Library & Hands-On Science:
A Winning Combination*

by Elizabeth K. Goldfarb

Teachers, aware that children learn best by doing, struggle to provide hands-on science opportunities for elementary school children. But some schools lack science specialists, many lack adequate space for science activities, and most lack sufficient time or materials for truly hands-on learning. Many classroom teachers in New York City are discovering with a LIBRARY POWER librarian and a library collection enhanced with exciting science resources is a valuable partner for promoting hands-on elementary science.

Ed Clinton, P.S. 287 Ed Clinton, at PS 287, in Brooklyn, is the LIBRARY POWER librarian in an elementary school without a science specialist. He notes:

"Classroom teachers are supposed to teach science along with all the core subjects, but often they don't have equipment or supplies for hands-on science, and there is seldom time in the day to organize materials, space and experiments for children. The science fair each year was a nightmare. Teachers complained of the annual 'vinegar and baking soda' volcanoes which look impressive, but really had no scientific foundation. Children complained they couldn't find materials for experiments in neighborhood stores."

Clinton first canvassed teachers and students to determine what kinds of science equipment and supplies would be most useful. Hand held lenses, eye droppers, magnets, batteries, bulbs, measuring devices, weather instruments, petri dishes and glass slides were some of the items mentioned. Clinton purchased some materials from a science supply company and also collected useful recycled objects (soda bottles, styrofoam cups, milk cartons).

Next Clinton located paperback books of experiments for teachers, parents and children. "I wanted books so attractive, children would borrow them just to explore science on their own," he commented. Publications by the Boston Children's Museum, Brown Paper School, and the Ontario Children's Science Centre were favorites according to Clinton. Whenever possible, the books and the equipment or supplies useful for carrying out the experiments were bagged together. Called "Science-to-Go," bags could be borrowed overnight by children. For example: Blinker and Buzzers: Building and Experimenting with Electricity and Magnetism (Zubrowski, 1991) came with a selection of magnets, wires and batteries. Each bag also had a notebook so parents and children could record what they used and what they discovered. "I am especially interested in getting children to think in a scientific way, and also to see the science possibilities in their everyday environment. I purchased several copies of The Young Scientist's Guide to Successful Science Projects (Markle, 1990). I hope with more exposure to quality experiment books and hands-on science, children will develop science fair projects that are more scientific. Right now, children and teachers are discovering that hands-on science is a lot of fun," said Clinton.

"The weather club" is one outcome of the librarian's emphasis on opportunities for hands-on science. Children meet in the library before school and record temperature, humidity and precipitation for the day using inexpensive weather devices. They also predict the weather and compare their predictions with the newspaper reports. "They really enjoy being weather people. We also get them involved in math: measuring, graphing and averaging. Now we have set up a terrarium "desert biome," and we're predicting and experimenting with temperature, humidity, light exposure and plant growth.

Clinton is also extending the library video collection with science material taped from the educational TV channel. "Videos can give an immediacy to science topics which can't be experienced directly. I recently used a video on the rain forest and another with current information on the planets. Many of our students are visual learners. I work with a small group in the library encouraging them to brainstorm, make a semantic web, and predict before viewing the video. Then we watch a short segment of the video, stop and discuss. Video is wonderful because it is so easy to stop and replay. Careful observation is one of the key components of good scientific study. With video, we can teach children to be better science observers without having to go on location," notes Clinton. The library also purchased the 3-2-1 Classroom Contact videos and teacher guide. "These short science videos are especially useful for classroom teachers who don't feel comfortable with hands-on science. The guide explains the concepts, lists materials, pre- and post-activities, and extension ideas. The videos actually demonstrate the experiments."

Other useful professional materials according to Clinton include "NatureScope," "Science & Children" and "Wonder Science." Each issue of "NatureScope" presents one complete theme with information, illustrations, copycat pages, lists of magazine articles and places to write for more information. "We have Pollution, Insects, Endangered Animals. They are all popular," says Clinton. "Science & Children" has ideas for activities, reviews of new books, videos and software, and information on science equipment. "Wonder Science," which is the Journal of American Physicists, has interesting projects and experiments which can be done with inexpensive or recycled materials.

"I've noticed much more interest in science school-wide since the library became more involved in the science program. I think we're helping teachers and students make science a part of everyday life," concludes Clinton.

P. S. 185 in Central Harlem is a K-2 school also without a science specialist. Fortunately, LIBRARY POWER librarian Sharon Barbour says, "Science is my first love." She has made the library a mini-science lab: a catfish gurgles in an aquarium, land snails inhabit clear shoe boxes set on low tables so children can observe the activity, and assorted plants and projects line the window sills. Barbour, in an effort to get more science into the classrooms, developed "Science Theme Boxes," with the help of teachers, parents and children. "Grow It!," "l Spy," "Sea & Shore," and "Celebrate Me!" are titles of some boxes. Each contains stories and non-fiction books for children and teachers, pictures, puzzles, realia, simple equipment for experiments, videos, filmstrips and a response journal. Teachers may borrow boxes for whole class use or for special interest groups. "We hope that as children use the boxes we can add student made responses, pictures, stories and observations about animals, the sea, experiments and related objects like shells, rocks, and pressed leaves.

