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Fifth Grade Science and Health

Is science too textbook-driven to sustain the interest of kids after fourth grade? Find out what kids should learn in science in fifth grade.
Updated: December 1, 2022

Fifth Grade Science and Health

The goal of science study
Children's interest in science often seems to decline in grade 4 and after. I suspect that this happens because science study is too often textbook-driven, passive, formal, and narrow in its scope. But the major goal of science study in these grades should be to keep children interested in science and cause them to believe that they can be successful science students. Not an easy task -- but one that is critically important.

Science in the world
It is vital that children see and recognize "science" all around them in their everyday lives. Basic scientific principles are at work whenever a child rides a bicycle, puts air in the bike's tires and oils the moving parts, runs, throws a ball, gets water from a well or a faucet, uses a flashlight, takes pictures with a camera, or flies a kite. And science is also a basis for understanding what is happening when a child watches cloud formations change or planes move across the sky, plants a garden or trims bushes, reads about drought and gypsy moth infestations, or sees the effects of aging or infirmity in others. Good teachers draw heavily on such examples of "science in the world."

What kids should learn in Science
Physical Science and Technology
The natural world was the focus of science study during the primary years of school. While nature studies continue during the intermediate years, physical science and technology come in for an increasing share of attention in the fifth grade. Children will work, for example, with "mystery powders," which are especially conducive to a wide range of scientific experiments. The powders are of the kitchen variety -- flour, salt, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, cream of tartar -- and can be observed in water that is heated, mixed, and so on. They will learn about and examine machines of all kinds, including computers and mass communication systems. They are often asked about "the role of technology in our lives." In the process of answering this question they will begin to explore the link between science and ethics. Fifth grade is not too early for children to talk about such ethical issues as the cost of prolonging life through advanced medical treatment, or the possible environmental damage caused by dams that provide drinking water to cities.

Flight and Space Exploration
Flight and space exploration are commonly studied in the fifth grade. You can expect your child to make time lines of flight and space exploration, to build gliders and examine their aerodynamic properties, and to learn how flight is possible. Meteorology, which is clearly connected to these subjects, is also important. Children gain a fairly sophisticated understanding of weather patterns, wind directions, temperature, precipitation, air pressure with high and low systems, and so on. They will be able to examine weather maps and follow weather reports on television.

The intermediate years are a good time for classes to visit science museums, or for scientists and technologists to visit classrooms. Children may be exposed to more of these experiences in the fifth grade than in earlier grades.

Inquiry -- an open-ended approach to the study of science -- has a large role in the fifth grade. Children will be asked to engage in the process of inquiry, experimenting with ways of finding answers both to their own questions and to questions posed by the teacher. Such questions might include: What shapes or designs will support the most weight? Why do some objects stand and others fall? How can I get my glider to fly farther? Or not spin so much? Or land more smoothly? How much of the school's waste is recyclable? How old are the trees in the school yard? How about the trees along the river? What are the differences between a pig's liver and a human liver? Children's questions arc unending, and good teachers use those questions to teach students about the process of inquiry -- how to go about examining something. The children thus do what scientists do: define a problem and then figure out how to solve it.

What kids should learn in Health
In regard to the study of health, children continue the exploration of the life cycle that was begun in the earlier grades. What it means to stay healthy -- to maintain wellness -- cannot be overemphasized. Fifth grade children will continue to pay attention to life-style choices such as smoking, and they learn about the effects of various kinds of consumption upon health as well as upon the environment. They also learn something about medicine and its effect on health. And because fifth graders are approaching or have reached puberty, some attention is given to bodily changes and the further changes that children can expect as they grow. In many schools, children receive fairly concrete information about human reproduction, AIDS, and condoms within a framework of personal responsibility. Programs of this nature are controversial, and some parents and educators question whether topics such as birth control and sexually transmitted diseases should be introduced in fifth grade classrooms. But most of the programs of this nature that I have observed are extremely sensitive to the children's developmental status and cultural backgrounds. In the best settings, the teachers who present the material have received training in how to assess students' readiness to receive the information and how to communicate it effectively. Schools that offer such programs usually try to maintain close communication with individual parents and parents' groups; if your child is going to learn about sexuality and reproduction in school, you will be aware of it -- and you will have a voice in determining what material is to be presented, and how.

Reprinted from 101 Educational Conversations with Your 5th Grader by Vito Perrone, published by Chelsea House Publishers.
Copyright 1994 by Chelsea House Publishers, a division of Main Line Book Co. All rights reserved.

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