photos courtesty of the author
While there is frequent talk of integrating science with mathematics, and more recently, science with literacy, I have always felt that at the elementary level there is more overlap between social studies and science. Mathematics and literacy share essential skills with science (e.g., measurement and data collection, observation and description), but with social studies there is the potential for content to cross over.
Therefore, I was thrilled to be offered a position as the science coordinator at the Brooklyn New School with the express purpose of collaborating with teachers to develop a science curriculum integrated into the school’s existing social studies units. I collaborated with the school’s three third-grade teachers to develop this science curriculum integrated with their fall study of China. My hope is that this can serve as a model for integration regardless of what social studies curriculum teachers are using.
An Integrated “Schedule”
The Brooklyn New School is a public magnet school for applied learning where social studies is the core curriculum and other subjects are integrated into it. However, some teachers feel more confident teaching social studies than teaching science. I hope if teachers can see the science within their social studies units, they will become more comfortable teaching it.
New York City has a set scope and sequence for social studies that the school follows, but the guidelines for science are more fluid. Therefore, we can be more flexible about what science content is taught when. The third-grade teachers and I collaboratively planned which science units would complement their study of China while developing students’ scientific concepts and skills.
The teachers taught science twice a week and social studies two or three times a week in the same room amid materials for both subjects. By having the “stuff” always present in the room and integrating the topics, students were able to get more out of those sessions than if they went to a separate science class twice a week.
Students also had “project time” on Friday afternoons when they could work on a project of their choice relating to the curriculum. This allowed students who wanted more time to go deeper into the study. At the end of each week the teachers and I met again to reflect on what we had done the week before and plan the upcoming week.
From a social studies perspective, silkworms were and are an important resource for the Chinese. From a scientific perspective, they are an incredible tool for teaching animal classification and life cycles along with science-process skills.
We purchased silkworms for classroom observation from a science supplier (see Internet Resources). We kept the silkworm eggs and larvae in petri dishes and then moved them to larger containers as they grew. It is important to not handle the silkworms excessively because the bacteria on our hands can make them sick. Instead, students should use a paintbrush to gently move the silkworms when necessary.
When the silkworm eggs arrived, we presented them as a “mystery object” and had students observe, draw, and describe the eggs and make a hypothesis about what they were and how they might change over time. After the eggs hatched (proving the mystery objects were not seeds, a common prediction), we referred to the silkworms as “mystery creatures” and had students repeat the same steps. I wanted students to approach the study as scientists—to learn about the silkworms initially through direct observation.
The students drew, described, and measured the silkworms on a weekly basis, recording data in their science notebooks. In class discussions, students exchanged ideas about their discoveries. After reading students’ journal entries, we noticed there was a lot of confusion about what an observation is. Students were writing things like, “They’re sleeping” or “They’re twins” instead of “They are lying still” and “They look the same.” So, we focused a few lessons on the difference between an observation and a hypothesis. Students practiced writing two-part sentences: “I see ________, therefore I think ________;” or “I think _______ because I see _______.” They then had to label which part was an observation and which part a hypothesis.
In social studies, meanwhile, students learned about the importance of silk to the Chinese economy because it was used for trade, and also how it was a symbol of class status. In fact, silk was so valuable that taking silkworm eggs from the country or sharing how silk is made was an offense punishable by death. As a result, the source of silk was kept secret for almost 3,000 years.
Silk Inspires Learning
The silkworm study presented an opportunity for students to learn about scientific classification. Using the book Classifying Living Things (Scholastic Science Place 1995), we introduced the five kingdoms of life and then explained how animals are divided into vertebrates and invertebrates and then subdivided into “classes.”
We gave students a chart outlining the features of each class and challenged them to classify our “mystery creatures” and give their reasoning. There was some interesting debate about whether they could be reptiles, arthropods, or worms, but after further clarification that they did not have backbones and that exoskeletons don’t have to be hard, it was agreed that they were arthropods. Meanwhile, many students had already guessed they were silkworms because they had seen the silk.
