Science at Woodland

Science at Woodland
Tanya Spishak

We continue to highlight the learning taking place throughout a single academic discipline, kindergarten through eighth grade.

The Importance of Processes in Lower School Science
Lower school science emphasizes encouraging students' sense of wonder as their use of science processes are developed. One way our earliest learners process information about their world is by examining and exploring things in their environment. They are encouraged to grow perceptions of their world by learning how to observe, how to compare, how to classify and how to communicate those things that they are discovering and uncovering. A second way students process information is by doing what scientists do. Scientists observe, classify, infer, carry out experiments, and communicate their findings. Just as scientists throughout time have learned to gain information in these ways, our young learners do, too. From early childhood, ways of processing information grow more complex as the children develop. As students grow in these ways, our students get more information out of their examinations and explorations.

Kindergarten Science
In kindergarten science, most of our explorations took part on the campus grounds. Late summer and autumn were spent getting to know the trees on campus deepening students’ awareness and encouraging a greater appreciation of their environment. We began our study with a campus walk noticing the Woodland trees. What kinds of trees are there? How are they the same? How are they different? Do they have leaves? Do they have needles? Do they lose their leaves? If not, why not? How are their seeds dispersed? The children asked a lot of insightful questions. They observed, measured, classified and sorted evidence. They organized their thinking and communicated their results in order to extend their understanding of trees as a growing, changing, living part of their world. Throughout the year, the students will continue to visit, observe and learn about the trees.

Up next in science: Kindergarten students will focus on weather and the conditions that cause and change it. With all of the recent rain, we are off to a great start!

1st Grade Science
In first grade science, students investigated the world of soil. Soil provides the foundation of life. Thomas Jefferson as a farmer and President stated, “Civilization itself rests upon the soil.”

Healthy soil is a crowded place. With creatures ranging from microscopic bacteria and fungi, to earthworms and millipedes, to gophers and moles, soil is a vibrant place. In a shovel full of soil, our young scientists, discovered a dynamic mixture of living, once-living and non-living things. They sorted and classified the tiny particles and compared their soil to that of other scientists’ soils. During this unit, students also learned how to recognize three basic soil components - sand, clay and humus. They explored the size of the particles, looked at the variety of appearances among the soil particles, and tested how much moisture the components could hold.

To deepen the connection between organic matter and soil, our soil scientists rebuilt the garden compost pile. By collecting fruit and vegetable scraps from recess and lunch boxes as well as from generous friends of the garden, the students have been layering green waste, brown waste with sprinkles of soil and water. In the spring, we hope to harvest an ample crop of compost, which will feed our plants.

First Grade in Garden Science Blog
First grade in garden science blog post

Up next in science: First grade students will study the cycles and predictability of the patterns of the Sun, Moon and Earth System.

2nd Grade Science
In second grade science, students have been carefully observing and learning about the species of birds that beautify our campus with their flight and song in order to participate in Project FeederWatch, a citizen science project, which will have the students counting feeder birds and watching their interactions from November to April. They will enter their counts, drawings and stories on the Project FeederWatch website. The bird counts help us to understand our local bird environment and they help scientists at Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada track long-term trends in bird distribution and abundance. The work that our students complete on Project FeederWatch points to the positive consequences for the birds in our backyard. The children’s bird counts matter and may be truly helping some species thrive!

Second grade science blog
second grade project feeder watch


At SCI-CON, one mother shared her son’s excitement in pointing out a lesser goldfinch in the garden. She hadn’t noticed it and barely noticed the bird after it was pointed out. During class, bird blindness and how it can it can be overcome with practiced awareness and wonder had recently been discussed.

3rd Grade Science
In third grade science, our naturalists trekked around California to learn about the geological and biological diversity of its beautiful natural regions. Using resources from the California Education and Environmental Initiative, the students worked in small groups to gather information from maps, readings, pictures and diagrams about geographical features, biodiversity, weather patterns and climate, as well as basic land use in their natural regions. The California Education and Environmental Initiative (EEI) is a cooperative endeavor of the CA Environmental Protection Agency, CA Natural Resources Agency, CA Department of Education and Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle), which is a set of environmental principles and concepts designed to increase the environmental literacy of our students.

As part of the California natural regions study, the students dissected Barn Owl pellets from the Bay Area and four distinct regions of the United States - Northeast, Northwest, Southeast and Southwest. The students dissected the pellets, analyzed the material found in the pellets and used the data to compare and contrast the ecosystems and eating habits of barn owls from the five areas. The study of barn owl pellets culminated with students entering their data from the regional owl pellets into an interactive national database. By downloading the information, students share important information in a large database that looks for trends in owl pellet contents.

