Episode 204: Engaging Science, Taking a School-Wide Approach
Liz Rains of Fulton County Schools gives advice on encouraging school-wide involvement in science education.
Liz Rains of Fulton County Schools gives advice on encouraging school-wide involvement in science education.
Ashley Mengwasser: Hello, educators. Thank you for listening to Classroom Conversations, the platform for Georgia's teachers, I'm Ashley Mengwasser here with another original opportunity for Georgia educators to share and learn. Today's content is presented compliments of the Georgia Department of Education in partnership with Georgia Public Broadcasting. What's on the menu today? Well, today's special is engaging science, taking a school-wide approach. "Why all the food metaphors, Ash? Trust me, it's par for the course. My guest today is special and she especially knows specials. I'm talking about school connections classes like music, PE and art, but her specialty is science lab. Today's teacher feature from Roswell North Elementary School is science lab, teacher, and school garden coordinator. How cool is that? Liz Rains. Since 2016, Liz and her envious green thumb have been pouring into students at her school in such a positive way. What can I say? When it Liz Rains, it pours. Welcome, Liz.
Liz Rains: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Ashley Mengwasser: Are you excited to be here?
Liz Rains: I am. I'm very excited.
Ashley Mengwasser: I'm excited to have you.
Liz Rains: This is very cool.
Ashley Mengwasser: Garden coordinator, we're going to dive right into, but let's start with just generally tell us about your role at your school, and how you're able to reach the whole student body?
Liz Rains: Well, as you mentioned, I'm a specials class so it is a 45-minute class that every student in the school visits, including our pre-K actually. And it's a class that is similar to PE, art and music, which are the county-sponsored specials classes. This is an additional specials class and it's a science lab/kitchen lab/garden special so.
Ashley Mengwasser: Got love a slashy. I had big things to ask you, Liz, such as the best way to cut a bell pepper, but our audience I'm sure is here for different reasons as educators. So how did you become interested in science education and even just running a school garden? Where does that come from?
Liz Rains: Well, I came by it honestly as a child, I grew up in a really cool area of Northern Virginia, about 20, 24 miles outside of Washington, D.C., Nokesville, it's teeny tiny little town. My dad worked for the State Department, he actually worked at the Pentagon, but I think we thought he was always a frustrated farmer. We had a huge garden in our backyard, and we grew up surrounded by farms. So we gardened as a family and as kids, we helped keep things growing. And we got milk from a dairy and beef from local farmers. So we're kind of like that, everyone wants to live that organic lifestyle or sustained like we were like the original, the OG.
Ashley Mengwasser: The OG family.
Liz Rains: It's funny, like it hit me a couple of the years ago when people are talking about, "Oh, you should eat organic and this and that." And I was thinking about how one year my dad he'd never used pesticides and he made us all pick potato bugs off of the potato plants.
Ashley Mengwasser: Oh no.
Liz Rains: I remember being out there thinking, "Gosh, just spray. Like why are we doing this?" But now I realize, so I think that really started my love of growing things. And I have all brothers and we all grew up working in restaurants. We're a very foody family. My older brother owned a restaurant. My second oldest brother attended the Culinary Institute of America, he's a chef. So-
Ashley Mengwasser: Good to have in the family.
Liz Rains: Yeah. So food's always been just a big part of my life and working in those environments, I think you naturally are a teacher. You teach staff and you teach other employees. And so it just sort of stayed with me all my life. My family makes fun of me. Like a wide variety of name tags and hairnets growing up after college, I worked a bunch of different jobs, but when I became a mom, I became a consummate volunteer, and school gardens were just a great way to be involved in schools.
Ashley Mengwasser: You get it honest. And your whole clan is really connected to nature in some way. Tell me about your nephew.
Liz Rains: I have a nephew actually who lives on a sailboat, so he and his fiancée actually just went off the hook, so they're living. They've created a fully sustainable life with desalinator water purifiers and solar panels. And they only fish what they eat, and they clean plastic up from the beaches that they visit. And so, it's just really cool to see how ... I just think it comes from our upbringing and his parents, my brother lived that way and loved sailing, and loved to give back to the community so just sort of happened.
Ashley Mengwasser: Is there anything related to food or preparing food that you just think people should do better in general? Teach us your ways.
Liz Rains: I think since we do have part of our science lab is a kitchen lab, I've really discovered how food is kind of like the great leveler like it reaches everybody, and kids love to cook. So I think my advice would be just get in the kitchen and cook. Like the grocery stores make it super easy for you, all of these food subscription services, but just try it, just try it. And if you can read, you can follow a recipe so.
