Champaign schools' science center a coordinated success
CHAMPAIGN — Whether it's a slide for a microscope or a book about animals, if an elementary or middle school student in the Champaign school district encounters it in science class, it originated in the school district's science center.
Located in the gym of the district's Columbia Center, the science center houses all science materials. There, science materials clerk Mica Witt and a part-time worker from Central High School, senior Kendrell Thompson, carefully inventory the hundreds of plastic tubs full of all the things teachers need for lessons, like books, examples and supplies.
The science center features materials and lessons put together by Kristin Camp, the school district's science curriculum coordinator. She's been working with Champaign teachers for the last three years to revamp the district's science curriculum.
"If you really, truly want to have a hands-on science curriculum, this is what you have to do," Camp said.
Champaign's science center is one of only three or four in the state, Camp said, and it's been around for 25 years.
Science centers can be expensive to start, she said, but once it's functioning, it's a more efficient way of ordering and keeping track of science materials.
"Teachers can teach without spending their own time and money to gather materials," Camp said.
It's a work in progress, though. For example, just this year, Camp put together a strict schedule of which unit goes to which elementary school.
"It doesn't work if you don't stick to the schedule," Camp said, and the strategy helps in case a book or other material isn't included when the unit is returned.
Each plastic tub is called a kit. Some units — a specific subject students study in science — require one kit, and some require two or three.
For example, the unit in seventh grade on human body systems takes eight weeks and covers the skeletal system, the muscular system, the digestive system and the like, and how they work together.
Kits contain everything a teacher needs to teach a unit of science lessons: books and items for demonstrations and for students to do hands-on learning. Witt and Thompson group the books inside plastic bags. Sometimes, a kit will contain a smaller plastic tub containing materials.
The items that go into kits are separated into two categories: consumables and non-consumables.
Items to replenish the kits are located on shelves on the perimeter of the room. They include a grocery section, which stocks things like navy beans and dry milk, among many other items. Those are purchased at local grocery stores, as are many of the paper products in the next section. These items include plastic and paper cups, many different sizes of zippered plastic bags, aluminum foil and the like.
When the science center moved to the Columbia Center last June, Camp and Witt measured the gym carefully and the school district's maintenance workers custom-built the shelves around the perimeter.
When the gym is especially full either between semesters or at the end of the year, there are strict rules about spacing. Rows must be 3 feet apart (the length of four floor tiles on the gym floor) so a dolly can get through. Kits can only be stacked three high.
Jackie Baxter is a seventh-grade science teacher at Jefferson Middle School, and previously worked in a school district that didn't have a science center.
"What I love most about the science center is that the kits come to you fully stocked with everything you need," she said. "Not all classrooms in Unit 4 are science rooms and therefore have little room for storage, so this lends itself well to a small classroom."
Time is often the biggest challenge to the science center's careful system. But Camp said she's motivated by the Champaign students she sees learning science with all their senses.
"Every time I visit a classroom ... and I see those faces, it's worth it," Camp said.