Whippersnappers test slippers and grippers

Wrap your hand in a piece of satin.

Wrap your other hand in a piece of sandpaper.

Rub the two against each other.

What did you notice?

Congratulations, you've just done science.

Five- to 7-year-old children in three Philadelphia elementary schools are now doing science experiments like these. It's part of a curriculum developed by Penn faculty and local public school teachers, designed to prepare the youngest students for demanding new academic standards.

Christine Massey, research associate at the Institute for Research in the Cognitive Sciences and co-director of the institute's PENNlincs Outreach Programs, explained that until very recently, science was considered beyond the grasp of children in kindergarten and first grade.

"Science is typically a subject that has not been taught in the early grades, or taught haphazardly at best," she said. "But now there are national and state standards that call for a full science curriculum beginning in kindergarten, and most early-elementary teachers did not study much science themselves or study how to teach it."

The curriculum developed by PENNlincs, "Science for Developing Minds," fills that void.

"Science for Developing Minds" is a five-unit curriculum that actively involves children in investigating scientific topics such as light and shadows, the senses, materials and design, friction and movement, and plant growth and development, while also introducing students to basic scientific research principles.

With satin mittens, James Rhoads School first-graders get a grip - or in this case, a slip - on how friction works.

Photo by Candace diCarlo

As fits a curriculum designed for young children, the series relies on hands-on projects such as the one described above. The satin-and-sandpaper comparison is part of the unit on "Science Friction," which introduces students to the concept of friction by having them first figure out which materials are easy to move around ("slippers") and which are difficult ("grippers").

With the teacher, they then construct a "friction force line" based on their observations of which pairs are "grippery," which "slippery" and which "in between."

Work on the curriculum began in 1992 under a five-and-a-half-year grant from the National Science Foundation. The main challenge that developers Massey and Zipora Roth faced was coming up with an age-appropriate series of projects.

According to Massey, most science materials for young children were either watered-down versions of experiments meant for older children or simple observations that had little science content.

"We took all the cognitive, developmental and educational research and figured out how to match it to the age group," she said.

The curriculum was then field-tested by teachers in public schools across the city. "If we didn't get a learning result, we threw it out," she said.

The curriculum was officially rolled out at the Charles Drew and Samuel Powel elementary schools last year. This year, it expanded into a third school, James Rhoads Elementary.

The reason for the slow rollout is because the program requires close attention from adults. So in the three West Philadelphia schools that use the curriculum, Penn undergraduates serve as classroom assistants. "It's really helpful with larger classes especially," Roth said.

And it gives the Penn students a chance to earn college credit. Sarah Zimbler (C'00), who organized the team of four Penn students working as assistants at Rhoads, explained that her involvement grew out of a course on university-community relations that asked students to identify community problems they could help solve. "We chose this project as a way to collaborate," she said.

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Originally published on March 18, 1999