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The Best of Both Worlds: A review of the new living science curriculum, Building Foundations of Scientific Understanding

Cover photo Building Foundations of Scientific UnderstandingWith all the great science materials that are now available to today’s homeschoolers, why was I so impressed by Building Foundations of Scientific Understanding that I spent an entire month compiling the review you are reading now, just trying to do this new book justice?

Why do we even need another approach to science?

“The best of both worlds” sums up nicely my opinion of the new science lesson plans put out by Dr. Bernard Nebel. (Though I apologize in advance to those of you who will now have the Hannah Montana theme song stuck in their heads for the next hour.)

Let me explain what I mean by “both worlds”:

Like many homeschoolers these days, I am often drawn to use “living books” in our studies, instead of the generally lackluster textbooks that are available in the science curriculum marketplace. I was homeschooled with traditional science textbooks as a child, and I have to admit: they didn’t do much for me. I’m not sure I ever related much of what I dutifully read in those books to the real world.

In my experience, textbooks, while technically thorough, often have a disturbing tendency to result in very little learning, retention, or (perhaps most regrettably!) enthusiasm for the subject.

Now that I homeschool my own children, I tend to gravitate towards living books for our scientific pursuits. (Charlotte Mason defined living books as quality works written by a single author who is passionate about his or her subject.) There are many interesting children’s books that speak to various aspects of science, so finding such resources has not been a problem. In fact, there are a number of curricula for homeschoolers that are primarily based around the living book concept. (Sonlight, Noeo, Living Learning Books, among others)

But, but, but, I still felt that there was something missing from that approach. You see, each of these living books on weather or constellations or animals or habitats was a valuable and worthwhile resource, but they were like numerous individual pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that never quite seemed to fit together in a logical and coherent way. To mangle another metaphor, I felt that we were seeing lots and lots of trees, but missing the big picture of how they all fit together into a real forest.

So what was I to do?

Building Foundations for Scientific Understanding is a newly released collection of 41 thorough, brilliantly organized, and fascinating lesson plans, covering scientific ideas appropriate for grades K-2 (but those with older children, stay tuned, I’ll be addressing how this curriculum applies to you in a few paragraphs).

I think this book is best described to homeschoolers as a living book about how to teach science. Dr. Nebel (who has a long career in teaching college level environmental science) is clearly passionate about his subject – science is his life’s work. He created this approach to introducing children to science because he was disturbed by the lack of scientific preparation that his college level students demonstrated. He decided that the best way to help remedy that problem was to assist children in developing a strong foundation in and enthusiasm for scientific understanding from the beginning. The goal is not just to read a book and pass a test, but to encourage people to become scientists – thinkers who actually use scientific knowledge in their own lives.

This book isn’t a textbook – the lessons are all addressed to the teacher, and the children need never see the book. It does however, carefully introduce ideas in such a way that you can help your children understand what the scientific concepts actually mean, how they apply to their own lives, and how these concepts explain the way the world works.

See the Forest AND the Trees: How BFSU works

Dr. Nebel’s approach is systematic, yet flexible.

He compares science to math – Just as you would generally introduce addition before calculus, BFSU introduces foundational ideas first. This allows the child (and the parent, at least in my case!) to develop a good appreciation for and understanding of the terminology involved, as well as encouraging them to relate to how the concept fits into the real world.

At the same time, there is flexibility built in to the lesson plans.

The 41 lessons are divided into 4 different threads:

  • The Nature of Matter
  • Life Science
  • Physical Science
  • Earth and Space Science.

Each thread is carefully developed in a logical manner, with every lesson building on the foundation laid by the ones that came before. Unlike many homeschool science curricula, however, with BFSU you do not concentrate on a single thread at a time, but rather you can interweave the threads as appropriate.

This way of organizing gives you flexibility within a framework. At any given time you can select a thread to work on based on student interests, weather or seasonal conditions, etc. At the same time, however, lesson notes alert you if there are any topics from other threads that should be completed before attempting the new lesson. This ensures that you have maximum flexibility to select your lessons, while also ensuring that you and your children will have the necessary background experience to fully understand and relate to each new lesson.

What do the lessons look like?

The book begins with two introductory chapters that explore in depth the educational approach that BFSU uses.

  • Chapter 1: Teaching According to How Children Learn
  • Chapter 2: Guiding Students to Think

These chapters highlight the deficiencies of the “teach, test, forget” approach. They also explore the limitations of the purely “hands on” approach that provides many activities to perform, yet does not adequately convey how or why the concepts actually work. Instead, BFSU argues that it is better for long term understanding and retention if we provide context for what is being learned, if we build on what was learned previously, if we encourage reflection on what we do or do not know, (encouraging asking questions to fill in the gaps), and if we connect the learning to real life.

These chapters also explore how to find joy in learning, and how to encourage self-motivated learning, as well as how to use guided questioning and discussion as tools to assist children in constructing a firm understanding of the concepts introduced.

After that, the 41 lessons are presented. Each lesson has details about:

  • exactly what concepts the lesson addresses
  • how much time the activities and discussions will likely entail
  • if there is any required background from other threads
  • materials needed
  • “teachable moments”- suggestions for introducing the lesson in a natural way that sparks the child’s interest
  • methods and procedures for conducting the lesson
  • questions/discussion/activities for reviewing, reinforcing, expanding, and assessing the learning
  • notes to parents on integrating each lesson’s concepts into everyday life.
  • connections to other topics and notes on how the concepts can be used in higher levels
  • lists of children’s books on the topic of the lesson (usually non-fiction selections available from your library)

As you can see, each lesson is quite thorough, and provides a great foundation from which to pursue further scientific discussion and thinking.

