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Science Court Explorations - Tom Snyder Productions (Scholastic)

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Review Synopsis: by science content expert Nicola De Torre

Tom Snyder Productions and Delta Education combined efforts to create a fun, thought-provoking science program called Science Court Explorations. The Science Court Explorations: Pendulums package comes with everything an afterschool teacher needs to present information to a group without a lot of preparation. Pendulums is geared towards second through fourth graders and offers appropriate vocabulary and explanations for that age group. Teachers need little previous knowledge of computers or the physics behind pendulums to effectively present this material to the class. Student inquiry and interest are fostered through an interactive court case, and all videos and activities are deeply rooted in the scientific method and the belief that students learn not only from doing, but also from discussing their conclusions.
Full Review:
Tom Snyder Productions and Delta Education have combined to create a fun, thought-provoking set of science programs called Science Court Explorations. As of March 2006, there were six titles in the series. Each combines a multimedia CD-ROM with hands-on exploration. The basic idea is that there is a controversy that has to be settled in "science court." Students learn about the "case" by watching the multimedia presentation (often showing engaging cartoon characters getting into the conflict that science will resolve), but have to perform hands-on experiments (with help from presentations on the CD-ROM) to help them, as a jury, come to their verdict in the case.

In the case we review here, a pendulum is being used to time a ski race. The pendulum consists of a rope tied to a bucket of sand. A friend of one contestant adds sand to the bucket. Is that cheating? Does adding sand change the timing? That's what the Science Court will have to decide.

Science Court Explorations: Pendulums comes with everything an afterschool teacher needs to present information without a lot of preparation. The package includes six sets of pendulum-building manipulatives, a CD-ROM with multimedia animations, a teacher survey, and a teacher's guide. The guide includes a letter to parents about the program, and two reproducible student lab worksheets, each highlighting a different program goal.

Science Court Exploration makes teamwork a focus of their program. The teachers' manual explains that economists, educators, and business leaders have begun to list teamwork as a basic skill for employment and success in real life. Even scientists, who were once thought of as isolated and lab bound, are now usually part of research teams or educational institutions that require good communication and cooperation skills. Science Court's student teams (called "pods") make it possible for children who are more comfortable sharing their ideas in a smaller setting do so, while leaving enough time for each pod to share its ideas in a whole-class discussion.

Popular educational theorist Jean Piaget describes language as a result of thought. Science Court's authors step beyond this belief, following Lev Vygotsky's theory that the use of language is actually an important step in building understanding. Students are encouraged to verbalize their thinking as they make predictions, analyze data, and draw conclusions. When they are asked to develop a hypothesis, they are reminded that their ideas may change after they have gathered more evidence and data; this is an important scientific concept that is often neglected because of the desire to get a "correct" answer. The activities offer time to reflect and rework ideas, fostering a safe environment for taking chances.

The role of technology is often a concern among educators, because so many children already spend their free time learning passively through watching TV or playing computer games. However, this program effectively uses technology as a tool to stimulate conversation and thought. Time is built in for discussion, building hypotheses, analyzing data, and drawing conclusions. While the teacher does not have to be an expert in the physics of pendulums, he or she does need to be a strong facilitator who encourages new ideas and well-supported explanations—this is not the type of program that a teacher can turn on for students and then leave for 45 minutes.

The CD-ROM is easy for any facilitator to use, and there is no training necessary to effectively run this "exploration." If teachers need technical help, however, there are suggestions and contacts included.

There are three chapters to this court case. The first is the "story." This sets up the controversy in a short video and includes the first hands-on activity. The "explanation" is next, which also includes a short video and asks the class to make a prediction about what affects a pendulum's period. The last chapter is the "verdict," and includes another short video, another hands-on activity in which students test their predictions, and (of all things) a sing-along. Each hands-on activity is demonstrated in the video, yet encourages students to think for themselves. When the group is ready to proceed, the teacher simply needs to click on the flashing arrow. There is always the opportunity to backtrack and to see a "virtual pendulum" that relates to the activity at hand.

The activities are filled with scientific concepts; they're fun and relevant to students. This relevance is the key to getting students involved in the activities.

In the explanation video, all of the information is presented by lawyers who are representing opposing views in the court case. Students are part of the jury and must cast their vote, so listening to the facts of the case becomes important and pertinent. The information they receive also applies to their hands-on experiments. As members of the jury, they're encouraged to discuss the concepts and to support their ideas with scientific evidence, both from the information provided in the court case and their own results.

The material is designed for second graders through fourth graders, and is appropriately presented for that age group. Students build and test their own pendulum models, and then draw conclusions regarding what variables affect the rate at which a pendulum swings.

One suggestion for improvement would be to include a vocabulary list so students can recognize new terms and start using them to describe their thoughts and reasoning. Another suggestion is not to limit the hypothesis by offering only two outcomes. In activity one, for example, the students have to predict whether adding weight to the pendulum will make it move faster or stay the same; slower movement also should have been included as an option.

Some afterschool programs may have trouble affording Science Court Explorations; however, it is cheaper than many other curricula that come with all of the materials prepackaged. While the whole group benefits from one reasonably priced package, the curriculum offers just two lessons. The cost of the unit is $89 for one computer, and $300 for five computers. The price is also reduced when an organization orders several different titles from the Science Court series.

The Pendulums package is appropriately geared for second through fourth graders. Teachers need little previous knowledge of computers or the physics behind pendulums to effectively present this material to the class. Student inquiry and interest are fostered through the interactive court case that includes musical yet scientific entertainment and experiments. The videos and activities are deeply rooted in the scientific method and in the belief that students learn not only from doing, but also from discussing their conclusions.