Magazines Barbour recommends are: "Scienceland" and "Zoobooks." Both are useful with young children because they are so full of beautiful color pictures. Teachers also like: Everybody Has A Body: Science From Head to Toe Activities book for Teachers of Children 3-6 (Rockwell, 1992). It has dozens of activities and simple experiments which are appropriate for young children and that require a minimum of special equipment or materials.

"Young children love science. It's not so much stimulating interest as trying to answer their questions,'' says Barbour. And so it seems as second grade snail watchers tug at her arm to ask, "How come that snail keeps eating the lettuce and not the carrot'?" First grade pollution watchers pull a step-stool up to get a closer look at sealed plastic sandwich bag taped to the window, each with a bit of organic or non-organic material inside. "Did you see my bread, man it's green! How come the hot dog got orange and the bread got green?"

At PS 75 in Manhattan, teachers have also found a cross discipline, multi-grade, thematic approach makes it possible to have more time for science, even without a science specialist. "The environment has been a continuing concern for all grades," according to librarian Marianne Martucci. The study of the environment at PS 75 encompassed reading, writing, research, science, social studies, math and the visual and performing arts. "Since we don't have a science room, the classroom, library and whole community became our laboratory. "Students visited the Staten Island Landfill, organized a clean-up campaign in nearby Riverside and Central Parks, and held a "plant-in" to beautify the school yard.

In the classroom they conducted research on the source and amount of lunch time garbage, then graphed their results. Bake sales were held to raise money to save the rain forest. Students created art projects of recycled materials. The library was often the hub of research and composition activities according to Martucci. "Children were quick to explore computer software such as "Lunar Greenhouse," and they enjoyed looking up animals on Mammals: A Multimedia Encyclopedia (National Geographic, 1990) CD-ROM program.

"It is quite a challenge locating enough material on a topic," said Martucci. The library also housed and displayed student projects and showcased visual and performing arts. "I assisted a first grade with a play on saving the rain forest, and organized a public education radio show on the environment with fourth graders. The original song they wrote with their teacher about the problems of garbage was quite a hit at the radio station. Now we are looking forward to our school wide Earth Day Celebration in Riverside Park. Children adopt a tree, and research its care. School staff come in costume as favorite book characters, often with a science theme.''

This year Martucci plans to come as Miss Rumphius (Cooney, 1989), the adventuresome teacher, librarian and naturalist. Just like Miss Rumphius, she plans to have a pocket full of lupine seeds to share with children, "to make the world more beautiful."

At PS 166, in Manhattan, LIBRARY POWER librarian Lorraine Mollahan noted there was an outstanding science teacher on staff, but often there wasn't space to display hands-on science. With the cooperation of the science specialist, Mollahan set up a "Science discovery table" in the library. The exhibit changes frequently. Children used the space to display science projects with plants; the science teacher set up a recycled soda bottle experiment to demonstrate floating and sinking; and sometimes, the table held things to observe through a hand lens, a hair, insect, leaf or bread mold. Related books and magazines were also on display so children could learn more about the topics, and the table always contained a response journal so children could record questions and observations.

According to Mollahan, the children became much more science oriented as the year progressed. It was not unusual for a bevy of third graders to come running down the hall one day calling, "Wooo, Ms. Mollahan, we found this bug. Can we look at it under the magnifying glass?" Mollahan would not only help them display their insect, but would stimulate observation and questions and get them started finding the insect in field guides and reference books. Children became so involved with bugs, they held a school-wide "Bug Day." children made models in art, science and library. They conducted experiments, researched and wrote reports, performed bug poems, and created bug riddles. They decorated the library and hallways with giant insects and spiders (not insects! as the children will hasten to tell you).

For another project, children researched whales in the library and then decided to make their own. With the help of the art teacher, they painted a fifty foot long blue whale on butcher paper and set about mounting it in the hallway. They used reference books to compile outstanding and unbelievable whale facts, which they gleefully shared with parents, teachers and other children. "It's wonderful combining science, research, reading, writing and art. An interdisciplinary approach really helped everyone. I am not a science subject naturalist and neither is the art teacher. Children quickly learned the art teacher could help them construct a model but they would have to research and find out exactly how the animal looked. I could help them locate information in books, but only if they could clearly explain what they needed. Children love to know more about something than their teachers. They like teaching us, and they really learn more and retain more when they help direct learning," said Mollahan. "I don't think a child in the school will ever forget just how large a fifty foot whale really is."

