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October 27, 2023

By Emma Johnson, Communications Manager

Entering Fieldston Lower Teacher Michael Wilkinson’s science classroom, you’re instantly met with a welcoming din of music and a surplus of outer space-related educational models, posters, books, tools, and even a few fun figurines. Every nook and cranny will catch your eye with an interesting fact or learning opportunity. Emphasizing process and experimentation over the final product or solution, the opportunities to be curious are endless.

At ECFS, our faculty empowers our students to explore the ideas they are most interested in. This year, the two special solar eclipses are great examples. The first happened during Homecoming on October 14th and the second will happen this spring on April 8th. Wilkinson leveraged this as the perfect opportunity to incorporate a real-life science event into his already robust 4th Grade curriculum on space exploration.

During Homecoming, students and their families were invited to Wilkinson’s classroom to use their hands to demonstrate the effects of a solar eclipse, while the actual eclipse happened right outside the window (the Homecoming weather was a tad too cloudy to observe with the naked eye). “For 4th Graders, the goal in science is for them to engage in authentic science—in other words, working with observable science and developing experiments and investigations that they can actually carry out themselves,” explains Wilkinson.

In Fieldston Lower’s science classes, students aren’t just learning a series of facts – they are engaged in timely and hands-on experiences. “The work they’re involved in has to resonate with their interests,” says Wilkinson. He recalls how the curriculum has evolved over the past decade. “This year, with two observable solar eclipses, it presented a profound context for our study of space,” Wilkinson emphasizes how these rare celestial events are an excellent opportunity for students to grasp their place in the cosmos.

Globes sit on windowsill in Michael Wilkinson's 4th Grade classroom.

“A directly observable phenomenon captures their attention and fuels their curiosity,” Wilkinson notes. This also reinforces the knowledge students acquire in other subjects, such as work with maps in social studies, by helping them comprehend scales by demonstrating the distance to the sun. “If you use a standard globe and a softball on opposite ends of a football field, you can better understand the vastness of space. We keep introducing these enriching experiences in varied ways, ensuring the students are always given tangible points of reference that they can comprehend.”

The 4th Grade’s current focus is understanding the moon’s movement around Earth, how it influences seasonal changes, and how the moon’s position changes throughout the day. Wilkinson emphasizes the importance of providing layered direct experiences rather than just a linear timeline of facts. For example, in one class, Wilkinson’s students measured the rise, set, and peak times of the full quarter moon. In their next class together, they will study the gibbous moon phase, which they can observe outside — and they are encouraged to do so! — that very night.

Apart from math and science, Wilkinson ensures that his curriculum is rich with ethical questions. Students engage in discussions about food and resource conservation, the importance of international collaboration, and equity in space opportunities. “Through these discussions, students realize the significance of teamwork. Achieving milestones like building a spacecraft requires immense collaboration, and I try to reinforce that whenever I can,” he remarks.

In the science classroom, students constantly hone skills like observation, communication, and data analysis. The goal is to develop scientific literacy, equipping them with translatable skills for any topic. We want to offer profound and meaningful experiences they will cherish and build upon in their future endeavors.”

Although the cloudy and rainy weather at Homecoming didn’t provide optimal eclipse viewing, the upcoming weeks offer another immersive experience for Wilkinson’s students. They’re setting off on a nature exploration of The Ashokan Center in Olivebridge, New York, accompanied by a telescope. The excited young learners look forward to observing a crescent moon, which, after some pre-planning using the computer program Stellarium Mobile, they expect to be right above the treeline around 5:00pm. Wilkinson believes that these real-life experiences, like the one in Ashokan, are the catalysts that not only empower but sustain a child’s curiosity.

We can’t wait to see how the continued experiential opportunities, including the second eclipse on April 14th, empower Fieldston Lower’s budding scientists!

Photo of Earth model with students sitting in Fieldston Lower classroom in the background.