How a school custodian helped fire up one science program

An antique boiler, a simple mop, some pulleys, and boxes of dirt: Everyday tools make for real-life science lessons that keep kids engaged.

An antique boiler, a simple mop, some pulleys, and boxes of dirt: Everyday tools make for real-life science lessons that keep kids engaged.

Arriving early to work on a frosty morning one January, I found our custodian standing in the boiler room scratching his head.  He could not fire our 1962 vintage boiler. Without its comforting thermal energy, school would have to be canceled. The building's core temperature was hovering around 50 degrees Fahrenheit and dropping fast. 

"What's the matter, Dave?"

This old Vietnam veteran, David McNaughton, proceeded to tell me about the mechanical woes of his antiquated air compressor, an essential component to the firing sequence of his boiler equipment. Knowing a bit about old boilers myself, I listened to his colorful monologue. When he was finished, I made him a deal.

“If I help you get the boiler fired you have to give the 5th-grade students a tour of your boiler room.” With a handshake, the deal was struck and the compressor kick-started (literally). Five minutes later we heard the satisfying “kawhoomp” reverberation of natural gas igniting in the boiler’s heat exchanger.

That’s how Dave the custodian became an integral part of the science program at Schmitz Park Elementary School in West Seattle. (More on Dave in a minute.)

Pardon the over-used expression, but elementary school science in Washington State is not “rocket science.” Though the standards seem to be a moving target these days, with new educational goals this year and possible federal standards coming soon, there are three basic themes teachers can hang their lab coats on: physical science, earth and space science, and life science. While there are multiple and overlapping domains within these themes, we can distill them down into just a few words: energy, rocks, and photosynthesis. My learned colleagues may argue the point, but we are talking kids here after all.

So why then, with such fundamental themes, do 59 percent of elementary-school students in Seattle Public Schools (SPS) fail the science portion of the Measurements of Student Progress (MSP) exams?  A clue to the problem lies in the highfalutin mission statement that guides Seattle Public Schools science decision-making:

All students are able to investigate scientifically in order to construct and acquire conceptual understanding of their world, develop positive scientific attitudes, and become scientifically literate. This is accomplished through a collaborative, interactive, rigorous science program responsive to the needs of diverse learners.

There are two key themes in Seattle’s science mission statement that limit the methods teachers may use to inspire budding young science minds:  “construct” and “investigate.”  These loaded words carry some very heavy educational reform baggage.  They are code used by reformers to promote what some education theorists refer to as “constructivism” (hence the use of “construct” in the statement).

Essentially, constructivism promulgates the belief that “knowledge is constructed, not transmitted.”  Teachers in a constructivist classroom are passive guides and material handlers.  They do not teach, they merely facilitate.  I guess if a teacher has enough time he or she could allow students to rediscover Pythagoras’ Theorem, however the time constraints of modern education do not allow for such luxury.  Besides, in the age of “Googling” a student will just go home and look it up.

The other constraint found in the statement is the overused term investigate. Back in the day, before constructivism became the latest education reform fad, kids did experiments to test a hypothesis (or prediction).  Now they investigate prefabricated situations (with predetermined outcomes) that arrive in a box from a district science warehouse in Seattle.  Through observation and data collection (called an investigation) students are supposed to “acquire a conceptual understanding of their world.”

There is just one problem. These science kits are, for the most part, boring.  And, they are a material management nightmare for teachers, requiring pre and post-investigation inventory.  Parts are frequently lost or broken during lessons.  In 5th grade I have seen so many damaged parts (or poorly researched part substitutions) that the lessons are often rendered a nightmare at best and useless at their worst.

Somehow the district has not yet figured out that in the current century children are hardwired for rapid data input due to electronic media saturation.  Growing a plant, observing goldfish, or waiting for water vapor to condense on plastic sheets no longer fascinates children.  What kids want (and need) is full contact, high energy, vibrant, and visual science experiences to compete with the myriad other events in their lives vying for diminishing attention spans.  Students relish fire, noise, digital media, messes, and destruction.  With few exceptions, children don’t have the patience to investigate and their teachers do not have the time to facilitate investigation.

And herein lies the problem. How do teachers with limited resources, boring science materials, and digitally driven students get children interested in rocks, energy, and photosynthesis? Well, ask Dave the custodian. He spends his day doing much of the science a 4th- or 5th-grade student needs to be successful on the MSP test. Or, he has the materials a teacher could use to engage students in compelling science activities.

Back in Dave’s boiler room, chemical energy in the form of natural gas is being transformed into thermal energy.  Meanwhile carbon dioxide and water vapor are discharged from the boiler stack.  That water vapor is rapidly condensing in a visible plume as it loses heat to the freezing air outside.

This process, explained by a competent boiler operator like Dave, provides the basis of multiple science lessons, including the foundations for future study of greenhouse gases. This one routine activity, by one humble custodian, provides students with extraordinary possibilities.  Besides, it’s free, loud, scary, and involves fire if you can get Dave to open the boiler inspection port. Kids love this stuff!

