Lawndale students get hands-on time during parent-power lab

Students at Lawndale Elementary School dug into the cycle of life last week.
As part of a parent volunteer-powered science lab, third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students dissected owl pellets and pieced together the puzzle of prey and predator.
“It feels like cotton candy,” said fourth-grader Jenna Jolly as she pulled apart the pellets to find the bones of the animal that was on the menu. The pellets are made up of the bones and hair that the owl vomits out after the rest of the animal is digested. The pellets used in the lab were sterilized.
As they worked out the bones of voles, rats and even a bird, the students had to identify the bones with the help of charts and put the clues together to find out what the owl ate for lunch.
“I have a lot of hands-on learners,” said fourth-grade teacher Kristen Roberts, and the lab experience is especially valuable for them.
By the end of this week, Lawndale parents Andi Hildenbrand, Donna Watson, Ragan Milner and Martha Ann Wilson, who are all former educators, will have led 25 Lawndale classes through a monthly lab session. Hildenbrand and Watson will serve up a second monthly helping of science to fifth-graders later in April.

Parent of the year
Hildenbrand, who was selected as the Tupelo Public School District 2011 parent of the year, initiated the science lab project as part of her participation in the Parents for Public School Parent Leadership Institute.
“The goal is for all students … to have a better basic knowledge of different topics in science,” said Hildenbrand, who helped organize science experiments for lower elementary students when her children were at Thomas Street Elementary.
Unfortunately, classroom teachers are often limited in what hands-on science opportunities they can offer because of lack of space, equipment and time. The science lab has been a wonderful addition that has enriched their school experience, said Principal Terry Harbin.
“They can learn theory in class and go to the lab and are able to put the theory into motion,” said Harbin, who praised the efforts of the parent volunteers.
Hildenbrand writes the lab lesson plans to connect with the classroom topics, and the four parent educators split up the class load. Fifth-grade classes get a second lab each month to help them prepare for the state science test.
“All the kids are getting the same material and the same lab,” she said.
The science labs are directly connected to the fifth-grade science curriculum, but they typically sync well with what third- and fourth-graders are studying in their classrooms.
“This lab was really good because right now we are studying ecosystems,” Roberts said.
Over the course of the school year, students have explored force and motion, states of matter, cell structures and more. The lab starts with science vocabulary and concepts before the kids start hands-on experiments.
The lessons are sticking with the kids long after they leave the lab. The class was working through a reading comprehension passage on the Northern Lights. The students connected the information on the atmospheric phenomenon with science lab experiments they did with prisms and the color spectrum.
“That was several months ago,” Roberts said. “And they were able to relate the passage to their science lab experience.”

Community effort
Outfitting the science lab has been a community effort, Hildenbrand said. The most significant funding came from 2010 Winterfest – where parents raised about $6,000 – and a $7,000 Association for Excellence in Education grant. That money was used to purchase microscopes, science education kits, supplies and materials. Parents for Public Schools provided a $200 grant that was used to decorate the science lab. Businesses have donated materials and items to round out the lab.
At the beginning of the school year, parents and teachers prepared the lab and painted the murals.
“Truly, the whole school has been so supportive,” Hildenbrand said.
While it has been hard work, Hildenbrand said she hopes other parent groups will consider helping their schools enrich their science learning opportunities.
“If all our schools had science labs, how great would that be?” she said.

Michaela Gibson Morris/NEMS Daily Journal