Ashley Mengwasser: Also, a good point. One of the things you said to me when we first spoke was, "When kids want to do, they try. When they want to try, they eat." That's an incredible cycle because you're teaching them about how to use food for their benefit. You're bringing them into the experience of the family food prep. Well, we want to talk specifically about the science lab, not just food, I got distracted, but that's what food will do. Let's dive in here. What benefits have you seen with the school- wide approach to science?
Liz Rains: I've been thinking about this a lot when you approached me with the idea of coming on today. And I think the greatest benefit is that we are teaching children how to collaborate. And science and STEM, it's a buzzword, but it's also the future. And collaboration happens every day in your life as an adult. And it really happens in their lives as children too. So, from a school-wide approach, I think the kids are learning how to work together. They identify a problem, figure out how to solve it, test it. And that goes from whether they're doing a STEM activity or they're putting seeds in the ground, or they're writing something and they have to investigate and research.
Liz Rains: So, I think the greatest thing that the school-wide approach is, is that it solidifies the science standards that they're learning in their classroom. But it also gives them an opportunity when they come to the science lab to really use those collaboration skills in smaller groups. And gives kids who might not normally shine in certain settings to really show off their skills so that's always great.
Ashley Mengwasser: That's powerful. You see these students for 45 minutes, you said in your special, and you see the entire school how frequently?
Liz Rains: Twice a month. Since there's only one of me where very large school. We have over 900 students. So I see 900 students twice a month.
Ashley Mengwasser: Twice a month you're engaging with every student in your school. How does that science rotation support teachers in the classroom?
Liz Rains: Okay, great question. So science standards are set by Georgia, and we follow them, and we have curriculum and books and textbooks and workbooks. So, what I do is I kind of just make those standards bigger or I use different experiments, or hands-on activities that a teacher might not have time to do, might not have the resources to do, might not have the interest in. So I take what they learn in the classroom, and I just expose it in a different way or I introduce them to something that they will be learning the next time they hit that science time in their class.
Ashley Mengwasser: You're teeing it up for them.
Liz Rains: Yes.
Ashley Mengwasser: Liz, how does the science rotation support climate in our classrooms? We're talking engagement, behavior collaboration. In what ways do we support positive climate?
Liz Rains: Well, I think the science lab allows the kids to have a voice. And when they can give their opinion or an experience, it allows them to feel like they're part of a group that works together towards a common goal. We're always trying to solve problems in the science lab. We come up with a way to fix something and giving everybody an opportunity to weigh in on that definitely allows them the opportunity to feel like they're part of the solution. So I think that helps a lot. I think it gives kids the chance to bring in maybe aspects of their own families, especially like with food. That's one of the big things is the kids will say, "Oh, I eat that at home." And someone who doesn't like a particular vegetable will be like, "Oh, you do?"
Ashley Mengwasser: Wow.
Liz Rains: Yeah. And then there's that herd mentality, "Well, okay, I'll try it. If you're going to try it, I'll try it. Or I know how to cut an onion." And that kid comes up front and shows everyone how they use a knife or has cutting skills. I mean, you kind of get street cred, I guess.
Ashley Mengwasser: Isn't that what we're all looking for?
Liz Rains: I think specials in general are just a gift.
Ashley Mengwasser: Cool. They're cool.
Liz Rains: They are cool. I mean, and we have amazing specialists at our school so we're fortunate in that way. But I think maybe it sort of settles the kids in a way and they're thinking in a different manner. So maybe when they go back, they're still in that frame of mind. So I think that would help out the teachers in the school. But I think also the biggest thing is for them to sort of get an idea of what this all means. Like they might approach ELA in a way where they want to do more nonfiction reading, because they've learned about a science standard talking about weather and they want to know about hurricanes.
Ashley Mengwasser: It intrigues them.
Liz Rains: Right. Or math is very applicable to science, especially we use it all the time, cooking, think about that, measurements and fractions. And in the garden, we do square foot gardening so we can measure garden boxes, and how much space does something need to grow, and how long what's the length of germination time. So there's a lot of different ways that it just naturally parlays itself into the day-to-day classroom.
Ashley Mengwasser: And they're working with their peers to solve problems and investigate, which I'm sure brings them closer together.
