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Schools add science space
PTAs help create hands-on labs
Coal Mountain Elementary teacher Denise Webb helps students Zachary Pfister, center, and Carley Tootle during a recent sound wave experiment in the school’s new science lab. - photo by Autumn Vetter

It’s like a field trip without the bus.

Every time her students get to use the science lab, Coal Mountain Elementary School teacher Denise Webb said they learn something new.

"The mind-set of going into a lab and making them feel more like scientists, and more like middle school and high school students because they’re out of the classroom, has been fun for them," she said.

Coal Mountain is one of several elementary schools in the Forsyth County system to convert an extra classroom into a science lab for the whole campus to share.

Though not a district requirement, the hands-on learning labs have also been created at Brookwood, Haw Creek, Matt, Sharon, Whitlow, Shiloh Point and Vickery Creek elementaries.

Fonda Harrison, director of elementary education, said the system is working with the schools "about what should be included in an elementary school science lab and … our PTAs have helped provide the funding to create [them]."

"We want to make sure we give them guidance," she said. "We have monthly elementary principal meetings, and at those meetings, Kelly Price [curriculum coordinator] has shared resources with them and the things they need to make sure they’re using in the science lab."

At Coal Mountain, where the space is dubbed the Diamond Detective Lab, students can pretend to be detectives searching for clues that lead to facts.

Webb and parent volunteers Katie Ware and Shelly Gonzalez spent several days during the summer break setting up the lab and organizing the materials.

The payout has been huge, Webb said.

"It’s definitely prompted more questioning and higher-level thinking, which is really our goal for this year," she said. "They’re always asking, ‘When are we going to go back to the lab?’

"And because of their engagement and excitement, it’s also encouraging teachers that maybe weren’t as comfortable or maybe avoided science a little bit to really start … being more active in their teaching of science."

All elementary science labs are funded through parent-teacher groups.

For Coal Mountain, parents volunteer to set up the lab for the day’s experiment, allowing teachers to spend more time in the class and less on preparation.

The lab is regularly stocked with materials like magnifying glasses and microscopes, but the need for supplies is constant, Webb said.

Growing interest in labs complements the state’s new focus on science test results.

Next year, science scores are scheduled to be figured into which schools make adequate yearly progress as part of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

"As a result, our schools wanted to do something to help make science more fun and students want to participate more in science," Harrison said.

"With the new STEM program at Forsyth Central High School, we’re all excited about … giving them exposure to those types of things at the elementary level that they may not have had in the past."

Inspired by Central’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Academy, Matt Elementary created the STEM lab for its students.

Harrison said she expects more schools to offer science labs, though some are limited by space.

"A lot of our schools want to do them, but they just don’t have the space," she said.

Walter Fairchild, construction coordinator for the system, said there are plans to create a science lab at Kelly Mill Elementary, which will open in August.

In fact, one room in the school is intentionally remaining unlabeled so it can serve that purpose.

That approach likely will be the standard for future elementary schools, Fairchild said.

With Kelly Mill drawing students from schools that are currently crowded, Harrison said officials hope to "see more science labs out there."