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Kids' natural curiosity is unbelievable. They have so many fantastic questions.
When Akbar Muhammad first shows the tiny Monarch eggs to his second-grade science classes, they don’t quite believe that they could really turn into butterflies. But day after day, disbelief evolves into scientific inquiry, as students watch the metamorphosis from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly. When the eggs have transformed into butterflies, students release them outside, and then track the insects’ migration south on the internet.
The second-grade butterfly unit underscores the hands-on nature of the science curriculum in the Lower School, which is a “special” class all students take outside of their regular homeroom. Muhammad, who teaches science to students in kindergarten, first, and second grade, embeds key scientific lessons into every session. In the butterfly unit, students learn to use scientific tools as they peer through microscopes to examine the eggs, and they’re introduced to the concept of a hypothesis when Muhammad asks them to predict whether the caterpillar will eat more or less milkweed as it grows. The lessons serve as the building blocks of scientific discovery that students will use as they move through the science curriculum in the Lower, Middle, and Upper Schools.
For Muhammad, his young students’ enthusiasm is contagious and inspiring. “Kids’ natural curiosity is unbelievable,” he says. “Their eyes light up when I introduce a caterpillar. They have so many fantastic questions, and as the unit goes on, we’re able to answer all of them. When the students figure something out on their own,” he says, “it’s a wonderful thing to see them take ownership of that accomplishment.”
With every unit—whether it’s tracking weather changes on the classroom SmartBoard or learning about recycling— Muhammad is constantly looking for new ways to engage and excite his young scientists. Muhammad, who has taught at SPA since 2002, is working towards his master’s degree in environmental science from Hamline University, and every year he takes a class focusing on elementary science that introduces him to new ideas that he can immediately incorporate into the classroom.
It’s that flexibility—being able to quickly turn great new ideas into classroom lessons—that Muhammad appreciates about SPA. “We’re not driven by a specific [curriculum]; we can rework units in the ways that work best for students,” he says. “My colleagues and I are constantly sharing ideas and lessons to help each other improve.”