Curriculum Reviews

Review: Thames and Kosmos Science Kits

Homeschool science kits: These experiment science kits from Thames & Cosmos would be great for elementary and middle school science activities. 

One of the many joys of exploring science in our homeschools is the regular opportunity for hands-on learning. When it comes to picking a good science kit that supports a particular theme, you’ll find there are many to choose from. Too many! In fact, if you’ve spent any time at all seeking out such resources, you’ve probably had a mix of both good experiences and some so frustrating they’ve bordered on comic. I’m still a bit scarred from a recent robot making kit I tried assembling with my kids. If you have experience with kits of this kind, you recognize that the quality of materials, instructions’ clarity, and scientific explanations provided can vary dramatically from kit to kit, and so many times the process proves frustrating to both the child and the parent.

Since these kits are not exactly free, I play it safe in my homeschool. For the times when we can’t make do with resources already in the house, I often pull out the Thames and Kosmos’ catalog and go shopping. Currently, there are more than 120 science and experiment kits available from this company. Each falls under one of thirteen categories: Chemistry, Physics, Alternative Energy andEnvironmental Science, Technology andElectronics, Biology, Earth Science andNatural History, Fun andFundamentals, Astronomy, Classic Science, Little Labs, Ignition Series, Sophisticated Science, and Construction Series. We have not hit home runs with 100-percent of the kits we’ve tried, but for the most part, I find Thames and Kosmos’ product line consistent in terms of ease of use, quality of materials, and most importantly, ability to engage my kids’ interest and keep learning fun.

I had a chance recently to spend time looking over Thames and Kosmos’ Hydropower Renewable Energy kit (ages 8+). The set features 12 experiments and building projects designed to illustrate methods of harnessing mechanical energy from water in order to perform physical work. Projects include making a water mill, building a sawmill, and generating enough energy from the waterwheel to light an LED.

A slim but informative booklet introduces readers to the concepts of hydropower. This material is a good launching point for discussions with children about earth’s most precious resource. They may be surprised to learn of the ways civilizations have harnessed energy from water throughout history. You may wish to further supplement the information found in this booklet, but it is also an adequate standalone resource.

The materials included are made of plastic and of the same average quality found in most kits of this kind today. They will hold up well enough for the purpose of each experiment and most likely for future experimentation as well. However, they are not toys and will not withstand rough handling. This kit is unlikely to hold up well enough to be used with younger siblings later on.

Instructions are provided with clear and easy-to-follow illustrations. With only minimal assistance, my children were able to use the guide themselves and felt enormous satisfaction from doing so. Perhaps now we can put the wretched robot debacle behind us!

Each experiment is placed into context using real world examples most students will find interesting. Children are able to understand the relevancy of each experiment they perform as well as the application of the scientific principles that this kit teaches.

If you are looking for a standalone kit to teach the basic concepts of hydropower or searching for an efficient, cost-effective way to make models that illustrate your own lesson plans, Thames and Kosmos has put together a solid resource to assist to you in your efforts. Enjoy!


Great Secular Science Curriculum: The Story of Science

Yes! Secular, literature-based science curriculum! The Story of the Science takes a historical approach and is definitely worth checking out if you need help with homeschool science.

OK folks, I am really excited about this one! Joy Hakim’s work, The Story of Science, is truly a treasure. Whether you’re seeking out curriculum for a science-loving learner who can’t get enough of the subject or navigating a path with a humanities kid who’d rather be reading and writing, Joy Hakim’s series has much to offer.

Hakim’s approach to the study of science is to discontinue the practice of isolating this subject from other disciplines such as world history, critical thinking, and language arts. Hakim advocates a multidisciplinary approach, which she masterfully brings to life for readers in her compelling three-volume series. The Story of Science meets the requirements of the National Science Education Standards and Common Core. However, these books are also rich with compelling language and ideas that ignite desire to delve deeper into the stories of scientists and their discoveries. Each volume ($24.95) can be supported with a student work book ($12.95) and a teacher’s guide ($39.95).

Suggested reading level is 5th grade through high school.

Volume I Aristotle Leads the Way:
This first book introduces students to ancient Babylon, Egypt, Greece, India, and the Arab world. The lives and work of Pythagoras, Archimedes, Brahmagupta, Al Khwarizmi, Fibonacci, Ptolemy, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas Aquinas are presented in a lively style of narrative that is often absent in more traditional textbooks. Hakim’s selected topics for this volume explore the very questions that led the great thinkers to concepts of modern science as we understand them today.

