By Kate Staples
Learning through hands-on experience is a core principle of Waldorf education. One way for friends and family to see the fruits of that education is at the annual GBRSS Science Fair. For the 7th and 8th graders, the fair is a great opportunity to present their projects. Meanwhile, the parents and the community learn more about the Waldorf approach to science because each project – from the topic chosen by the student, to the research put into its exploration, to the visual and oral presentation tying it all together – is an indication of how the years of participation in art and history and nature and all the other experiences of a Waldorf education coalesce into each student’s presentation.
Helping children become familiar with the interconnectedness of all things in the universe is central to the Waldorf philosophy and science is one of the avenues through which kids learn to understand and appreciate that concept. Science instruction might not be obvious in the early childhood or the beginning grades, but it’s there every day. It’s in the walk in the woods, observing nature and habitat; it’s in the baking of bread or the mixing of colors. Years of observation and exposure to scientific concepts, without actually calling it science, helps students become comfortable in all different disciplines, so that when they first see experiments or begin to study biology there is an underlying familiarity. In a sense, they have been sharing experiences with earlier cultures by making discoveries based on observation and an inner logic rather than outside instruction.
In the classroom, this takes the form of observation first. Without specific instruction from the teacher, a concept or reaction, such as convection or combustion, is demonstrated. The student’s job is to focus on observing the phenomena. Later, the students share their observations and with guidance, attempt to conduct their own similar experiments during which they observe and note the reactions and deduce the principles at work. In this way, they are not memorizing a concept, they are experiencing it themselves, leading to a deeper understanding of what they are learning and a curiosity about what they don’t know.
Science projects allow students to dig deeper into a field that they learned in school or to explore one which wasn’t touched on in class. In the past, students have researched exoplanets and built wind turbines. In the course of researching and presenting their projects, they get the opportunity to learn more about scientific methods and methodology.
Students begin exploring project ideas early in the second semester and choose their own topic from any field, including Earth Science, Physics, Chemistry, Astronomy or Biology. The project can be an experiment (does lemon juice prevent fruit from browning?), an exploration of a given topic (observe, keep a journal, and research crows) or students might build something (a generator).
Each student is paired with a mentor; it could be science teacher Shawn Green, their class teacher, or another adult who has expertise in the area. Students write a hypothesis or goal, research the topic, and put together the 3-panel display, which is shown first to the class, and to the lower grades. Then, at the Science Fair, students have the opportunity to show a larger audience the results of their months of research and their years of underlying experience. Mr. Green, Ms. Brennan, and Mr. Sblendorio are excited about this year’s projects and look forward to seeing you at the 3rd GBRSS Science Fair on Monday April 2nd from 7-8:30 pm.
Published in the Spring 2012 Mosaic Newsletter of the Great Barrington Rudolf Steiner School (PDF).