As groundskeeper, a school custodian is responsible for the myriad activities necessary to keep a school looking tidy and hopefully green.  Raking and blowing leaves into an enormous pile is not merely maintenance, it’s an opportunity to study decomposers, part of the triad of producers (photosynthesizers), consumers (sugar and starch eaters), and decomposers (fungi and bacteria).

With a little forethought, that giant pile of leaves becomes a sticky, messy, Petri dish filled with information for students to observe. Allowing a 5th-grader to make a mushroom spore print (harvested from organic debris) will set in motion a chain reaction of teachable moments better than any text on the topic of composting. (Note: Avoid the Amanita muscaria no matter how pretty they look).

Dave lifts heavy objects and mops floors. He does this with simple machines, which allow the user to reduce the effort force necessary to do work.  For example, a mop is a lever and his arm is the fulcrum — the simplest of all machines. Even the school loading ramp and the screws (helical ramps) Dave stores in old Folgers cans are potential physical science lessons. Dave’s boxes and cabinets are full of simple machines.

Imagine this: a student who is taught the concept of lever and fulcrum and then "allowed" to mop the floor for a while. Kids will clamor for a mop if it’s in the name of science.  They want to be the fulcrum to the mop’s lever-handle.

A former parent at our school, Grant Varney, liked the work we were doing in science and decided to use his contractor’s expertise to build us several inexpensive science teaching tools.  He started with a well-built lever and fulcrum.  Our students thoroughly enjoy lifting a heavy stump using this simple device. Applying the pressure of one hand, a student can lift 50 kilograms.

Watching the kids' faces you would think they had suddenly morphed into superheroes. But lifting is just the science part of the lesson. They enjoy crushing things under the stump even more — that’s the “make it fun” element of the lesson. So, what do they learn?  Simple machines allow humans to do more work than they could do otherwise.

To interest students in earth and space science, elementary teachers need two qualities: tech-savviness and a willingness to get dirty. PBS, BBC, and YouTube all offer high-quality videos (eye-candy) that establish the basis for studying landforms and geology. Of course, a good old-fashioned textbook helps. Amazingly, there are no science books in Seattle elementary schools, unless you know a teacher hoarding those great 1980s texts with images of people wearing La Coste shirts and white chinos. This leaves teachers to write their own text materials or buy them at great expense.

For children to acquire the breadth of knowledge necessary to be successful on the MSP exam they need to read technical information. To be fair, SPS does provide a teaching guide with every science kit, but those are not for students' use. Textbooks with information (i.e. facts) are generally anathema to the promulgators of constructivist education theory.

Large models of landforms are the best way to study concepts like erosion, deformation, sedimentation, earthquakes, and floods.  For example, if you want to study sedimentary rock, get several big piles of dirt or sand; then, pour in some powdered tempera paint of different colors into each pile. Have the students compress several million years of geologic time into 30 minutes by layering the piles. Voila! You have the Painted Desert. The final sedimentary formation can be eroded with a hose and water-wand to form rivers, tributaries, and deltas. There are more than a dozen science lessons in this one very messy, and extremely visual, earth-sculpting activity. Optimally, this lesson is done in a 4-by-8-foot plywood "flood box." And the tempera paint can be hosed away (it’s non-toxic).

For teachers to conduct these simple, hands-on science activities requires some training. However, the inertia surrounding school district's insistence on using National Science Foundation (NSF) kits discourages curriculum innovations. Teachers don’t have to think about science (or know it); they merely have to follow the scripted lessons. 

The NSF kits also represent a huge capital expenditure, and their maintenance requires an entire 14,500-square-foot warehouse.  The District maintains and refurbishes over 2,500 elementary school science kits with a full-time staff of four employees. Each kit must be refurbished three times per year.

The alternative to the SPS inquiry-based, materials-intensive elementary science program would involve shifting the emphasis away from a highly centralized program to a site-based model where schools purchase and manage their own materials. This was the norm prior to the 1997 implementation of NSF kit-based curriculum.  At the district level, the mission of the science program would then shift from kit training sessions to professional development classes in innovation and the use of resources at hand.  Budget expenditures could then be redirected towards building and buying durable science materials with multiple functions. 

In an ideal world, carpenters, groundskeepers, plumbers, mechanics, welders, and custodians (like Dave) should all serve as the primary support services to teachers developing new classroom science innovations.  Parent volunteers from multiple trades serve as an excellent resource to build science equipment.

Our contractor-parent fabricated most of our simple machines and the flood box. He also built our garden boxes, and bought us an excellent antique block and tackle that we keep mounted on an overhead beam in the classroom. New students always get a kick out of the ropes and pulleys dangling overhead — they seem to moderate maladaptive behaviors a wee bit once they get a gander at the ceiling hardware.

Many of my colleagues will probably write off these ideas as pie-in-the-sky idealism. They will say, "SPS is known for its glacial pace when it comes to curriculum changes." Yet doing nothing — slowly — ensures that more than half of 5th-graders will continue to fail the science MSP exams.  Inertia is infectious.

Transforming our science program would cost nothing upfront. It would merely require a shift in emphasis away from centralized control of curriculum to allow for site-based innovations.  Seattle Public Schools must release its grip on both materials management and pedagogy.


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