Third Grade owl pellets for science blog
Second grade dissecting owl pellets


Up next in science: Third grade students look forward to their study of magnetism and electricity. They will be building and wiring their houses with lights for the annual Shoe Box Village.

4th Grade Science
Concerned with the regular amount of food wrapper and plastic waste that litter campus, fourth grade students embarked on a waste study at Woodland. They conducted a campus-wide trash pick-up and found that most of the waste that they picked up was food wrapper or packaging waste. After the trash pick-up, students collected food wrapper and container waste from Kindergarten-4th grade snacks and lunch boxes. They were encouraged to see that many of our students carry their food in reusable packaging. So why do we still have so much campus litter? Why isn’t the waste ending up in the proper bins?

Recology, which is our partner in waste, visits campus yearly and reteaches sorting waste into bins that will be composted, recycled, or shipped to the landfill. Recology’s request and stated goal for Woodland is to send less waste to the landfill. The Fourth grade sustainability learners have a mission to teach Kindergarten-8th grade students what has to be done to get the waste in the proper bins and to send less waste to the landfill. They are developing their plan, and we look forward to celebrating results in April.

Kindergarten and 1st Grade Snack Waste

Kindergarten and 1st Grade Snack Waste

2nd, 3rd, & 4th Grade Snack Waste

 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Grade Snack Waste

Up next in science: Fourth grade students will be investigating green energy solutions in the second trimester.

5th Grade Science
The first trimester in 5th grade science began with an introduction to the Nature of Science, followed by a Physical Science Unit which focused on Matter.  The students worked in partners or small groups to discover the characteristics of Matter and how Matter behaves. They made observations about Mystery Boxes in order to determine the contents of the boxes. During the process, the groups underwent scientific observation, hypothesis, and collaboration.

As students moved into the study of Matter, the first task was to prove that matter had mass. To accomplish this, students chose from various tools and equipment to devise a system that illustrated that matter has mass. Students then made predictions regarding how matter behaves during phase changes and chemical reactions and then proceeded to carry out simple experiments to test their hypothesis. During these tasks, students built science skills such as making observations, drawing and labelling diagrams, measuring, data collection, and making conclusions. The final part of this unit was dedicated to the properties of matter and how those characteristics are used to identify matter; the students completed a lab to identify four unknown powders (from the kitchen) and four minerals.  We reinforced these skills by utilizing an online simulation that allows students to virtually identify unknown substances and minerals.

Preparing for SCI-CON was an exciting endeavor for the 5th grade. They were excited to display their work and took their roles seriously as they brainstormed and prepared for the event.  The students chose to demonstrate three activities from class: 

  1. Displaying the property of surface tension with a hands-on activity where visitors could experiment with the surface tension of both tap and soapy water. 
  2. Demonstrating conservation of mass during a chemical reaction in which visitors were able to experience the reaction as they held a sealed bag in which the reaction took place.
  3. Sharing results of a leaf pigment chromatography lab and explaining the process of photosynthesis.
Fifth grade science experiments for blog

6th Grade Science
The 6th grade classes began this year with an Earth Science unit focused on plate tectonics with special attention to the San Andreas fault and the transform boundary between the Pacific and North American plates.  A highlight of this section was a field trip to Los Trancos Preserve in order to explore geological formations formed by plate movement such as pressure ridges, a sag pond and a view of the linear valley formed by the San Andreas fault. Many “a-ha” moments materialized as the docents pointed out the geographical features of the park. The group that hosted the trip visited classes on campus and brought models and activities to reinforce experiences from the field trip.

Back in the classroom, we continued to explore the earthquakes and volcanoes caused by plate movement. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) website allows students to view current and past earthquake activity in California and worldwide.  We were able to add to this experience by installing our own seismic wave detector called a Raspberry Shake (  This device is installed in our classroom and is part of a network of stations that contribute seismographic information to the Raspberry Shake collective.  Students can view earthquake data from around the world and observe the seismic movement right below our own classroom.

Another integral part of this fall’s curriculum was studying the rock cycle in relation to plate tectonics and geology.  A wonderful link for this was our Outdoor Education trip to Yosemite where we toured and hiked the valley and looked at the rock formations through the eyes of the rock cycle, glaciation and plate tectonics.  These experiences led us into SCI-CON preparation and the students took charge of the planning, suggesting what the 6th grade could exhibit at SCI-CON.          