The silkworms inspired independent investigations as well. For example, one student who often had difficulty focusing during silent reading became absorbed in reading about the silkworms and quickly became an expert on the topic. Another student was motivated to do her own scientific investigation after hearing the story The Empress and the Silkworm (Hong 1995), which tells the Chinese legend of the discovery of silk. This student, who had a strong interest in fashion, decided to use project time to invent her own way to unravel silk from a cocoon. She collected some empty cocoons, ran water through an automatic coffee maker, soaked the cocoons in the hot water, and then used a pencil to slowly unravel the cocoons. She went on to write a book about silk production and included a section on Chinese fashions. For this student, the study of silk was what hooked her into the curriculum. It also challenged her to become an inventor in the same way it challenged the ancient Chinese.
These experiences show how an integrated curriculum can spark interest and support learning in many ways when the boundaries between disciplines cross.
In social studies, students learned about Chinese Scholars Gardens and how they incorporate a balance of yin and yang in the form of the real (wood, stones, etc.) and the vague (reflections, shadows, etc). In other words, what is created by light is considered as much a vital part of the garden as what is created by nature or people. Therefore a study of light seemed appropriate. On a field trip to the Chinese Scholars Garden in Staten Island, New York, students saw Chinese lanterns as well as reflections and shadows. This became our entry point into the study of light.
We began by discussing how light can travel through some things, like windows, and not others, like window shades. We introduced the terms transparent, translucent, and opaque, gave students flashlights and different types of materials (e.g., fabric, tissue paper, aluminum foil, wax paper), and had them classify the materials in terms of how they reacted to light. Some students then applied what they’d learned to making Chinese lanterns during project time.
One of the things students had learned about Chinese architecture was that the Chinese built zigzag bridges and paths and wavy roofs because they believed that evil spirits could only travel in straight lines and wouldn’t be able to follow this kind of path. This prompted me to ask students, “Is that true of light also?”
I supplied students with blocks and flashlights and instructed them first to make a straight path. I had them put something with writing for the light to shine on at the end of the path so it would be clear that the light was indeed traveling. Next, I had them change their path into a zigzag path and see if the light would still hit the writing. Finally, I gave them mirrors and instructed them to find a way to get the light to shine on the writing again. This activity showed that light can only travel in a straight line but some objects can reflect light or make it change its direction.
Shadows and Shadow Puppets
When an object blocks light’s path, a shadow is created on the other side. Using flashlights, Styrofoam balls, or “cube people,” students explored the shadows they could make on white paper. Students observed how the shadow always appeared exactly opposite the light source. They also explored how the shape and size of the shadow changed when the angle or distance of the light was changed.
Students then explored shadows that are important in Chinese culture: shadow puppets. They made puppets out of manila folders, brass fasteners, and straws, and I made mini-theaters by cutting out the bottoms of cardboard boxes and covering them with white butcher-block paper. Students then explored with flashlights again, discovering how the size of the shadow changed when the distance of the puppet from the screen or the light changed. (Closer to the screen, it got smaller; closer to the light, it got bigger.)
Our final light/shadow activity, which acted as a lead in to our astronomy study, was to send the classes outside at different times of the day to record the shadow made by a ruler at a certain spot on the playground. We used one piece of white butcher block paper with the cardinal directions noted. One person held the ruler while another person colored in the shadow. They also noted which direction the Sun was coming from. Always remind students of the importance of NEVER looking at the Sun directly or through telescopes and that safe viewing requires appropriate methods and safety precautions.
Once we had collected the data on shadow directions, we talked about our observations in the classroom. Students commented that the shadow was moving across the ground in one direction while the Sun appeared to be moving across the sky in the opposite direction.
Over the Moon
Beginning in mid-November, we also began keeping a daily record of the Moon. We used the newspaper to find out the Moon’s rising and setting times and recorded those on the chart. If anyone had seen the Moon, we colored in what it looked like. In January, we had enough data to start analyzing it. Many students were unaware of the sequence of the Moon’s phases or the time between them. Many hold the misconception that the Moon is always and only out at night. (A misconception unfortunately reinforced by many fiction and nonfiction children’s books.)
