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Publish Date: 9/12/2006

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Allie Davies watches her teacher Marilyn Frade perform a science experiment during eighth-grade science class Thursday at Mead Middle School. Times-Call/Erin McCracken

Best-laid planets ...
Demotion of Pluto means changes to science curriculum

 LONGMONT — The reclassification of Pluto as a dwarf planet instead of a “real” planet has highlighted an interesting challenge in education when science isn’t always, well, exact.

Pluto’s demotion means science teachers are armed with posters, solar system models and textbooks that still say the orb is the ninth planet of the solar system.

Students suddenly find that the mnemonic device “My Very Eager Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas” as a means to remember the names of the planets is now short by one.

Perhaps, teachers, a possible class assignment to think of a new one? Mead Middle School teacher Marilyn Frade is game.

Frade, who teaches sixth- and seventh-grade math and seventh- and eighth-grade science, said Pluto’s loss of planethood is not a problem: “It’s science in action.”

“It’s a great opportunity to teach that in science, we try to search for knowledge and make observations and ... we keep adding to our base of knowledge,” Frade said.

She will teach the solar system later this school year to her seventh- grade classes.

“It’s definitely something spinning my wheels,” Frade said. “What do I do differently? All my posters say Pluto is a planet; all the textbooks say Pluto is a planet. I recently told the eighth-graders that in science, we don’t always know the definite answers. We only come up with answers that match the available evidence we have.”

Jeremy LaCrosse is the new full-time science coordinator for the St. Vrain Valley School District. The position had been a part-time one for the past eight years because of tight budgets, said Sherri Stephens-Carter, director of assessment.

LaCrosse said he ensures the science classes taught from kindergarten through 12th grade are “seamless” by being a voice for the teachers; finding workshops, experts and hands-on activities; and updating materials, such as science kits used in elementary science curriculum.

These kits, 10 per level in kindergarten through fifth grade, contain materials on various topics, from mill worms to the states of water. The solar system kit poses an educational opportunity, LaCrosse said.

“The third-grade kits, for example, contain a journey through the solar system. And now when you get beyond Neptune, Pluto is still there; it’s just classified differently,” he said. “This shows the students that when we do investigation and make new discoveries, it leads to more questions and new investigations.”

Stephens-Carter said LaCrosse also checks that the science curriculum in the school district aligns with state standards, in both what is taught and how it’s taught.

She said ideally the science curriculum is reviewed every seven years, but the budget crisis of 2002 put many projects on hold. Updating science curricula is now a “top priority” for the school district, she said.

Stephens-
Carter also said a committee headed by Niwot High principal Dennis Daly has been researching the benefits of adding a year of required science at the high school level. The committee will report its findings at a school board meeting in October and possibly make a recommendation.

“One of the reasons we are moving in this direction is that the majority of universities require three years of science” for admission, she said.

Currently, the school district requires high school students to take physical science and biology.

Stephens-Carter said the school district wants to encourage more students to consider degrees in math and science or at least develop curiosity, scientific knowledge, and critical thinking and debate skills.

The Pluto pandemonium puts pupils in a perfect position.

“This is an opportunity to recognize that science is always changing and always will,” she said.

Melanie M. Sidwell can be reached at 303-684-5274, or by e-mail at msidwell@times-call.com.

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