Solar Unit Shines Brightly: Almaden Country School Elementary STEM Teacher Sets the Standard in Science Curriculum Design

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In January 2016, Almaden Country School science teacher Laura Kitagawa published her article “Made for the Shade” in the prestigious National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) journal, Science and Children and was recently selected to share her solar energy unit at the NSTA national conference in Nashville, TN among many submissions. Last month, the California Department of Education adopted her solar energy unit as a kindergarten vignette in the new version of the California Science Framework, the science standards followed in our state as part of the national Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Who would have thought that kindergarten students building lizard houses would get so much attention?

Well, it certainly did when Almaden Country School science teacher, Laura Kitagawa, created a unit to teach her young students about the sun, its effects on the earth and how we can protect ourselves from harmful rays.

In this hands-on, physical science unit, Mrs. K (as her students call her) had the children conduct experiments about the sun, and follow the engineering design process to build shade structures to protect special UV-sensitive beaded lizards from the strong UV rays.

First, the kindergarten students analyzed the properties of different roof materials including paper, wax paper, cardboard, felt, aluminum foil, clear plastic, and clear plastic with three strengths of SPF sunscreen lotion. Next, they tested all of the roof materials outside with their UV-sensitive beaded lizards underneath to observe the effectiveness of each material. Finally, students built their own lizard houses, working through many iterations in order to successfully protect their lizards from the sun.

The lesson was a hit with the students but also caught the attention of educators.

In January 2016, Mrs. Kitagawa published her article “Made for the Shade” in the prestigious National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) journal, Science and Children.

Then in March 2016, she was asked to share her solar energy unit at the NSTA national conference in Nashville, TN. She participated in the Elementary Extravaganza, a showcase of innovative lesson ideas shared with thousands of science teachers from around the country.

But word continued to travel and in November, the California Department of Education adopted her solar energy unit as a kindergarten vignette in the new version of the California Science Framework, the science standards followed in our state as part of the national Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

The story doesn’t end there. Mrs. Kitagawa plans to present this popular unit again at the NSTA national conference in Los Angeles this spring. But this time, she will be delivering an hour-long presentation that will include a hands-on featured workshop for up to 100 teachers.

“I will take the attendees through the steps of my solar energy unit, including how to make their own UV-sensitive beaded lizard to take home afterwards,” said Mrs. Kitagawa. “It should be a lot of fun, and an amazing experience! I’m excited to have such a great opportunity to share my solar energy unit with teachers from around the country.”

According to Almaden Country School’s head of school and science education author, Dr. Ole Jorgenson, Mrs. Kitagawa’s unit is a prototype of exemplary science teaching.

“Children learn science by doing science, not by reading about it in a textbook or watching their teacher do demonstrations,” said Dr. Jorgenson. “At ACS, our elementary and middle school science programs center on hands-on, minds-on activities that are led by students, and Mrs. K’s “Made in the Shade” unit embodies this approach – her students are learning to think like scientists, and to have a lot of fun while they’re at it.”

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Cathy Shin
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