Discovery of the Science Center

"Ask anyone about Oak Harbor’s Science Center and you’re likely to get a question in return: “What Science Center?”Nevertheless, in an unassuming building just off Goldie Road lie all the test tubes, electrical circuits and chunks of yellow sulfur you’d expect in a science center. You’ll also find bird seed, baby powder, bugs and 10-pound bags of sugar neatly stacked along the shelves.It’s the Oak Harbor School District’s way of bringing science — practical, hands-on, real-life science — to all elementary and middle school classrooms. It’s also the reason Oak Harbor students continue to do well in science courses and tests, says the center’s coordinator Sue Karahalios.The Science Center has been operating since 1986 but is still relatively unknown to most parents and even to many school district staffmembers. The current school board visited the center for the first time only recently.Like science itself, the Science Center is a lesson in discovery.A small staff of Science Center personnel spend their days creating and packaging dozens of science experiments and projects into blue, plastic storage boxes that are then delivered on a rotating basis to classrooms throughout the district. Once a class has worked with them, many of the kits come back to the center to be replenished so they can be sent out again to another class.The “kits” may contain 30 build-it-yourself toy boats so kindergarteners can learn the concepts of floatation; or they might feature chemical or sound wave experiments for seventh-graders. The kits also hold instruction manuals and lesson plans for the teachers and books, diagrams, maps and even exams for the students. Without the kits, each of the district’s elementary and middle school teachers would have to develop lesson plans, purchase materials and put experiments together on their own. That would lead to higher costs, longer days and a lack of conformity from class to class said Karahalios.“The concern out there is that only about 10 percent of elementary teachers have a strong emphasis on science yet they all have to teach science,” she said. “That’s why the center is so important to the classroom teacher.”By creating a kind of traveling road show of science like this, Karahalios said the district knows that all students are getting the same exposure to science and are keeping up with the state-imposed education goals, known as the essential learnings, at each grade level.Science with feelingDespite the increasing use of computers and the Internet in science education, Karahalios said kids need to literally get their hands dirty sometimes.“The kids still need the kinesthetic learning, the hands-on,” she said. It’s still important for them to use all their senses. It’s not just looking at dirt, it’s the smell of the dirt and the feel of it.”To make the experiments more “touchable”, interesting and memorable for the kids, the teachers and Science Center staffmembers who think up the kits often get imaginative.“When the school board came out here they saw a big pile of Oreo cookies and gummy worms and chocolate pudding,” said Karahalios. She explained that first-graders crumble the cookies to make dirt and then see how worms move through it. The pudding? That’s dirt after a good rain.The practicality of the science in the kits is a key to their success in the classroom Karahalios said.“What they learn is that science is all around them,” she said. The kits are self-contained so that they work in any classroom and some of the experiments and projects go home with the students so that parents can be involved as well.All in all, the Science Center serves about 130 classrooms and about 4,200 students in the district. There are about 30 different kit designs covering science topics ranging from magnets and the metric system to sow bugs and dinosaurs. New kits being developed for next year cover simple machines, forces and gravity.Ever-changingScience marches on so the kits are constantly being updated and redesigned said Science Center materials secretary Darlene Hemphill-McDonald. She said the center gets feedback from teachers as to how the kits are working and also from students who are occasionally asked to critique the experiments. “We also do all the experiments. There is some trial and error,” said Hemphill-McDonald.State education requirements for science are also in a trial stage right now. Science is next on the list of subjects to be tested on the annual Washington Assessment of Student Learning exams given each spring. Only reading, writing and math have been given a higher priority. Tenth-graders took an ungraded, pilot version of the test last year. Eighth-grade students will pilot the test this year. The results of the pilot tests will likely lead to more refinement of state education goals and even more changes in the Science Center kits as teachers find out what’s expected from kids at each grade level.Open housesThe days of the Science Center’s quiet, behind-the-scenes anonymity may be numbered. The center staff plans to hold at least two open houses for district staff and the community this year though no dates have yet been set. The Science Center can be reached at 679-5816."

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