Science in the Library

For the past several years I have started to really enjoy teaching science in the library media center. It made sense. I could gather the materials, set up a lab and the classes would rotate through. This saved the teachers hours of lesson set up and tear down. I had to make sure I knew what I was talking about so, before each lab, I would research the topic until I knew what was in their standards, textbook, and more. I learned quite a bit. But wait a minute! That’s not the object of these lessons. We are supposed to increase student understanding, not mine!

I thought about that old adage, whoever does the most work in the classroom, learns the most. I was working hard to learn the vocabulary and concept of each topic. It was time to switch things up. What work could my students do in the science labs that would bring about better understanding for them?

Our district is concentrating on instruction that focuses on student understanding. We have been studying problem-based learning, critical thinking, and student creativity. This has coincided with the creation of makerspaces in the libraries.

The teachers and I started to think about the lessons we had co-created in science. We knew we needed to work on our unit plans. Some just needed a tweak, while others needed an overhaul. Over the past couple of years we have developed a planning process that works for us. One teacher is assigned to work with me. We write the transfer goals, enduring understandings, and the essential questions. We define the knowledge they should be able to demonstrate in the lab and then apply to real life. Teachers determine how to teach the background knowledge to their students. Finally the lab is planned. Two key questions we ask ourselves are “what hands-on activity is needed to understand this science concept, and how can we get the kids to explore the topic in the same manner a scientist would?”

Next, the unit or lab is presented to the whole grade level. I try to visit a team planning time, but if my schedule doesn’t allow for it, the teacher shares. The grade-level team provides feedback. The plans are revised and changed until everyone is satisfied.

Materials and supplies are always a concern. I gather materials for the science labs just like I gather materials for our makerspace.  I ask parents and staff to donate materials. These could be discarded toys, broken household appliances, or recyclable materials. I scrounge around the teachers’ storage areas. They have supplies from the adopted science textbook and from previous year adoptions. I might even look at the kits I have purchased for the library. If they aren’t being used, they can be repurposed!

The following is a list of some of the labs we do in the library. They are still a work in progress. Not all of them are problem-based projects, but we continue to revamp them.

Heat Transfer – Fourth Grade

Two years ago I collaborated with fourth grade teachers to develop a heat transfer lab. They taught the background knowledge in the classroom. I set up demonstration stations for the kids to see how heat was transferred by conduction, convection, and radiation. The students passively sat on the floor observing the teacher or me conducting the demonstration.

Last year, once again, the teacher introduced the topic in the classroom. This time when they arrived at my teaching room, a different kind of lab was set up. The class was divided into groups of three. They drew a slip that determined if they would teach the class conduction, convection, or radiation. A table of supplies was available to them, including glass jars, metal pans, stones, sand, a hot plate, a microwave, a hot glue gun, a hair dryer, a lamp, foil, and more--anything I thought they might need to teach their classmates about their type of heat transfer.

The students were given fifteen minutes to come up with a demonstration. After all the groups were prepared, presentations were made to the class. The class was then asked to decide if the group was successful in showing their type of heat transfer. If not, they were to give suggestions on how it could be improved.

This year, using the same materials each group will present the three types of heat transfer to the teacher or myself.  Once the group has demonstrated the three types, the students will choose either an Arctic or desert habitat. They will create a shelter that either keeps humans warm or cool. A blow dryer will represent the desert and ice will provide the Arctic blast.

Simple Machines – Third Grade

In the past, students created a simple machine to move a load five inches or raise a load five inches. The load was a pencil. Materials for this lab included small cardboard boxes, paper towel tubes, straws, tape, K’Nex construction toys, LEGOs, rulers, and rubber bands.

This year, students will work in groups to construct a complex machine that completes a challenge. The challenges are to unload playground equipment from a truck to an uphill location, deliver food from a truck to the dock of an island, or deliver construction supplies from a truck to the top of a skyscraper. Groups will have two hours to go through the design process and build.

Think Like a Scientist – First Grade

The classroom teacher introduces solids and liquids in the classroom for our newest lab. In this lab, students will be asked, is oobleck a solid or liquid? The lab has the students go through the steps of the scientific process. We use “ask, predict, investigate, observe, explain.” In the ask phase, the question is posed and students’ questions are answered until everyone understands. Predicting is developing a hypothesis. At a recent STEM workshop, I had a university professor assure me that a hypothesis must include scientific reasoning. She declared that a hypothesis is an educated guess, so the prediction must be stated with a reason. So the kids will guess if the oobleck is a liquid or solid then state why, based on their knowledge of a solid and a liquid. The investigate phase allows time for research online, in books, and other sources. The teacher will lead a discussion of what the class has found out about a solid and a liquid. Based on their research, they then design an experiment or observation, recording data as they go along. The teacher will take half the class and I will take the other. The kids will design tests for the oobleck in order to determine if it is a solid or a liquid. Finally, in the explain phase, the students return to their hypothesis and state if it was supported or not supported based on their science knowledge.

Describe an Animal – Kindergarten

In the past, students looked through books and observed animals’ color, shape, and size. We also searched for their shelter. The teacher and I would take notes on chart paper, creating a word list for them. Then each child chose an animal and found the same information, recording their notes in a science notebook.

This year, three stations will be created and manned by the teacher, a classroom assistant, and me. The goal in each station is to use their senses to observe and use words to describe. Their words will be recorded on chart paper for a word list. The kids will be divided into three groups, rotating through each station.

Station one concentrates on shape, size, and weight. Three photos of animals are placed next to drawings of the same animal. The pictures are drawn using Ed Emberley’s drawing style. His drawings use shapes, letters, and numbers. Students look at the Emberley drawings and hunt for shapes. When students find a shape, it is recorded on a word list. Students then choose one photograph of an animal to study from a new set. They break the animal down into shapes and draw it. While they draw, the teacher takes a couple at a time to the weight station. Pictures of animals are on the outside of closed boxes. Weights have been placed in the boxes according to the animal’s weight. The kids lift the boxes, giving words that describe the weight.

Station two is all about body covering and color. The students closely examine photos and books of different animals, the hides of animals, and animals from science kits. The teacher leads a discussion on the colors and patterns they see and how that helps the animal hide or hunt to survive.

Students then select a poster of a habitat. Using plastic texture sheets, students color a paper to represent an animal’s hide. They must choose colors to fit into the habitat.

Animal shelters are studied in station three. After looking in books, students create a shelter from various materials. The shelters are placed in a habitat and displayed for the school.

The Time Issue

Time is an important issue when developing a science lab. The students need time to make discoveries, fail, and try again. They need time to talk about their learning and hear other students’ thoughts. Finally, they need time for failures, to investigate what went wrong, and experiment some more.

Other labs that have been created explore rocks, minerals, electricity, adaptation, light, and sound. The children get excited when they come to the labs and they see the library as a place to learn and do science. The look of wonder on the students’ faces keeps me pushing the teachers for more hands on labs. By working together to create and set up the labs, the teachers save time. It is a win-win for everyone.

About the Author

Penny Patterson, MLS, is a library media specialist at Hinkle Creek Elementary School in Noblesville, IN. She received her master's degree from Indiana University. You can follow her on Twitter @hclmcpat.

MLA Citation Patterson, Penny. "Science in the Library." School Library Connection, January 2016,

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Entry ID: 1993329

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