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NASA Educators Guides

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  Afterschool Expert   Science Expert  

Review Synopsis: by afterschool program expert Jim Larson

This product is geared towards kindergarten through fourth grade. On the whole, the representative activity I reviewed provides educators with detailed, descriptive, and elaborate exploration (lesson) plans that engage learners through discussion, brainstorming, drawing, writing, and hands-on activities. It features alignment to standards, additional online resources, deliberately paced materials, and well-defined procedures for the explorations. The rich detail and description accompanying each exploration contribute to its ease of use. For those educators who need or prefer to identify the standards met by each lesson, this curriculum is that much more valuable.
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The quality and accuracy of the science in these NASA activities (such as "Robin Whirlybird on her Rotorcraft Adventures") is strong. More important, the curriculum examines a particular science topic in a matter that is, for the most part, appropriate for kindergarten though fourth grade.

As the materials note in their introduction, the purpose of these explorations is to stimulate students' curiosity and engage them in activities that use the scientific method. To this end, the curriculum succeeds. Without blurring and thereby adulterating the focus of the curriculum, these explorations masterfully incorporate and promote the use of the scientific method without diverting attention away from the main topic—rotorcraft. In the exploration and explanation portions of the lesson plans, learners use the scientific method to challenge, and thus further develop, their understandings about matters pertaining to rotorcraft and flight.

The second key objective of this curriculum, as is discussed in its introduction, is to use an inquiry-based approach to student learning. The authors assert that inquiry is driven by students' curiosity about the world around them—their desire to know more, to figure something out, or to answer a question. The role of the teacher is that of a facilitator, guiding students' explorations and providing the tools and materials they need in order to have a satisfying inquiry experience. In meeting this goal, the curriculum is less effective. During explorations, learners are initially invited to engage in the lesson primarily through questions and drawings. Only after this "engagement" portion of the lesson are they invited to explore with the materials. Furthermore, immediately following this exploration is a phase referred to as "explain," followed by "evaluate." One might argue that this structure for lesson plans is contradictory to the principles of inquiry-based learning. Although the learners are given the chance to explore with the materials, a lot of the activity is spent in discussion and informal lecture. Also, the engagement and explanation parts of the lesson plan specifically ask the educator to lead students towards certain conclusions. In many instances, the curriculum provides prescribed answers for the questions it hopes will be asked. Thus when reading through the curriculum, educators might get the sense that it is as didactic as it is inquiry based.

The didactic procedures constrain the social and entertainment value of this material. The most engaging, hands-on, and thus entertaining aspects of the explorations are usually found in the "explore" portion of each lesson plan. These moments usually encourage the learners to work in groups or in pairs. To its credit, the curriculum also promotes social skills by asking the educator to involve the students in whole-class or small-group discussion. At the same time, these afterschool activities resemble the design of lesson plans used during the school day. In general, the lesson plans are aligned to standards, and have objectives and even evaluations. For the learner, the prominence of discussion and teacher talk, as well as the general structure and flow of these explorations, may significantly reduce their sense of these activities as entertaining and fun.

In terms of the adaptability and likelihood for implementation, this curriculum might work best if used in a continuous block of time. If instead you separate the lesson over multiple days, you will need to find ways to remind the learners of the previous day's content and take the additional time to do so. The materials do not give explicit instructions for how to implement the explorations over multiple days.

These activities are not the sort of things you would repeat with the same students. However, each lesson plan does provide suggestions for further exploration; this at least gives the instructor some flexibility and opens the door to revisiting topics.

This curriculum will be best suited for a formal afterschool setting where students are all focused on the same task. Moreover, it is my sense that this curriculum would be best implemented by trained personnel. While a layperson should be able to follow the instructions, the richness of the curriculum requires someone with a background or training in the subject. Finally, the progression of activities suggests that this curriculum would work best as a long-term program in an afterschool setting.