It all started with a question: “Why is the ocean so salty?” which led to another question: “What is salt?” What could have ended there with a simple explanation turned into a months-long study this spring for the inquisitive four- and five-year-olds in the Nueva PreK class where they learned about the elements that make up our bodies and the world around us.
From understanding how elements bond and observing mineral fluorescence in rocks to identifying elements in nature on trails around the Hillsborough campus and the chemistry of composting in the garden, the PreK class presented their exploration and deep learning of the periodic table of elements at their culmination on Thursday, May 30.
“I’ve learned more about chemistry this year than in my entire life,” said PreK teacher Carolee Fucigna, who is retiring from Nueva this year after 18 years. “I learned you have to work very hard to make a subject like this relatable for this age group, since it’s so abstract.”
Using a photograph of the periodic table from their mentor text, Usborne's Lift-The-Flap Periodic Table by Alice James, PreK aide Renee Carson first introduced the elements in terms of family and personality so the young students could understand: the smallest “baby” element (hydrogen), the biggest element that lives for less than one second (oganesson), the elements that don’t like to bond or “make friends” (noble gases), the life elements in all living things (carbon, nitrogen, oxygen), shiny hard metals (gold, silver, etc.), and the “dangerous elements” (uranium, arsenic, polonium) — which were most popular with the PreK crowd as “edgy” content.
“After this overview, the students’ excitement about the periodic table was kicked into high gear!” said Renee, who’s husband, Dr. Victor Gehman, Principal Data Scientist at Octave Bioscience, visited the class frequently to teach physics and chemistry.
“Kids are natural scientists, and it’s so rewarding to see them light up this way,” said Victor. “We started talking about oganesson, and the kids went nuts over it! I was a staff scientist at UC Berkeley and I’ve never seen scientists get this excited about chemistry.”
Each year, the curriculum of study in PreK changes based upon the interests of the students, whose passion and enthusiasm helped drive this study of elements. Though chemistry is not typically taught to four- and five-year-olds — and many PreK parents remarked they didn’t study the periodic table until high school — Carolee, Claire, and Renee created lesson plans following the Reggio Emilia approach. Nueva has served gifted learners since its inception, meeting their needs with a rich academic program in a student-centered, constructivist environment. Through constructivism, students are empowered to “construct” meaning through hands-on experience, invention, discussion, and debate that leads to a deeper understanding of a subject.
Themes in PreK emerge from the interaction of a carefully prepared environment, the behavior of the children encountering the environment and revealing their thoughts, feelings and capabilities, and the deep listening, documentation, reflection, and charting of the teachers. Over the past 18 years, Carolee has led her PreK classes in a wide range of themes, including uses of pipes, how cars work, the transformation of materials, and the qualities and properties of clay.
“We never choose the theme for the students; we make offerings and provocations, and then we observe, document, and plan,” said Carolee. “It’s been a great collaboration and team effort this semester with Claire, Renee, and Dr. Victor, our 'particle physicist on speed dial!'”
Building on the students’ early introduction to atomic structure, this year’s PreK class explored ways to understand phenomena we cannot see. They compared rocks under regular and UV lights to observe mineral fluorescence, traced their bodies and painted the representation the percentages of elements humans are composed of, played element-matching games, and at the culmination created an “Elements Restaurant” where students served their families helpings of potassium, calcium, H2O, and more.
“We learned the importance of the children forming, interrogating, and revisiting their own hypotheses,” said Renee. “The scientific method is a collaborative process where knowledge is gained through shared progress. As teachers, we encourage critical thinking and self-correction — not simply fact-based recitation. And we learned a lot too! I now have such a deeper appreciation for our world and how it’s made up of elements.”
The theme of the elements translated beyond science into poetry, art, mathematics, and even creative movement, where the students danced around each other as hydrogen atoms and used ribbon wands to interpret the differences between solids, liquids, and gases. The students gleefully performed their dances at the culmination with their other discoveries, and if you ask just about any PreK-er, they’ll sing you the “Periodic Table Song.”
“This culmination was such a great representation of what we did this year,” said PreK co-teacher Claire Wasserman-Rogers. “But the best part is when the older siblings get excited and think it’s cool. That’s when you know you’ve succeeded.”
The joy of learning the elements bubbled over at the culmination as students and families ate cupcakes decorated in the shape of the periodic table. One eager PreK student remarked, “I picked the polonium cupcake because it’s dangerous and I like that!”