Engaging Students in Science

Will listening to a fast song make your pulse race? Does following a structured morning routine increase productivity? Will using your phone in grayscale reduce screen time? These were just a few of the intriguing questions explored at recent Harlem Academy science fairs. (And for the record, the answer to all three is yes.) 

Each year, as our eighth graders prepare for the annual science fair, they dive into their projects well-equipped to form hypotheses, conduct experiments, and analyze data. Micaela Gonzalez ’21, a freshman at Riverdale, remembers the experience well: “It was up to me to use what I’d learned to figure things out on my own, and the scientific method was my guide. I knew I could do it.”

The reason our students are confident in their ability is because our science program intentionally focuses on teaching them to understand and apply the scientific method to test their own hypotheses – a process they begin learning at a very early age. By the time they reach eighth grade, Harlem Academy students have developed the skills to read, write, think, and perform like scientists.

Building a Foundation 

In primary school, our students begin to develop the critical inquiry, investigation, and analytical skills that they will need throughout their years at Harlem Academy. Students are introduced to the scientific method and inquiry-based science in first grade.  

As they move on to elementary school, the science curriculum expands to include nonfiction reading and writing and more advanced scientific skills. 

What doesn’t change, however, is the method used to hone students’ know-how: fun and engaging experiments. Whether it’s blowing pinwheels to see how objects interact with air, learning how liquids turn to solids by making ice cream, growing hydroponic plants without soil, or using sponges to understand water mass and volume, hands-on learning helps to bring science to life and answers the age-old question: Why? “Students aren’t satisfied with being told, ‘That’s just how it is,’” says Tara Eagan, elementary school science teacher. “Experiments definitely keep them interested.”

Inspiring Future Scientists 

Our middle school science program continues to build on students’ skills but now they dig deeper, applying what they have learned in more rigorous ways: performing labs with increasing independence, writing research papers, and tackling more challenging projects.

“Science projects require students to think critically, synthesize new information, enhance their analytical skills, and gain better command of data,” notes middle school coordinator and science teacher Dr. Eric James.

Middle schoolers also study a wide range of science disciplines, including geology, astronomy, biology, and emergency medicine. Along the way, they discover connections to future career paths. Guest lectures from neuroscientists, class trips to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and the opportunity to design and present 3-D models to professional architects are all part of how those connections are made. 

“Challenging science experiments and hands-on learning were a big focus at Harlem Academy,” recalls Anais Marston ’14, a senior at Northeastern University who is studying architecture. “A building project I worked on in eighth grade had aspects of physics, architecture, and design – a combination I’m drawn to.”

Jade Morton-Alexander ’16, a sophomore at Tufts University who plans to major in biology, adds: “I loved science when I was at Harlem Academy, and I still do. The RPI trips and class projects helped to spur my interest.”

Putting Hypotheses to the Test 

All the scientific skills our students develop over the years culminate in the eighth-grade science fair. Whether virtual, as in recent years, or in-person, the fair showcases our students at their best. The quality of their work always meets the highest standards. 

“When students are given the chance to explore on their own, it allows for depth of processing,” says Dr. James. “Understanding science is all about learning to break things down, figure out bottlenecks, address problems, and find solutions. Plus, the science fair gives students the opportunity to make presentations – a skill that will serve them well in high school and beyond.”

Chaeli Campbell ’21, a freshman at Friends Seminary, agrees: “Conducting experiments and presenting your work makes you a better student. We had real ownership of our projects at Harlem Academy. That gave us a sense of independence – a feeling of ‘I can do this!’”

Thank you to the Harry Winston Hope Foundation, Con Edison, and Columbia Community Service for sponsoring our middle school science program.
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Harlem Academy is an independent school (grades K-8) that drives equity of opportunity for promising students, guiding them to thrive at the highest academic levels and one day make a mark on the world.