A strange thing happens around this time of year at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry: busloads of school kids flock to one laboratory.
Take a guess. Is it…
A. Love of science
B. Museum marketing, or
C. The fourth grade ISAT exam
The Museum of Science and Industry is a magical place if you’re 10 years old: the neon lights, the submarines. Fourth grader Jazmin Rodriguez is here with her classmates from Solomon Elementary, on the North Side.
JAZMIN: I’ve been here before, and I feel like it’s really cool. So I wanted to come here again. I just really want to learn about this.
The more immediate reason for this field trip? The kids know that too:
JAZMIN: We are learning about the ISAT. That’s why we came here, to like learn more stuff about science for the ISATs.
Yes, this field trip is driven by the Illinois state standardized achievement test. The fourth grade state science exam includes questions about “simple machines," meaning pulleys and levers and such. The Museum of Science and Industry has a lab about simple machines, and BOOM! It’s ISAT tourism!
On this day in late February, fourth grader Nafisa Ismail is giddy, but also feeling the pressure:
NAFISA: Only fourth grade and seventh grade—they only have science tests. So like it’s our first time having science tests for ISATS.
LUTTON: You nervous?
NAFISA/JAZMIN: Yes! (Sort of, yeah.) We’re REALLY nervous. (I’m not so good in science.)
LAB TEACHER: Who can raise their hand and tell me how many simple machines are there? How many? (Six) That is absolutely correct—there are six simple machines. Who can tell me one?
There are lots of cool labs at the science museum. Students can dissect a cow’s eye. They can analyze fingerprints from a fake crime scene. But in the month leading up to ISATs, it’s the simple machines lab that’s off-the-charts popular.
STUDENTS/TEACHER: Wow! This is so…(All right, see which one is easiest, see which one is hard….)
Pretty soon, the fourth graders from Solomon are hoisting jugs of sand into the air with pulleys.
They’re feeling which gear requires more force: the small one or the large one.
STUDENTS/TEACHER: Can I try it now? Everyone take one turn…
They’re figuring out where to set the fulcrum on a giant-sized lever...to be able to HEAVE their teacher into the air.
TEACHER/STUDENTS: You think you could push me up off the floor too? (OK!) Wanna try? (Yeah! Yeah! ) I’m really big. You think you can do it? (Yeah!)
Nicole Kowrach is director of teaching and learning at the Museum. She doesn’t care if it’s the ISAT that brings kids here.
KOWRACH: Even if the intent originally might be to come and get some help with preparing for the ISAT, my hope is that then leads them to the next step of doing this kind of science in school with their kids all the time.
Science at many schools is definitely in third place after reading and math. And many schools don’t allow any field trips to take place in the run up to ISATs; the focus is on cramming for the test.
Solomon teachers hope the feeling kids get when they push a wedge through sand or tug on the rope of a pulley will help scientific concepts stick.
Special education teacher Megan Quinn says this is exactly the sort of learning her students need. In fact, if she were in charge, this would be the whole test.
QUINN: I just think it would be wonderful if the ISATs could actually occur in that lab. So the snapshot would be of real learning. Not some isolated paper-pencil, really frightening, super big pressure time…but in that lab where the real learning’s happening and the excitement happens.
Maybe that sounds far-fetched, or maybe not. The state is expected to adopt new standards and a new exam for science. Many think the focus should be on getting kids to think and act more like real scientists.