of Science. The bright graphics and simple explanations were perfect for holding the interest of 2 little boys and sparking lengthy discussions and little imaginations. While it certainly is not a curriculum, it was a lovely resource. 

As my little people have gotten bigger, I have felt the need to add a more structured approach to science. More than a year of research had failed to yield a program that fit well for us. I began to despair.

Then I discovered Netflix. More specifically, I discovered the BBC series Walking With Dinosaurs. Whoa. Half an episode in, I knew what we needed to do. Create a science unit around this series.
I mapped out the original series. Not only dinosaurs, but the entirety of natural history is encompassed in the Walking With series. 
Walking With Monsters shows the pre-dinosaur giant insects that I had not contemplated. And wish I was still ignorant of. It's horrifying. I had to leave the room.
Walking With Dinosaurs comes next.
Walking With Beasts brings us into the age of mammals.

Walking With Cavemen  is newly released. We'll be watching it tomorrow. I'm excited.
After finishing the series, we watched other documentaries about dinosaurs and prehistoric creatures. My favorite was Chased By Dinosaurs. It sounds cheesy, but it was highly visual, intensely dramatic and tremendously fun. 

In addition to the documentaries, the kids drew pictures, invented games, asked questions and researched answers, we read stories, they purchased, played with and identified toy dinosaurs, and enjoyed rousing games of Dinosaur Bingo.

Skipping stones, learning about weight, mass and surface tension

This experience brought our science studies to life in a new and exciting way. Much more than loosely organized experiments, discussions, classes and dry textbooks ever could. We have to continue making our own units. 

Picking wildflowers and identifying native plants
I have since developed a scope and sequence which I find logical. It begins as a rough outline, and I will fill it in as we go.

I. The Cosmos

    A. The Universe
        1. Stars
        2. Galaxies
   B.The Solar System
       1. The Sun
       2. The Planets
       3. The Moon    

III. Planet Earth
     Physical Geography

IV. Life on Earth 
     A. Evolution of Life
        (this is where the Walking With series fits in. We will watch it again)
     B. Aquatic Life
     C. Land-based Wildlife of the Current Era

V. The Human Body
    A. Anatomy, Systems, and Cells
    B. The History of Modern Medicine
    C. Alternative and Traditional Methods of Healing
    D. Nutrition and Various Methods of Agriculture (Organic/traditional vs Commercial/Industrial)

VI. The History of Science

VII. Technology

Clearly, I'm still working this out. As I continue researching my materials, I discover more topics I want to cover. Right now, I'm looking at about a 5 year cycle. Because I have kids of varying ages, I will repeat the whole sequence a couple of times, adapting and adding resources for various ability levels.
I'm not ruling out a formal science study at a later date. But for now, this is working for us.
Identifying native birds
The major change this year is that I'm switching from a video-based spine supplemented with stories and activities to a living book-based spine supplemented with videos and activities.

What is a living book? A living book is a book written to convey specific information to a specific audience. It is not a textbook. 

I am fortunate to have access to a wonderful library system with friendly, helpful, knowledgeable librarians and state-of-the-art online access. This is a homeschooler's dream. In fact, early in my homeschooling career, I seriously considered using library resources exclusively. This is quite possible. But then, I discovered Rainbow Resource Center, and that's a whole other thing. 

Sprouting seeds

So, how does one design a science unit?

Sounds complicated, doesn't it? It isn't.

1. Decide what you want to study.
    You can write out a full sequence, like I did above, or you can just choose a single topic, like I did last year. Ask your kids what they want to learn about. Watch them go through their days and surprise them with something you know they will love. Choose a topic that you want to learn about. Choose a topic that you have specialized knowledge of. Sky's the limit here. 

2. Familiarize yourself with your resources.

   Do you have Netflix, Crackle, Hulu?

   Have you been to your local library? Neighboring libraries? The library in our little town is not the one we use for school. We use a neighboring system. The local library is small, and underfunded. It is well stocked with classics and within walking distance. In a pinch, it will do. But for a science unit? Not really adequate. Fortunately, there is a branch library not far from D's work, so if we can't make it to the city, I can preorder online, and he can he can swing by the pick up window on his way home.

   What local resources do you have access to? A state park, nature station, national park, interpretive center, science club, physics lab, university, planetarium, museum?

   Search for websites and online communities based around your topic of choice. Whatever it is, there are going to be people dedicating their lives to it. 

Ask around, visit, get familiar. 

3. Start building your unit.

    What this looks like is going to vary wildly depending on your topic, and the resources available to you. 

   You will need a spine. What inspired your interest in this topic? Perhaps you can start there. For our dino unit, it was the Walking With series. I started with that, and built off of it. For our cosmos unit, I am creating a book list from texts available at the library.
4. Flesh it out.
    Now you know where to start. Add in the goodies. Added to the basics - a book about the sun, 3 about the solar system, one for each planet, and one for the moon- I am including some fun story books for the younger set, some astronaut-themed crafts, a book of space projects and experiments, numerous documentaries, and at least one trip to the planetarium. 

5. Schedule it out.
   You may choose to be more free here and simply work through your resources at will. But if you want to have a bit more structure/planning/control/accountability, you may wish to organize your resources and schedule your lessons out over time. This could mean choosing one episode of a series, choosing one chapter of the text or reference book of your choice, one fiction book and one field trip per week. Or it could mean choosing a selection to read each day. Or it could just be making a nice list of topics to cover, books and materials to use, in no particular order. Or whatever. It's up to you. 

6. Get started.

Read a book together. 

Hand an appropriate-leveled book to your older kid. Discuss it after he's read it.

Draw a picture and talk about the planets. 

Watch a documentary together. Pause it when someone wants to talk about something they didn't know. 

Hand out water colors and have them paint a picture of what they just learned.

Use Wikipedia For Kids to answer questions you don't know the answers to. Teach your kids to use it, too.
Take a trip to a place where these things happen. Talk to people who know more than you ever could about it.

You may have noticed that none of this is super expensive. That's part of the appeal. I'm not crazy about spending a ton of money on something that isn't really what I want. Building a science unit for your kids allows you to teach exactly what you want, how you want, with little to no cost.

Sounds good to me.  

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