There are 41 lessons. How long will it take to get through them?

The lessons that make up this first volume are designed to cover material suitable for grades k-2. You are free to work through the lessons at your own pace.

Most of the lessons can be completed in a week or so, with maybe 1 – 3 days of study, plus some extra reading and exploration as desired. Some of the lessons will take more time, and several of them introduce ongoing projects that will be continued while moving on to additional lessons. There is more than enough material to supply three years of scientific exploration, but the lessons are simple enough that you can move through them more quickly with an older student, if necessary.

If you begin with a kindergartener, you’ll be able to very gradually introduce lessons as time and interest permit. If you begin with a 1st or 2nd grader, you can introduce a lesson every week or two, and finish in less time overall than a kindergartener would. There should still be plenty of time to follow your child’s particular interests wherever those may lead. Older children could likely work their way through in even less time.

Speaking of which, what about older children?

I emailed Dr. Nebel to clarify his intentions for using this curriculum for older children. He is currently at work on another volume of this curriculum for grades 3-5.

Dr. Nebel indicated that the upcoming volume will build on concepts presented in this first curriculum, thus a familiarity with the first lessons is assumed.

This means if you have older children with whom you would like to use this curriculum, you should begin by having them work through the lessons in the K-2 volume. If you have younger children as well, your older offspring may enjoy helping their siblings with the discussions and activities. Even parents get a lot out of reading through each lesson (at least, I did), so while the material presented is simple enough for young children to understand, it is thought provoking for older students, as well.

Wait a minute! Aren’t you breaking your own rule about the opinions of reviewers who are talking about the shiny new curriculum they just found?

Arggghhh. You caught me. Well, sort of. Actually, I’ve read and enjoyed Dr. Nebel’s first curriculum guide, Nebel’s Elementary Education, for a couple of years now. In NEE, Dr. Nebel introduces many of the ideas and activities that are included in BFSU, but BFSU greatly expands upon them, organizes them into manageable lessons, and provides extensive follow up and additional reading suggestions. So, yes, BFSU is a shiny new curriculum, but it is expanding upon ideas that I’ve found useful for a while now. I’m optimistic that they will continue to be useful long after the “shiny new” effect has worn off. (And, I feel compelled to mention that although I am enthusiastic I don’t actually know Dr. Nebel -Don’t worry that this is an infomercial; it’s just a review from a satisfied user!)

Can I see sample lessons?

Absolutely. Visit the publisher’s website and click on Building Foundations for Scientific Understanding to view the table of contents and a sample lesson. You can also use the “search inside” feature from the BSFU page on Amazon to let you randomly flip through pages of the book.

What if I’m not a science whiz, myself? Can I teach this curriculum?

You will be learning right along with your child! (I know I have already learned so many ideas that I never remembered from my homeschool or college days.) Plus, Dr. Nebel offers free support via his K5Science YahooGroup.

(I mention that so casually, but how many authors encourage you to just send an email if you need advice? In my experience, not many.)

OK, How much is this going to cost me, and where can I get it?

This is my favorite part. I only paid $24.95. This has got to be one of the best deals around. You can order it from the publisher, or you can get it from Amazon.

Any caveats?

The only issue that I foresee some homeschoolers having with these lessons is during the Rocks and Fossils lesson near the end of the book. Advocates of the young earth theories will not agree with some parts of this lesson, and will likely modify the lesson somewhat. The material should work great, without modification, for old earth creationists and secular homeschoolers. (Because I have readers from all these backgrounds, I like to let everyone know what to expect, as much as possible!)

I’d love to hear comments from others who check this curriculum out, and maybe I will see some of you over on the K5 science Yahoogroup!

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7 Comments, Comment or Ping

  1. A new secular resource? Fantastic! I just picked up i-Science for my daughter but wasn’t sure what to do with my younger son. This looks really good, thanks!

  2. april

    Glad you liked the review! Hope it works out for you!

  3. Wow! This is just what I was looking for. I read over the sample, and learned a few things just by that! My daughter is older but very right brain. I think making everything connect in this way will do wonders for her.

    Thank you so much :-)

  4. april

    Thanks Dreamsinger! I had the same reaction as you. I think that if I, as a college educated adult, can learn something from a K-2 level course, then older children could certainly benefit as well. But I love that the concepts are presented in ways that young children can understand. It’s a good resource for multi-level teaching and learning along with your child. Good luck!

  5. rosy

    Your review was very thorough, and answered all my questions before I could ask them! Thank you!

  6. This is such an excellent review all around. I really appreciate you taking the time to do this. This book truly deserves the time you took aside to write the review, and it shows. I started to use this curriculum myself with my son (5). It’s fun, deceptively simple, and he learns a lot. Even I’m learning a lot! I’ll be posting our projects and experiments periodically on my blog. We’re taking two weeks on each thread, doing Natural Science once a week. This way we can take our time pondering the subject, reviewing and reading books. Thanks again for helping me settle down on this science curriculum. Next year in first year I’ll be using it in conjunction with Comstock’s Handbook of Nature Study.

  7. Cindy K.

    So my boys are almost 11 years old and are very quizzical, scientific-minded boys. One is very interested in the Peterson Field Guides for our area and has one for Birds, one for Reptiles/Amphibians, and one for Mammals of North America! The other son is hard to get to be self-initiated (probably due to reading not having come easy to him), but really does enjoy science – if it’s not a lot of book-work! :) Do you really think this book would work for them while we wait for the next level to come out? And do you have any idea how far in the future we are talking about the older book coming out? Are my boys going to miss out on it all and have to dive into junior high school science before then? Maybe this will suffice until high school science?

    Thanks for your help!

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