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When is a box of cereal not a box of cereal, and what can that teach us about the layers of the earth?

6th-grade science teacher Brian Smith holds a box of Wegmans Peanut Butter Corn Crunch cereal in front of his class and asks them how they can figure out what’s inside.
Teacher Brian Smith holds a box of cereal up in front of his class with students raising their hand in front of him 

The answers come quickly: weigh it, shake it, open it. As Smith does these it quickly becomes apparent that there is no cereal in the box. He tips over the open box and pours out its contents – uninflated balloons. The lesson? Looks can be deceiving and you have to do the research. 

So, he asks his students, how as scientists could they find what is below the earth’s surface? The answers come just as quickly: dig, view from above, see how natural disasters such as earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis change the surface.

“They need to know this, they need to have a broader understanding as opposed to just stating the layers of the earth,” said Smith.

Using these series of questions to illicit responses is part of Smith’s transition to using inquiry-based learning along with new New York State Science Standards. These include the science and engineering practices of asking questions and defining problems, planning and carrying out investigations and analyzing and interpreting data. 

“A team of us looked at the old standards and compared it to the shift to the NGSS (Next Gen Science Standards),” said Smith. “We developed an overarching question to tie the Unit together.  Each section of the Unit poses a question that ties to the information we are discovering through the section.  The goal is to develop a deeper understanding instead of merely knowing facts.”  
Two girls looking down at notebooks on their desk 

Smith said he focused more on student discovery than simply giving information. Questions such as what did you see, what is going on, why is it important are part of each lesson.

“Students are willing to participate, looking to actively get engaged.  They get to become active learners, making connections with experiences they have had and drawing conclusions through deeper thinking,” said Smith.

“Answering questions helps me understand the material better,” said student Anna Finn.

“This is a very exciting time for science. The District is allowing time and resources so we can change the way we teach science in our classrooms. The new standards require much deeper thinking in regards to science concepts and a lot less memorization of facts and vocabulary, said teacher Daina Kocak. “This is the way science should have always been, questioning the world around us and then coming up with solutions and explanations on their own.” 

“This work is amazing and absolutely is preparing students for the future. It ignites curiosity and allows students to think creatively and critically,” said teacher Stef Olbrys.

New York is phasing in these new standards with a new assessment to launch in three years. Windsor is focusing professional development and implementation on grades three and six this year and will moved on to grades four and seven next year.
Inside the Earth learning packet on top of a stack of folders on a desk

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