SCI-CON included interactive plate boundary displays, a Pangea puzzle, the Raspberry Shake and various online simulations that the students utilized during the first trimester.

6th grade field trip for science blog
Raspberry Shake image for science blog


7th Grade Science
We started out this school year focused on weather and climate which was a part of our Earth Science Unit. Students conducted labs to learn about various properties of land, water and air. For example, students compared the heat absorption and retention of water and land by heating samples of water and soil for twenty minutes. Students recorded the temperatures over a heating and cooling period. Students also learned about air flow and ocean current movement with the use of models. In one lab activity, students created their own mini oceans--complete with islands and other topographical features--and observed how ripples sent through the water moved.

7th grade science experiment

At the end of this unit, students completed an extensive project. Students used knowledge gained throughout the trimester and created posters which explained how hurricanes form. Students had to think about factors such as: What properties of water and air make it possible for a hurricane form? Why do hurricanes typically happen in certain geographic areas and not others? How does the spin and rotations of the Earth affect hurricanes? It was a pleasure to see how students approached this task differently and organized their explanation of how a hurricane forms in unique ways. On the final day of submission, students completed a gallery walk which allowed classmates to enjoy and learn from the work of others.

7th grade hurricane info for science blog
7th grade science blog hurricane info


At SCI-CON, students elected to present two different activities from our Earth Science Unit. One lab station demonstrated the unique heating effect of water on the air around it and what happens to air as it heats or cools. Students explained how these properties of water and air are important factors for the formation of various weather patterns or storms, such as hurricanes.

At the second station, students challenged guests to design a machine to help clean the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. After learning about global ocean currents and their ability to move both water and trash vast distances, the students read about Boyan Slat’s The Ocean Cleanup Project which is working to design a machine that can collect the large amounts of trash in the Pacific Ocean and bring it back to shore. Sadly, The Ocean Cleanup Project’s machine has not had a lot of success thus far, so students challenged SciCon participants to design a better and cheaper version.

8th Grade Science
Eighth grade students started out the school year focused on DNA, genetics and evolution which was a part of our Life Science Unit. In the beginning of this unit, students used manipulatives and models to help them visualize what DNA looks like and what it is made of. Students then learned about basic Mendelian genetics and inheritance through the use of Punnett Squares. Students were able to predict possible genotypes and phenotypes of offspring as well as determine questions of paternity.

We then took a step back and attempted to answer questions such as: What makes a trait desirable? How have traits changed over time? What evidence is there to support the theory of evolution? Students analyzed data from historical cases, the fossil record, structural anatomy and embryology in order to help them answer these questions. The highlight during this portion of the unit was a visit to UC Berkeley's Museum of Paleontology where students were able to examine real fossils as well as learn about how the fossil record continues to impact our understanding of evolution today.

Eighth grade field trip to UC Berkeley to look at fossils

At SCI-CON, half of the eighth grade students demonstrated how to extract DNA from strawberries. Strawberries are “octoploid” which means that their cells have four times as much DNA in them than a human cell. Because strawberries have so much DNA, it is possible to see the strawberry DNA with the naked eye using basic household supplies and simple techniques. Students explained that if we were able to zoom in even closer to see the building blocks of DNA, one would find various sequences of four different nucleotides which are read as genes and help to code for all the proteins in our bodies (or in a strawberry, in this case).

The second half of the eighth grade shared the results of the gel electrophoresis lab which the students conducted in order to help determine possible relatedness between a high school student and her parents. The trait of focus was the ability to taste PTC (a bitter chemical). Guests were able to taste PTC test paper to help determine if they were PTC tasters or not. Students then showed the results of the gel electrophoresis lab and how these results helped them determine if the student’s parents were, in fact, her biological parents.  

Science Fair Elective
In Trimester 2, middle school students have the opportunity to pursue a topic of interest in the science fair elective offered every Friday during the elective period. Students will devise a central question about a topic of their choice which they would like to investigate. Students will then design an experiment aimed at answering this question. The middle school science teachers will be there to help guide students through the scientific process and help them overcome any obstacles along the way. The budding scientists will then implement their experiment at home and bring their results to the elective period where they will receive help analyzing their data. Students will then prepare a poster presentation of their data and conclusions to present at the San Mateo County Science Fair on March 14th & 15th, 2020 (

  • Teaching & Learning Blog
  • Top News