Liz Rains: It does. And I think the thing is science. There's not every aspect of science that maybe every child enjoys. I mean, not every child likes to garden, but there are kids in the classroom that like to garden. And while they are being really jazzed about that, there's other aspects of growing that someone else may enjoy. We need to create a hydroponic garden, let's figure out how we do that. How do we create a watering system? What are we going to do? And so there's lots of ways to open it up to the class.
Ashley Mengwasser: Which makes me curious, what topics or projects have you seen students get most excited about and why?
Liz Rains: I mean, they're still kids. Let's be honest, they are little scientists, but they love potions. They love anything that explodes.
Ashley Mengwasser: Who doesn't?
Liz Rains: They love slime.
Ashley Mengwasser: Slime.
Liz Rains: But they love anything hands-on. And, and they love to take things home. I think that's the biggest question. Can I take this home? Can I-
Ashley Mengwasser: To show their family.
Liz Rains: To show their family or just to keep. They love rocks and fossils. And I mean, I think kids today they get exposed to so much more, certainly much more than I did as a child. I think my window into that world was smaller because I didn't have the access to the internet that these kids do. But I think a lot of times they want to feel it, and they want to touch it, and they want to show it, yes. I mean, I have kids all the time that they'll reach their hand in their pocket or have a box of something.
Ashley Mengwasser: Oh no, this is my nightmare.
Liz Rains: I know. And I'm like, "Oh gosh, what is that?"
Ashley Mengwasser: What's in there?
What's in there? Is it moving? I love this, "Mrs. Rains, I found this" and I'm thinking, "God, please don't let it be alive."
Ashley Mengwasser: Is it usually?
Liz Rains: Sometimes. I get a lot of rocks, a lot of birds’ nests. The biggest thing, too, is the kids want to talk. I mean, I think in this day and age we have a hard time trying to control that balance between chaos and collaboration. So I think in my classroom, it's a time for them to sort of let go. We talk a lot. I mean, that's the beauty of having a very free and open-ended curriculum is we just see where it goes. And sometimes we'll spend an entire class talking about the latest rocket that went up the stars last night or we're getting ready to have an eclipse. So it's just very free form.
Ashley Mengwasser: Describe one of the physical projects they were eager to take home and show their family members.
Liz Rains: I think one of the coolest ones we did, and it was so simple, and this was during COVID. I taught a lot of kids during COVID. I taught a lot of parents too. There were a lot of parents on that screen with the kids. I had a lot of like anxiety-
Ashley Mengwasser: Probably because they were enjoying themselves to be honest.
Liz Rains: So, one thing we had was I wanted to discuss with the kids how water travels up through the stem of a plant to the flower, like how does it reach, and that process. And bring in the water cycle or like try to encompass the entire school in these online sessions. And I got this through another site, but it was a paper flower. So it was a piece of flat paper that they colored, they cut the petals out of the flowers, just the actual flower. And then they used kind of like an origami-type of fold and folded the colors into itself, placed it inside a bowl, and it bloomed. It was such, like I said, so simple and the supplies were so readily available, but it just had a huge impact. It's just that wow factor.
Ashley Mengwasser: For them to visually see?
Liz Rains: Mm-hmm.
Ashley Mengwasser: How have you seen students grow in addition to the blooming flower? How have your students grown from year to year taking this rotation?
Liz Rains: I think now that I've been there for quite ... I've seen kids go between K and five like I've watched them travel. I think the biggest thing is to see their focus. They definitely know like when they come into the lab, this is a whole different ballgame. We have a different type. We have high stools and kind of like drafting tables. They know it's a different environment, they know what to expect, but I think is seeing them get prepared for the dissections that we do as they get older.
Ashley Mengwasser: What sort of dissections?
Liz Rains: And they start out when they're young dissecting seeds or gummy worms. 3rd grade does owl pellets, which is a very cool way to introduce. And then by 5th grade they dissect sharks.
Ashley Mengwasser: 5th grade they're dissecting sharks? I wasn't ready for frogs in middle school.
Liz Rains: I didn't.
Ashley Mengwasser: How are they doing this?
Liz Rains: It's great. Part of it is having that foundation. They know that it's serious, they know to respect the specimen. But I think it's having that consistency of coming to the lab, and knowing that they're learning, and they know that dissection is to look within. And we do that in other ways besides just dissecting a specimen. We do that by looking within to the science standards, looking within to our garden boxes, looking within to ourselves. Like where do we want to go as scientists?
Ashley Mengwasser: What can they do in terms of the school garden by later years?
Liz Rains: They do everything. The students, they plant, they tend to it, they harvest, they harvest. We have donated, we're up to a little over 2000 pounds of produce that we have donated to our North Fulton charities food bank.
