“All anyone really needs is a coal bin and a friend.”

By Jim Martin

A storm of children, shouts, swirling bodies, and dust swept me out of the yard. Up the street, neighborhood kids whirled around some coal bins between two wartime shipyard houses. I can see and hear them now, the kids, a bicycle, the coal bins, the houses and trees behind them, the noise. Propelled toward them by their intense energy, I became madly aware that they were riding a bicycle. I wanted to ride too. This was 1947; kids didn’t have bikes during the war, and few had them now, two years after the armistice.

Nor were there such things as training wheels. Getting onto a 26-inch bike with a running start was so intimidating that I had shrunk from attempting it. But this day was different. Kids were riding the bike by balancing themselves between two coal bins which were set about three feet apart, making a narrow chute. They would put the bike in the chute, climb onto a coal bin, lower themselves onto the pedals, scoot out to the edge of the bin, push off, and ride! This, I saw so clearly, I could do.

I ran up the street and begged for a turn, mounted, scooted out, pushed off and rode in a large circle in the driveway, lost my balance, fell sideways, caught myself and the bike before we both fell to the ground, stood up and wheeled it to the next kid in line. I had done it! You could, too, with a little help from a coal bin and encouragement from your friends.

The coal bin gave me just that bit of support and encouragement that I had lacked. With it, riding a 26-inch bicycle became something I could do. And I did.
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The thought of teaching science can be as intimidating for many teachers as the thought of riding a bike was for me. We all experience a sense of uneasiness when we try something new. This is how we overcome inertia in the face of what we perceive as difficult. I call these hesitations in the face of something new “twinges of doubt.” When I first began teaching, I had a twinge of doubt that I’d understand the biological concepts I’d learned well enough to teach them. Doubt dissolved as soon as I engaged a familiar content; but the fact that the twinge was experienced is significant. If, having a strong background and interest in biology, I felt it, what must an elementary teacher, with little or no background or experience feel? Science has so much content, so many facts. How can we possibly master the subject well enough to teach it? Well, we don’t need to master science in order to teach it. What we need is to experience how science works. Knowing how science works, believe it or not, makes teaching science doable, it builds a sense of self confidence, a sense that this bicycle is not a formidable adversary; it can be ridden, it is fun to do. How do you gain the confidence it takes to enjoy teaching science? First, climb the coal bin; learn what science is. Science isn’t books of facts; it is a cognitive kinesthetic process, a way of knowing, a way of organizing our thoughts and action. Science as process produces facts, but it is not the facts themselves. Here are four basic pieces of process science that you can try today:  1) ask a question,  2) decide how to answer it,  3) follow through on this decision, and  4) compare the results of following through with the question you asked. This is manageable, and, with a little support, you can do it. Here’s how:

1. Find the coal bin (a question). Take a first step; ask a question answerable by an observation. No one will see you or know that you are taking a personal risk. Our environment is more familiar to us, so let’s try it first. Go outside and try one of these:

Pigeons – where do they spend most of their time? How do they spend their time?

Ants – where do they go? Do they all travel in the same direction? Do the same thing?

Squirrels – how close can you get to them before they run away? (Notice that you can answer these question just by looking, which is making an observation). Pick one of these simple questions, choose one of your own, or substitute the subjects of your observations for, say, pill bugs, potato bugs, spider webs, weeds, and so forth, then continue reading.

2. Scoot out to the edge of your question. First, make a guess about what you will find out. If you are looking at ants, make a guess about where their main door is, or in which direction the majority of those near the door are traveling. Decide what you will look for. For instance, the number of ants who enter and leave the door. Rite this down. We don’t write enough. Humans clarify their thoughts by writing, acting, or drawing them. Our written expressions become records of the thoughts we all too easily forget. This is important; you must articulate your simple plan of action. Science is a wonderful vehicle for delivering critical thinking. Critical thinking happens best when we write out our thoughts. It is a formal commitment of our thoughts to paper. Now, put this article down and go out, follow your directions, and observe for ten minutes. Write down what you see, one minute at a time. Just ten minutes. Easy

3.  Push off (follow up on your question). Go back to the classroom and put the results of your ten-minute observation on the board. Do this as a visual: a picture, a graph, a diagram, etc. Mak it into a representation of what you saw, and which makes sense to you. Ask yourself how to put the results up so they tell you whether you’ve answered your question. Discuss these results with yourself, or call in a friend or colleague. Better yet, discuss your results with a student. Did your observations answer your question? What did they tell you about the animals you observed? What did you learn about the process of observation itself? Did you find it necessary to change your observational plan? Did you find you had to change what you meant by, say, moving in a particular direction? Think about this and thin about the phrase, “science as process.”

4.  And Ride. What questions or ideas does the information on the board raise? How about your observations; did they raise any questions or ideas? Pick one of these to follow up. Write it down. Decide how to organize your observations, then go out again. (This time, you might invite your students. Dangerously close to curriculum now.) Make your observations, post and review your results, discuss their implications, raise questions. If your review the list in the previous sentence, you will notice that the words in the list name processes. Do you recognize any pattern in how these processes are applied? Can you add any to the list? Notice that, in seeking an answer to a question, you end up asking more questions. You’ve been paid compound interest on a small investment in critical thinking! What an investment opportunity for your students!

Nail down what you’ve learned so far. Describe to yourself what you can do now that you couldn’t do before. Describe what you know about the subject of your observations. Did you acquire new facts? (These are the facts of your science curriculum. These facts your students should, and will, remember because they make sense.) Describe how your experiences and understanding might fit into an integrated curriculum. Write these descriptions out. If you have done this with your class, then you can look back and recognize that you’ve generated a piece of your own curriculum. Go to the standards and see if you have addressed any of them. Did you address any in Mathematics? Social Studies? Language? Art? Music? Share your experiences by submitting an article to Clearing. Make a presentation of your experiences at the next science teachers conference. Nentor another teacher. Celebrate. You’ve begun a process which has no end.

This article is reprinted from Issue 96 of Clearing Magazine, and is also found in The Best of Clearing, Volume V.

—Jim Martin has retired from a long career as a science educator in which he taught at every grade level from elementary through college, and as a teacher trainer for the Center for Science Education at Portland State University. He also served as president of the Environmental Education Association of Oregon.