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Cottonwood Heights Journal

Canyon View Elementary’s fourth-grade student-scientists learn not ‘gross,’ but ‘how scientific’

Dec 16, 2021 08:44AM ● By Julie Slama

Canyon View Elementary fourth-graders engage in hands-on learning as they dissect and identify parts of cows’ eyes. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Canyon View fourth-grader Drew Merrell likes dissecting.

“It’s cool stuff,” he said. “Look at this shiny tapetum from the cow’s eye that reflects light. That’s what makes their eyes glow.”

Then, he related that knowledge to figure out that’s why cats’ eyes also glow.

“That is really cool to learn. The squid was gross to dissect, but it was fun to try to write my name with the ink,” he said, forgetting one of the rules of the dissection.

That rule is for students to say, “how scientific, not ew or gross,” said teacher Sean Thorpe, who brought the ideas of dissection and hands-on learning to the fourth-grade science components. “I believe that education should be experiential rather than repeat what they learn. So this is a designed experience for them to learn through their curiosity.”

Earlier this year, all the fourth-grade students, along with parents supervising small groups of three, dissected squids, understanding that organisms have special structures, he said.

“We had 100% of our students participate; it helps build their courage to do this,” Thorpe said. “This time, we had two girls opt out of dissecting the eyes of cows, sheep and pigs. They were given another assignment, where they created 3D models to color.”

During this unit, students first learned the structure of living organisms and different body types. In studying the human eye, they not only learned about its iris, lens, retina and optic nerve, but also how the body responds with its nervous system.

“We chose these eyes because they are mammal with complex lens and similar to the human eye,” he said. 

While he does not have a strong science background, Thorpe, who is in his seventh year of teaching and is new to Canyon View this year, said he had done similar dissections and experiments at his previous school the past five years.

Many of the parents also have never done dissections like this before.

“I like parents being involved and the community engagement part of it. Anytime I can get parents out of their comfort zone to try something new or unfamiliar to them, it helps the students out,” Thorpe said.

Drew’s mother, Nikole, said her last dissection was when she was in school, but she supports this learning.

“It’s super awesome that they get hands-on learning and can see how it relates to how their own eyes work,” she said. “The squid dissection made some of them queasy with the formaldehyde, but they thought it was fun to write their names in the ink. I think it’s great that parents are involved in the learning and we’re getting to know each other through these dissections.”

Even the PTA president Josh Henderson was hands-on despite not having a fourth-grade student.

“I think this is really positive for our fourth grade; I’m just here to help provide an extra set of hands,” he said, then was put to work finding more pairs of plastic gloves and passing out dissection tools.

After the dissection, Thorpe has students write a CER—claim, evidence and reason paper.

“This allows them to reason and think through the process,” he said.

Fourth-grade students also took their dissection knowledge to help first-graders’ examine owl pellets to find the tiny bones from that owl's meal, and learn about the owl's diet and place in the food web, said Principal Kierstin Draper, who’s young daughter was all excited to bring home her owl pellet and told her mother, “I’m going to keep it forever.”

Next, fourth-grade students will rotate to learn about planet movement in the astronomy unit from Megan Norton, test waves in a sound and light unit with Emily Weigel and learn about potential, kinetic and solar energy with Thorpe. Their hands-on projects have yet to be announced.

Norton said that this is the first time she has taught these dissections.

“It’s not necessarily something I’m excited about doing, but it is memorable for the kids and anytime they’re excited for learning, I’m all for it,” she said. “It’s fun that they are getting hands-on learning and can apply it to aspects of life.”

Weigel, a first-year teacher and former school PTA president, said the squid dissection was her first since her high school days.

These experiments are “a great component to have as a cumulative project that is more impactful,” she said. “But we couldn’t do it without volunteers back in the school. It’s a game-changer for kids, teachers and the Canyon View community. These experiences bind us and bring that abstract concept into a way of understanding for students.”

While the excitement over these class dissections has spread to the entire school, Thorpe now plans to hold a science night with the help of the teachers and support of the PTA. 

On the evening of Jan. 13, all Canyon View students will have a chance to dabble in science experiments in a rotation of projects that may include determining the DNA of a strawberry to testing static electricity or creating a fizzing rocket.