“Ms. Karen’s” home-schooled students don’t give her apples to show their thanks. They leave her jars of black sand and shards of volcanic rock. It’s fitting for a teacher who packs her lessons with as much hands-on science as possible.
There are more than 24,000 students who are homeschooled in Maryland. This spring, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center is offering nine programs to these students. They include new classes on shark dissection and a laboratory-based class focused on Chesapeake Bay fish.
For many parents who homeschool their children, teaching science is a daunting proposition. They may not have the background or the lab equipment to help their kids develop the skills and knowledge they need. “We saw that it was an underserved population,” explains SERC’s education director Mark Haddon.
Enter Karen McDonald. She launched SERC’s homeschool program four years ago. Since then, it has expanded from programs aimed at elementary-age kids to include students up to age 16.
Today’s class is about birds. A stuffed osprey, a kestrel, a woodpecker, a duck and two owls sit on a table at the center of the room. In one hour, McDonald’s 15 students and a smattering of parents will learn about bird anatomy, the different types of feathers and how eggs become pigmented.
McDonald doesn’t lecture her students, she engages them. During this lesson the students will use crayons, feathers, clay, plastic Easter eggs, markers and even tube socks.
Like any classroom teacher, McDonald gives her students prep work, vocabulary words and take-home exercises. Parent Julie Nolan describes the SERC class the way some parents might talk about a video game. “It’s a take-away,” she says, as in she can threaten to take the classes away from her children if they fail to clean their rooms. “They’ll do whatever I ask so they can come to SERC,” she laughs.
Nolan has three children, ages five, seven and nine. Creating lessons for students of different ages poses a unique challenge for teachers like McDonald. While the age range is not quite as extreme as an old-fashioned one-room schoolhouse, in McDonald’s classes, 5-year-olds learn with 7-year-olds, 8-year-olds learn with 12-year-olds and so on. The parents say they like this aspect of SERC’s homeschool program because it lets older students teach the younger ones. The classroom setting also gives the children the chance to socialize with other kids.
The spring classes are at-capacity. “It’s easier to get into Harvard,” remarks Nolan. Education director Mark Haddon recognizes the growing demand. He says SERC continues to look for ways to offer more opportunities to homeschoolers, but is committed to maintaining the quality of instruction that McDonald’s classes offer.
Posted: 23 April 2010