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Science After School (SAS) Consumers Guide  

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Science is Cool

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Review Synopsis: by afterschool program expert Shawonda Swain

Science is a scary subject to cover if you have not studied it and don't feel particularly comfortable with the discipline as a whole. Though most afterschool staff have basic skills and are well equipped to cover homework assistance and tutoring in reading and math for elementary to middle school kids, my experience suggests that instructors and programs may have avoided offering science as part of their afterschool programs due to fear, of their lack of experience and/or content knowledge and since instructors and leaders worry about limited suitable science material that would work in the time available in the typical afterschool program.

I believe the Science is Cool book is an excellent tool to understand how to go about implementing inquiry based programming, I still worry that it may not provide enough practical information to enable the average part-time afterschool staff member to achieve the level of comfort sufficient to lead science activities in their program. Though the book gave reasonable, thought-provoking examples of how to implement inquiry based programming, I think that reading it would not be sufficient to establish a science component, absent additional resources and support.

If an afterschool provider is looking for information about strategies or conceptual tools to help shape their science curriculum, then this tool is an excellent choice. However given the typical constraints programs face, such as limited resources and activity time, not to mention very limited prep and planning time, unless this was a part of a larger strategy to develop afterschool science, I don't think it would be enough. If Science is Cool were just the beginning, and more resources, guidance and materials were to be provided in support of efforts to start afterschool science, I could see this book as being a useful, albeit, initial step towards establishing such a component.
Full Review:
The book Science is Cool was easy to read and was full of thought-provoking questions and sample of experiments. I was amazed how easy it was to read the manual and even laughed at some of the humorous parts of the guide. The book was well designed to tell you right from the beginning what it was going to offer (What You Will and Won't Find in this Book) and the authors did a good job of reminding readers which concepts they were trying to convey. The authors' explanation of Inquiry Cycle and how it should look was simple and thought provoking.

The book clearly articulates critical concepts that programs offering science should address and identifies the characteristics of hands on and inquiry based learning and how they differ from more traditional science of the kind typically found during the regular school day classrooms. The authors are unambiguous about their intentions for this guide: it is not an activity book intended to provide everything necessary for an instructor to lead science activities. Rather, this book is designed to present a set of instructional strategies and perspectives that can be applied to a wide variety of science activities, materials and even parts of curricula taken from may sources and then applied in an afterschool setting. As a director of a very large, urban afterschool club that provides programs for thousands of students at multiple sites, I am not certain that I agree with the notion that instructors in afterschool programs necessarily have more freedom to revamp the structure of their programs. In many cases, afterschool programs do have tight schedules and are committed to certain activities and structures that may not lend themselves so well to restructuring to provide inquiry science. For such afterschool programs it may not be may possible to implement and manage an inquiry based program as described in Science is Cool. My experience leading programs is that our clubs actually work with many more children then a typical classroom or school and our primary focus is on relationship building first in order to motivate the children to participate. With large numbers of children in limited hours, implementing the kind of activities described in this book would take a serious commitment by staff and leadership. That is another important take-away from this book. Changes require careful thought, commitment and planning.

That said, I do think a program that is interested in using science content as a way to provide hands on, inquiry based activities to motivate students and provide them with the kind of learning experiences that are both practical and engaging would benefit greatly by reading Science is Cool at the initial planning stages. The book is well written and provides good value to an afterschool provider ready, willing, and able to promote science. It does include a strong dosage of theory and is more of a foundation for science in an afterschool setting than a set of materials to use directly in a program.

While afterschool programs do have a unique opportunity to work with youth in a setting that is less threatening, they usually have very limited time for staff training and development. Understandably, providers want the most "bang for their buck" so unless they are willing to devote time and resources to developing science, the way Science is Cool is designed would not be the best use of resources for them. It is definitely a resource that supports a longer term strategy to train, design and implement science as an integral part of a program that is willing and able to devote time, resources and staff development to be sure that instructors are fully onboard and excited about science.