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Engaging experiments: Valley View’s new science lab

Hands-on learning now a reality for students
By: Teresa O'Hanlon, Placer Herald correspondent
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After dabbing his finger on a petri plate gelled with nutrient agar to investigate the relationship between microorganisms and hand washing, Valley View Elementary School fourth-grader Evan Niemi voiced a hypothesis.

“It’s going to be a lot easier to learn about microorganisms this way because you get to have fun while you’re doing it,” the 9-year-old explained.
 
In a Rocklin classroom transformed by wide workstations, investigative tools and loads of tactile experiment kits, students at Valley View Elementary have a solid focus on science education. The school held a soft opening for its new state-of-the-art science lab last spring and began this school year with a jam-packed science schedule including hands-on science lessons, the Valley View Science Club and free-explore periods that allow students to roam the room.
 
“Our lab is wall-to-wall, cabinet and drawer-filled science,” shared fourth-grade teacher Andrea Muller. “There is something for every student, depending on their interest in life, earth or physical science, and their preferred learning style. In addition to conducting experiments, students can read about any topic in the Science Lab Library, manipulate the models and tools that line the shelves and enhance their learning with apps such as Science360, NatureTap and ScienceFacts.”
 
A credentialed teacher serves all K-6 classes as a part-time science aide by ordering materials, helping facilitate lessons and working as a community liaison to ensure the lab is stocked with scientific supplies.
 
“My main goal was to create a laboratory environment that was visually stimulating and made students curious to learn about science outside of their daily classroom,” shared Julie Leppek, Valley View science aide. “My favorite experiments … have been the hands-on labs that use ordinary household supplies. The students get inspired when they know they can replicate a lab at home and share it with their families.”
 
Fifth-graders use boiled cabbage juice to study pH. First-graders make terrariums for earthworms. Kindergarteners dissect their own squid.
 
But wait a minute. How can a school grow and maintain superior science education during a dire budget year with unpredictable school funding? Not to mention the student population at Valley View Elementary has shrunk in recent years from about 700 students in 2010 to 472 students in 2012 after the opening of Sunset Ranch Elementary School.
 
Valley View’s Parent Teacher Club attributes the success of the program to a well-orchestrated effort between parents and the community.
 
“This project has been made possible by over two years of strategic planning and fundraising efforts,” shared club historian Monique Coleman. “Our most recent fundraising goal at VVPTC has been to offer many different avenues to fundraising in which our families and community partners can participate in a way that is most meaningful to them. This year we plan to bring back one of our families’ favorites, the Jog-a-Thon, and we will  ‘Jog for Science’ to raise additional funds specifically to support ongoing annual expenses for the continued operation and maintenance of our science lab.”
 
The Valley View fund-raising team is not shy about asking community members for lab donations such as X-ray films, safety gloves and even pizza boxes to study the efficiency of solar ovens. Fourth-graders experimented with nutrient agar donated by a parent affiliated with a local hospital. While all lessons are developed from California state science standards and district-adopted curriculum, the lab serves as a gateway to implement the additional skills and knowledge necessary for California’s Common Core Standards and the next generation of science standards.
 
“The activities and experiments promote the key principles of the new standards: inquiry-based learning at the highest levels of depth and complexity – strategic and extended thinking,” Muller added. “Students are investigating grade-level science concepts, designing experiments, making predictions, interpreting and organizing data and applying their knowledge to new situations. As our students develop scientific literacy on a more concrete level in the lab, it will make it easier to apply these analytical skills across all subject areas.”
The school’s call out to the community for donations and an educational partnership has paid off.
 
“The program we have created would not have come to fruition without the partnership between the Parent Teacher Club, Valley View Elementary School and the district,” said Valley View Principal Shari Anderson. “Currently, the lab is well-equipped with a myriad of tools, models, electronics and plain old gadgets that assist in making the abstract concepts in a textbook come to life and become concrete, understandable and meaningful for our students.”
 
Fourth-grader Joy Malak put it all in perspective: “Experimenting is important because you get to see what really happens and really learn it and most of all because we are having a science test on Friday.”