Ashley Mengwasser: Impressive.
Liz Rains: We use it in the classroom. We've served it in our cafeteria because we're an all organic garden, so we've certified. We do it on the food line. I have a great relationship with our cafeteria manager. Fulton County does a great job with farm the cafeteria and she'll be like, "Oh, we're doing radishes this month." And I'll be like, "Oh, we're growing radishes." And so it just sort of they do everything. They do everything.
Ashley Mengwasser: I don't hear any drawbacks to the students. What would you say to schools that might be hesitant to take an approach like this?
Liz Rains: Well, I mean it costs money. It's just plain and simple. It's a lot easier to create lessons and have supplies than you think it is. But ultimately to have a one-on-one teacher that is a special, we do that because we have a student, I mean a parent foundation that supports my class.
Ashley Mengwasser: Oh okay. That's awesome. So it's really they might be hesitant about the cost of materials, but you can use anything.
Liz Rains: You could. And we in Fulton County when they adopted the new science standards and the new curriculum, we received lab materials to go along. Like every grade level received specific materials that went along step by step with the different things that the kids were learning. So those should be in schools. I mean, I can speak for my county, and you can take those and run with it. I mean, the internet is just full of information from other teachers. You can go to the Dollar Tree and get all kinds of STEM lab supplies. You can build parachutes out of coffee filters and string. It's a matter of taking the time to figure out how to do it.
Ashley Mengwasser: Right. And if you don't have much, you don't need much. What could they use within their own school?
Liz Rains: I think the easiest thing to do would be to look at their school and have the kids come up with a problem that needs to be solved. And our greatest problem I feel personally is waste. Food waste, just waste as far as, we talk about this all the time. This year, we have a big push for name three things that you want to change about yourself and how you live your life. How can you reduce your footprint? How can we not use three paper towels when we're pulling paper towels out of the paper towel holder? And do you turn your water off when you brush your teeth? Our cafeterias are full of opportunities to reduce waste.
Ashley Mengwasser: To reduce waste. Why does your school take this unique approach to science, do you think?
Liz Rains: This really was driven by parents. So years ago we had a parent that brought this up, and he's a physician in our community, and he had two students at the school. And so he suggested the science lab and we actually have named the science lab after him, Dr. Licata. And I have an administration that believes in the science lab and thinks that it's an important part of the kids learning when they're at Roswell North. But I think it goes back to parent support. Without the parents, we just wouldn't have what we have. I mean, when we talk about the bigger things we do in the lab, too, and the gardens, parents come in and help us. We have a huge community that North Fulton gardeners help us. And so, it definitely takes a village to keep us going. The other thing is I think we've done a good job of reaching out to the people who can collaborate with us. Our cafeteria manager and the media specialist. I share the days that the kids aren't with me, she teaches the kids. But I just think that's the best way to approach learning is it has to be a community. Also, there's a lot of grant opportunities that are available to science-based learning. Captain Planet here in Atlanta, they have helped fund our gardens through project learning garden. The Boy Scouts have built garden boxes for us. The Georgia Science Teachers Association. They have grants available. Georgia PTA has grants available. There's all kinds of STEMs grants available. It's another one of those things where it's doable, you just have to do it. You have to find a way to create what you want.
Ashley Mengwasser: How is this approach supportive of students engaging in science at the elementary level in terms of the standards?
Liz Rains: I think, Like I said, I know in Fulton County we just started a STEM technology high school, and it's all medical-based and computer science-based, and STEM career-based. And it's state of the art. It's amazing, but kids don't start wanting to learn that in the 9th grade. Something has to be grown in them. I hate to use another garden reference.
Ashley Mengwasser: Please do. We love puns on this show, Liz.
Liz Rains: It doesn't always come naturally. And I think in this day and age like, for example, kids, they want to see what a cell looks like, they can call it up on Google and they can look. But it takes something like the science lab to say, "Okay, we're going to create our own slide out of onion skin and you're going to create it, and you're going to put it on this stand, that's what this is called on a real microscope. And you're going to look in there and then you're going to draw it. And then we're going to talk about how you just saw how many cells on that tiny little piece of onion skin that you created. Think of how many cells there are in the human body." What happens when a cell is a bad cell? And so I just think that you have to grow that interest. And I hate to be, especially in girls. Girls hit middle school and they stop like really striving, traditionally striving for those math and science careers. So I think when they are really bolstered in elementary school to be-
Ashley Mengwasser: On fire for it.