"I'm also finding that more teachers are asking for literature with a science theme. Some professionals titles I have found especially useful in locating storied with science themes are: Science Through Children's Literature: An Integrated Approach (Butzow, 1990) and A to Zoo: A Subject Approach to Picture Books (Lima, 4th revision, 1993)."

Instead of a Science Fair, children at PS 166 participated in a school wide "Science Expo." 'We didn't want science winners and losers. We didn't want projects done by parents, either," said Mollahan. Instead of children competing individually in a contest, children worked in special interest groups. They researched topics in the library, planned and conducted experiments, constructed displays, and then explained their results to interested children, teachers and parents. Want to know what happens to radish seeds when they are grown under crowded conditions? A whole committee of third graders will be glad to demonstrate and explain. "The Expo was a real school-wide science celebration instead of a contest. Children read more about science and scientists, and really enjoyed sharing what they learned," according to Mollahan. "Now I just have to buy enough science related materials to answer their other questions."

In these and many of the other 123 schools in New York City in the LIBRARY POWER Project, librarians are working with teachers to provide exciting new materials and hands-on science opportunities to delight elementary school children.


Allison, Linda. Blood and Guts: A Working Guide to Your Own Insides. A

Brown Paper School Book. Boston: Little Brown, 1976.

Booth, Jerry. The Big Beast Book: Dinosaurs and How They Got That Way. A Brown Paper School book. Boston: Little Brown. 1998.

Butzow, Carol M. and John W. Butzow. Science Through Children's Literature:An Integrated Approach. Englewood: Libraries Unlimited. 1992.

Cooney, Barbara. Miss Rumphius. New York: Viking. 1982.

Elkington, John, Julia Hailes, Douglas Hill and Joel Makower. Going Green: A Kid's Handbook to Saving the Planet. New York: Puffin. 1990.

Javna, John. Fifty Simple Things Kids Can Do To Save the Earth, Kansas City: Earth Works Group, Andrew & McMeel. 1990. 4900 Main St., Kansas City, MO

Lima, Carolyn and John. A to Zoo. 4th edition. New York: Bowker. 1993.

Markle, Sandra. The Young Scientist's Guide to Successful Science Projects. New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard. 1990.

Ontario Science Centre Staff. Foodworks. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley. 1987.

--. Sportswork. 1989.

-- Scienceworks, 1988.

-. Science Express. 1991.

Rights, Mollie. Beastly Neighbors: All About Wild Things in the City, or Why Earwigs Make Good Mothers. A Brown Paper School Book. Boston: Little, Brown.1981.

Rockwell, Robert E., Robert A. Williams and Elizabeth A. Sherwood. Everybody Has a Body: Science From Heat to Toe Activities Book for Teachers of Children Ages 3-6. Mt. Rainier: Gryphon House. 1992.

Williams, Robert A., Robert E. Rockwell and Elizabeth A. Sherwood. Mudpies to Magnets: A Preschool Science Curriculum. Mt. Rainier: Gryphon House 1987.

Russell, Helen Ross. Ten-Minute Field Trips. Chicago: J.G. Ferguson Pub, 1973.

Zubrowski, Bernie. Blinkers and Buzzers: Building and Experimenting with Electricity and Magnetism. New York: Morrow Jr. Books. 1991.


3-2-1 Television Contact. 30 part series. Each in one of four core areas of science: Earth, Life, Physical and Scientific Investigation. (800) 228-4630.

Computer Programs:

Mecc. Lunar Greenhouse. Computer Apple 11 Series. St. Paul, MN. 1989-90.


National Geographic. Mammals: A Multimedia Encyclopedia. 1990.


"NatureScope." Published by the National Wildlife Federation. 1400-16th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20036-2236. Titles include: "Endangered Species: Wild & Rare;" "Pollution: Problems & Solutions."

'Science & Children." Published monthly, except June, July and August, by the National Science Teachers Association. 1742 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, D.C., 20009- 1171. $38.00 annual.

"Scienceland." Published monthly for children Pre-kindergarten - Grade 3. 501 Fifth Ave., Suite 2108, New York. NY 10017-6102. Eight issues a year, $15.')5. Supplemental teacher's manual, $12.00.

"Wonder Science." Published by the American Institute of Physics. 1155-16th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20036. Eight issues for $5.00.

"Zoobooks." Published by the Wildlife Education Ltd. 930 W. Washington St., Suite 14, San Diego, CA 92103.

*Elizabeth K. Goldfarb is a library consultant with the LIBRARY POWER Project in New York City. She is also a reviewer for Appraisal and Kirkus Review for Children and Young Adults. She was formerly the elementary school librarian and curriculum coordinator for the Berkeley Carroll School in Brooklyn, New York.

**Reprinted from: Appraisal: Science Books for Young People, Vol. 26, No. 4, Fall 1993, pp.1-6.