Frank, a chubby, black hamster, scurries through the maze as owner Ellie Hubbard, a fourth-grader at Julia Randall Elementary (JRE), times his dash through the tunnels made of clear plastic cups linked together with Scotch tape.
“He did that in 10.7 seconds,” she says.
Then Ellie tears apart the maze of tubes to reconfigure them. She has Frank do it all over again. This time, it takes him 26.1 seconds. She writes the results in a notebook.
“I’m trying to learn about learning patterns,” she said.
Ellie will present the results of her observations at the JRE school-wide science fair on Feb. 9 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. in the gym.
In this weekly program, she and 22 other students spend an hour with Carme Locke, a former Payson teacher who came out of retirement to administer the pullout science program. The particular science class is aimed at children identified with special needs in the gifted and talented education program (GATE).
The U.S. Department of Education defines a GATE student as: “Children and youth with outstanding talent who perform or show the potential for performing at remarkably high levels of accomplishment when compared with others their age, experience, or environment.”
Locke picked science as the subject of the JRE GATE program because it offers a multi-disciplinary approach.
“Science requires reading, math, presentation skills, organization and artistic skills,” said Locke.
Ellie has a focused approach to her experiment, but all the students in the program revel in the challenge the class offers.
Yamileth Avalos, a fourth-grader who loves math and science, plans on collecting data to determine what time of day is best to shoot hoops.
“Maybe in the morning you do more because you’re rested, or less because you just woke up,” she said, “At night, you might do better because you’re warmed up from the day or worse because you’re tired.”
GATE students often find themselves neglected by schools because teachers mistakenly think they have it easy in the classroom. In fact, they often learn in unusual ways and have trouble remaining engaged in the traditional classroom. Moreover, many GATE children have other learning disabilities such as dyslexia, ADD or ADHD.
Unlike special needs children with disabilities, however, the federal government has no mandate to protect the legal rights of GATE students according to the Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education. As a result, states decide how to identify and serve the needs of GATE students.
Fortunately, Locke’s JRE science class mixes a variety of projects and approaches.
Student Ivan Wade has an interest in reading because his dad teaches English at Payson Education Center, but Ivan also has a passion for anything having to do with electricity. He and his dad do projects together such as making crystal radio sets at home.
“My project is to test which metal conducts electricity better, copper or tin,” said Ivan.
Working with materials he has available, Ivan made a bulb holder with Legos and a bulb from a flashlight he disassembled. He then attached two double D batteries using the tin wires. As he touched the light bulb connections, he lit up the light.
“I want to find one more metal to test,” he said, considering how to improve his experiment.
Not all states have GATE legislation on the books, but Arizona does. Arizona’s bill ARS 15-779.01 requires that each school district provide gifted education, which is defined as, “appropriate course offerings and services that are required to provide an educational program that is an integral part of the regular school day and that is commensurate with the academic ability and potential of a gifted pupil.” But how to implement that mandate stumps schools.
JRE decided to start with this once-a-week pullout science program.
Locke patiently spent weeks preparing the students to think through the scientific method to help them identify a testable question. Then they must create an experiment to collect measurable results that either prove or disprove their answer.
“We’re teaching (in this class), measures, observations and patterns,” said Locke.
She has found telling students they might not find a definitive answer often initially alarms them.
“They are so concerned about having the right answer,” said Locke, “The (educational) process of finding out is more important than the right answer.”
On this day, Locke has a chance to show a new student the ropes.
“Oh, a new kid!” said Locke, “What’s your name?”
“Dominic,” he replies.
Locke guides Dominic to a seat at a table. She pulls out a long list of sample questions and experiments possible to complete in the three weeks remaining before the science fair.
“You could see what type of diaper absorbs more water than another,” she suggests.
Dominic wrinkles his nose in disgust.
“I know — that’s an uncomfortable subject. How about a survey?” she asks.
Dominic perks up and starts asking questions. By the end of their time together, he decides to ask kids in his grade what type of music they prefer from rap, to country, to pop or rock.
“The challenge will be getting the time to meet with kids in your grade,” said Locke, “Maybe you could ask your teacher if you can do this during recess.”
As Locke and Dominic wrap up their time together, the bell rings and the day ends.
“Remember, you only have three weeks until the science fair,” said Locke as the students rush out to catch the bus.
“I wish I could have more time with them,” said Locke as she watches them leave.
Locke is looking for members of the community interested in helping to judge the JRE science fair. If interested, please call (928) 970-0135.