Julie Henderleiter Aldrich works with an eighth-grade science class at Otsego Middle School while on sabbatical from Grand Valley State University. Dr, Julie Henderleiter Aldrich

GVSU professor helps mold Otsego curriculum

By: 
Kayla Deneau, Staff Writer

Otsego Public Schools science classes gained a fresh pair of eyes this school year from a Grand Valley State University chemistry professor on sabbatical.

Julie Henderleiter Aldrich has a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and completed her Ph.D in chemistry education from the University of Northern Colorado.

She has regularly volunteered with the district since her son, now in fourth grade, entered Dix Street Elementary in 2010.

She said she would offer to assist the teachers with science lessons through the year.

Now on sabbatical, Henderleiter Aldrich is reviewing each grade level of the Battle Creek Science Kits; updating experiments to better reflect lessons, creating an alignment guide informing teachers of what lessons came before and what will follow and creating an eighth-grade science curriculum with the help of kindergarten through eighth grade science teachers in the district.

The Battle Creek Science Kits are a product of the Kalamazoo Area Math and Science Center. Henderleiter Aldrich said as far as she knows, the center has no knowledge of her sabbatical project, but the kits are often used locally and are also beginning to spread nationally.

“They have a lot of wonderful material,” she said. “But like any packaged curriculum, some things need to be adjusted for different classrooms and students.”

When Otsego first purchased the kits, the district began phasing them into the classroom.

Henderleiter Aldrich said she worked through the science kits with different teachers through the years, but experienced an “aha moment” when working with her son’s third-grade teacher.

“I was asking the teacher about the kit when I realized they didn’t know what lessons had come before,” she said. “This was not unique to this teacher. Most aren’t aware, in enough detail to be helpful, what comes before and after and the kits don’t come with an alignment document.”

Being eligible for sabbatical, Henderleiter Aldrich presented the idea and was granted approval.

She then started working, outlining lessons and activities and making suggestions for how they may be improved, often using suggestions from the teachers themselves.

“I ask each teacher before I start the kit review, ‘What do you like? What lessons are problematic? Do you have any suggestions, recommendations or any material you’ve already modified that you want to share?’” she said. “I fill in any holes from there.”

An example of an altered activity is one Henderleiter Aldrich worked on with third-grade teacher Jen Shearer.

The activity is part of an earth materials lesson with the intent of illustrating the particle sizes of different materials, including pebbles, sand, silk and clay.

Henderleiter Aldrich said the original lesson outlined giving each student a small paper cup with the material in it and adding water droplets to see how the water behaves.

“It was hard to see what was going on, so we scaled it up,” she said.

In the updated experiment, clear glass containers containing the materials are placed under a camera and food coloring is added to the water so the entire class can view the liquid running through the material.

Henderleiter Aldrich said measuring the water allows the class to see how much is absorbed by the material, see the bubbles as the water runs through and more.

At a recent school board meeting, Shearer said with the modification students had a high interest in the activity and focused on what was happening.

“(The activity) really drove home the main point,” she said. “I have the experience with the lesson and (Henderleiter Aldrich) takes the materials and modifies and streamlines them. It has really been invaluable.”

Informing teachers what has come before them helps them to know whether they are teaching students new material or if they are reviewing. That context assists teachers with making connections to a bigger picture.

Henderleiter Aldrich said connections are very important. She is also working to connect different subjects when it seems to be a natural fit.

For example, she said third-graders have reading assignments for homework nearly every night that require them to read a passage and answer questions.

“The readings are typically fiction, but there is no reason they can’t reinforce their current science content,” said Henderleiter Aldrich. “If they are learning about volcanoes, their reading can be about volcanoes.

“The more connections the kids make, the more likely they are to remember the information and do something with it.”

She said typically elementary students focus on math and reading, but the teachers say their students enjoy science, and they enjoy teaching it—they just need a way to make it fit.

Henderleiter Aldrich is also teaching science for Alamo Elementary School’s split third- and fourth-grade classroom.

While not originally part of the plan, she said teaching the class allows her to have a better sense of where the students are because she is not accustomed to creating lessons for students of such a young age.

“I also get to make sure the lessons really work before going live,” she said.

The third part of Henderleiter Aldrich’s work is to create an eighth-grade science curriculum. In order to do so, she is working with eighth-grade science teachers Michael Kuiper and Peter Burrill.

“The State of Michigan doesn’t have clearly defined science standards for eighth grade,” Henderleiter Aldrich said. “We’re working to find out what best serves the students going into high school.”

This year Henderleiter Aldrich, Kuiper and Burrill have decided to do three units—motion, technology and foundations in chemistry.

“Current grade level expectations have force and motion appearing in kindergarten, third grade, fifth grade and seventh grade, but then not again until high school physics,” said Henderleiter Aldrich. “We thought talking about motion and linking it to the graphing the students are doing in math would be a better foundation going into high school.”

Following the motion unit, students will complete a technology unit using some of the Lego and robotic materials the district recently purchased with a grant.

“We’re looking at linking the technology unit to the motion unit and also mentioning the basics of computer programming,” she said.

The final unit will be about chemistry—the arrangement of the periodic table, structure of an atom and other foundation materials.

“We really just want the students to be able to hit the ground running in high school,” said Henderleiter Aldrich.

In addition to the alignment document, Henderleiter Aldrich said she hopes to produce several other publishable lessons and assignments which she would gladly share with anyone interested.

“It’s a place for anyone to start adjusting the lessons and improve teachings in science,” she said.

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