Through this investigation, they learned the Moon phase cycle, that the Moon can be out during the day and/or at night depending on what phase it’s in, and realized that four weeks is called a month because that’s how long it takes the Moon to complete its cycle (because that’s how long it takes to revolve around Earth).
This provided an avenue into talking about the lunar calendar the Chinese use and provided a context for learning about the Chinese Moon Festival and Chinese New Year. Equally important to me, it increased children’s awareness of the world around them and the sky above them.
The final data we analyzed was sunrise and sunset times. We recorded the data (which we looked up in a newspaper) on a chart. Again, part of the goal here was just to make sure children are aware of how the amount of daylight changes with the seasons and to make sure they know when and what the solstices and equinoxes are. This connected back to China, because the Chinese New Year falls on the first new Moon after the winter solstice—while ours falls on the first day of the first month after the winter solstice.
Assessing Meaningful Learning
Throughout the China study, students recorded observations and questions in their science notebooks. For example, after analyzing and discussing the Moon chart as a class, students returned to their seats and drew and described the patterns we had discussed. Students’ work served as a crucial tool for the teachers and myself for assessing students’ understanding, guiding class discussions, and planning future lessons.
We also created homework assignments that asked students to apply what they were learning. While we were exploring shadows, students were given the task of figuring out where the shadow would fall given where the light source was, and vice versa. We created a pre- and postunit questionnaire relating to children’s understandings of the Moon so that we could assess their learning in relation to their preconceptions.
Students’ project time creations and what they wrote and said about their projects also revealed what they understood and what was meaningful to them. When a student comes in with a drawing and description of a double shadow that she noticed in her bedroom, an explanation of the two light sources, and the revelation that on a blue wall shadows are blue, then I know that meaningful learning has occurred.
Blurring the Boundaries
Curriculum integration should not be an excuse for avoiding science or watering it down. In fact, there are questions out there that are purely scientific, and these are important for children to explore. However, the answers to those questions have implications for people. The world is not divided into things scientific and things social. Humans are in constant interaction with the world around them and have been throughout history.
When children approach a topic from this dual perspective, history makes sense and science becomes relevant. When you show children how people and the planet are interconnected, they begin to make connections themselves. When you offer children multiple ways that they can approach a topic, you increase the likelihood that more students will find angles that interest them. And, when a class is immersed in the study of something, learning is exciting and rewarding for teachers and students alike.
Katherine Sorel (email@example.com) is the science coordinator at the Brooklyn New School/P.S. 146 in Brooklyn, New York.
Connecting to the Standards
This article relates to the following National Science Education Standards (NRC 1996):
Teachers of science actively participate in the ongoing planning and development of the school science program.
Standard B: Physical Science
- Light, heat, electricity, and magnetism
Standard C: Life Science
- The characteristics of organisms
- Life cycles of organisms
Standard D: Earth and Space Science
- Objects in the sky
- Changes in the Earth and sky
The program of study in science for all students should be developmentally appropriate, interesting, and relevant to students’ lives; emphasize student understanding through inquiry; and be connected with other school subjects.
This article relates to the following Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (NCSS 1994):
Standard I: Culture
- Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of culture and cultural diversity.
Standard III: People, Places, and Environments
- Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of people, places, and environments.
Standard VII: Production, Distribution, and Consumption
- Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of how people organize for the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services.
For a complete list of resources used in this unit, click on this article at www.nsta.org/elementaryschool.
Hong, L. 1995. The empress and the silkworm. Morton Grove, IL: Albert Whitman.
National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS). 1994. Expectations of excellence: Curriculum standards for social studies. Silver Spring, MD: author.
National Research Council (NRC). 1996. National science education standards. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Scholastic Science Place. 1995. Classifying living things: How organisms are related. New York: Scholastic.
Carolina Biological Supply Company