Murray Elementary fifth graders were treated to a host of scientific demonstrations using nanotechnology, a type of engineering science based on the concept that normal things behave differently when they are very, very small. A nanometer is a billionth of a meter, and Professor Jerry Floro of UVa’s Materials Science department held up a human hair to give students the idea of the scale. “If we could slice this hair 100,000 times length-wise,” said Floro, “each strip would be a nanometer wide.”
Professor Floro displayed a model of a nanotube made of carbon atoms, which is the strongest material known to man, he said. He and eight UVa graduate engineering students set up demonstrations to give the Murray students a feel for the possibilities, from hydrophilic absorption in diapers to steel ball bearings bouncing endlessly on metallic glass. The fifth graders rotated through the exhibitions, spending six minutes per station, laughing and exclaiming at each one.
Murray teacher Sara Haas said that the UVa team adds new features to the demonstrations each year. “We talk about nanotechnology when we study matter in our chemistry unit,” said Haas, “but this really brings it to life for them.”
Floro and his group do four or five field trips to schools per year, usually working with elementary students. “We try to convince them that science is actually fun, not drudgery, and that they can understand these complex things,” he said. “We’re not trying to convince every kid to become a scientist, but ultimately it seems like a good idea to have a scientifically literate electorate.”
A Wonder-ful Trip
What’s more fun than a school-wide field trip? Not much, says Henley Principal Beth Costa, especially when the subject of the trip revolves around the universal themes of kindness and caring. “Last year we went to see the movie ‘Hidden Figures,’ but we had to go to the theater in waves,” she said. “This year all 875 students traveled together to see ‘Wonder,’ and we had an overwhelmingly positive response from the kids.”
The movie ‘Wonder’ is based on a best-selling 2012 middle-grade novel of the same name by R. J. Palacio. The title character is Auggie Pullman, a 10-year-old boy born with a facial deformity, who is about to enter 5th grade in a mainstream school for the first time. Questions about kindness, inclusion, and being different run throughout the story, and Henley students engaged in advance work in their weekly advisory sessions on initiatives such as “Choose Kind” and “Kindness is Contagious.”
“The next day we changed our schedule to have a longer advisory period to debrief, and talked about what we’d learned,” said Costa. “How do we treat people who are different?” Lessons from the movie dovetailed with the students’ work on a school-wide social contract, in which each grade came up with one-third of a three-part overall commitment to a safe learning environment. An example of the three tenets is “Embrace each other’s differences.”
“We [teachers and staff] didn’t write a word of it,” said Costa. “The students put forth their ideas and debated and decided, and in the end we made a huge sign and every kid put their thumbprint on it. I’m really proud of them.”
Crozet Elementary third graders learned some practical life lessons during a three-week economics unit which culminated in a raucous Third Grade Market in December. “The students have been learning about producers and consumers, goods and services, supply and demand, and scarcity and opportunity cost,” said third grade teacher Jaylen Crist. “Their final activity is to create their own product to market and sell to their fellow students.”
Student products for sale at the market ranged from homemade cookies and cotton candy to crafts such as jewelry and soaps, and even a nail-polishing service. The build-up to the market encompassed a wide range of economic activity that mirrors real life.
“They have jobs at school, such as cleaning an area, being respectful, having a neat space, and handing in their homework, and for those jobs they get a weekly paycheck,” explained teacher Atlanta Hutchins. (All of the transactions use class-made, phony money.) “They have to pay taxes on their income, and pay the bank to keep track of their money. Also they have to fill out applications to get other jobs like banker, paymaster, and money cutter.”
The teachers are struck by how much of the system the students understand by the time the market rolls around. “A girl selling soap told her mother, ‘This is going to be such a scarce good that I’m going to run out, and people will have to make economic choices,’” said Hutchins. After the Market the classes do an evaluation to look back at their choices, asking whether they should have priced their goods higher or lower based on their sales, and what would they advise next year’s classes.
Teacher Lori Phillips said the students also talked about opportunity costs, understanding that money and effort are both scarce resources. “One girl made two beautiful quilts, and she understood that her price had to be higher because of all the labor she put in,” said Phillips. Hutchins said the lessons really sink in. “Sometimes I’ll offer to do an extra five minutes of a fun activity if they want to each pay $5, but they’ll say no, they’d rather save it.” Perhaps everyone could benefit from a little third grade economics.