Liz Rains: Yeah. Yeah. It stays with them.
Ashley Mengwasser: Absolutely. And I'm sure it addresses, you spoke about this earlier, just that hands-on small group collaborative thing that they need. Because guess what, kids? Group projects only get crazier when you get to college.
Liz Rains: It's funny. We talk about that all the time. And beyond and it happens. I'm not going to say it's all roses where we are. I mean, I can create groups and kids are not happy with who they have to work with, but I say it all the time. You don't always get to choose who you get to work with. And they have to learn to listen to each other. You have to listen. You might not like that this person came up with the idea but question them about it. Do it respectfully, but ask them, or how can you build with them? How can you make it better? Or why do you think it might not work? You can't just say it's not going to work. Give us a reason why you don't think it is. And then let's change it. Let's make it better.
Ashley Mengwasser: Yeah. Nothing good happens in a vacuum. Well, we have to end with a bang here. I know you've got a lot, Liz, teaching tips for a science lab teacher. I'm sure your tips are going to sound more like, "Try this." So can you give us a few things that our educators can try?
Liz Rains: I think after all these years, I've learned the best thing to do is be prepared, but also be prepared for change. So be prepared for the class coming in and the standard you want to cover. Try really hard to find something that's cool and exciting. Phenomenon-based learning is very big and like start with something cool. A cool video, a cool picture. A cool story. I mean, I have a lot of stories based on how I grew up in my family so I can talk about it. And it just starts the kids thinking, but break them into small groups, and allow them to work. And you got to circle around and listen to them. You just have to listen to kids. You have to let them be who they're going to be. And then when you find one that has that spark, you got to keep blowing on that flame. You got to make sure that you're giving them what they need.
Ashley Mengwasser: Give it oxygen. And one of the most salient things I think you said is see what you have there under your nose that you can make use of in the cafeteria. Start there, start with what's around you.
Liz Rains: Even on your school grounds, it's amazing. And almost every school and I think in these kits for our school, any type of a magnifying glass, or even just a piece of paper, and let them go out and journal, what do they see in the schoolyard? Pick up a rock from the playground. "Come in. Let's figure out what kind of rock is that? Did it start bigger? How big do you think it started? What broke it down? Why is it here? Is it also in another county in another part of the state? How did it get to us? How long has it been here?" Just use what you have. There's just lots of opportunities. One of the great things is the cafeteria from the lunch actual trays, everything's kind of in its own little package. And they'll serve a lot of things that are like mini greenhouses almost. And when I do cafeteria duty, I'm always like, "Don't throw that away. Bring that to my room. There's a cover on that. We can use that to grow a seed." So there's always something you can use and make something new out of it.
Ashley Mengwasser: Nothing ever wasted.
Liz Rains: No.
Ashley Mengwasser: Because Liz Rains will pour her beautiful rain down upon it. Thank you, Liz, for being here.
Liz Rains: Thank you for having me.
Ashley Mengwasser: Your skills are so welcomed in our classrooms and my kitchen anytime.
Liz Rains: Oh, I'm happy. I'm happy to help.
Ashley Mengwasser: Because I'm curious, is there anywhere we can follow your school, your class, your work, and also your sailor nephew's adventures at sea?
Liz Rains: My sailor nephew at sea, he and his fiancé have their own website and it's tied to mind. They have Instagram feed, and a Patreon site, and they post often just mainly so we know where they are.
Ashley Mengwasser: Yeah, I'm so curious.
Liz Rains: But I also have an Instagram account for the science lab and a Twitter account. So it helps me actually keep up with other scientists in the Georgia area. But I post a lot of pictures through that for parents.
Ashley Mengwasser: And what's your Instagram?
Liz Rains: @RLifescience.
Ashley Mengwasser: All right, you got a new follower, Liz. Kurt Vonnegut said, "Science is magic that works." Like Liz has taught us kids who are growing things will also grow themselves, and what they investigate with their hands they can hold in their hearts for sharing delightedly with families in the world. Liz also inspires us to let science lab take its own form in our school systems. Where there may be no physical four-walled science lab, there's always a science lesson to be found somewhere on your school grounds. Go and find that magic for yourselves and help kids think outside of the box garden. We'll be back next week with more Classroom Conversations, the platform for Georgia's teachers. And here's one thing that definitely doesn't need a laboratory to prove, you're a great teacher. Goodbye. Funding for classroom Conversations is made possible through the School Climate Transformation Grant.