Volume II, Newton at the Center:
The second, longer volume in this series features the work of important thinkers such as Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and Descartes. This text demonstrates how the genius work of Isaac Newton made possible what is recognized today as modern physics, astronomy, mathematics, and chemistry.

Volume III, Einstein Adds a New Dimension:
Readers have a front seat ride with Albert Einstein as he and other great minds make groundbreaking discoveries in the field of physics. The history of physics is explored in amazing breadth in an engaging and literary manner. Hakim presents a wide range of concepts from electromagnetism to quantum mechanics, black holes, quarks, and more.

For those who view traditional textbooks with a healthy degree of skepticism, these exceptional volumes will be a pleasant surprise. Throughout each book, substantive text is peppered with colorful photographs, informative sidebars, useful charts and maps, and original excerpts from the scientists’ writings, as well as suggested further readings. The scientists themselves are brought to life like characters in a novel, presented as compelling individuals who are oftentimes as interesting as the discoveries for which they are famous.

The workbooks accompanying this series are well organized, and their layout is simple and straightforward. Each unit opens with a thoughtful quote from a featured scientist in order to establish the theme of the particular chapter. These quotes are a lovely springboard for some fascinating conversations with kids. Before students begin reading the text independently, they can refer to the who, what, where portion of the workbook, which succinctly presents important key details and vocabulary to guide their reading. “The Quest Sheet” appears at the end of each unit and is generally a series of questions and suggested hands-on activities. These exercises, though science-based, also offer opportunities to work on mathematical concepts, language arts, and historical interpretation. “Scientists Speak” is a fun page found in each unit on which an illustration of a scientist appears next to a speech balloon. Here the student is invited to write down a phrase or concept associated with that particular great thinker.

The Story of Science is not intended as a self-teaching course to be done independently by students; the teacher’s guides are essential. These well-organized guides contain original plans that utilize engaging methods. Many of its pages may seem formal or a bit stiff to homeschooling families as its format is geared toward classroom teachers. However, there is much to be gleaned from this resource. Each section provides a supplies list for getting started. Ideas for using the text and student guides are presented as are answer keys and activity ideas. Hakim’s commitment to a multidisciplinary approach is most apparent through enrichment activities, referred to in the guide as curriculum links. Through these, the author provides a means to engage students with projects that link science with math, art, geography, history, music, and language arts.

The Story of Science is not the right resource for every family. This is a secular science curriculum. Religion is presented in a historical and literary context. Those seeking a program that students can work at independently should look elsewhere. Although lesson preparation is minimal, parent involvement is required. The numerous maps, charts, and sidebars located throughout the text are well done and relevant, but could easily prove distracting to some learners. Students looking for a general overview of the sciences may find this work too analytical and expansive. This is a series for academically inclined students with a strong interest in science and history, who are able to make abstract connections.

The volumes reviewed here are part of a larger six-part series still in the works. Hakim is reported to be at work currently on a biology text focusing “especially on the story of how our knowledge of life has emerged.” For those who find this curriculum a good fit, this is very good news indeed. 

 

Rebecca Pickens is home/school/life’s Curriculum Junkie in the magazine and online. (Subscribe to read her smart, thoughtful, secular curriculum reviews in every issue.) She writes for several publications and also blogs at steampoweredclassroom.com. This column originally appeared in the spring 2015 issue of home/school/life. We're reprinting it here as part of our web relaunch celebration.


Curriculum Review: Life of Fred Introduces a Language Arts Curriculum For Your Youngest Learners

Nice, thorough review of the Life of Fred Eden series: Good for early readers who like fun, silly material

Whether or not you are familiar with the wonderful, wacky world of young Fred Gauss, made famous in the unique Life of Fred series, I’m beyond excited to share with you details of Schmidt’s newest work, Life of Fred Eden Series for Beginning Readers. If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading other Life of Fred books, please be sure to check out my review of Stanley Schmidt’s curriculum in the summer issue of home/school/life magazine.

The Eden series is an eighteen-book collection of reading primers, which takes you through one continuous story. This review looks at the first six books in the series (with a guarantee I’ll be purchasing the rest of the books this afternoon!).

When your littlest learners get their hands on these primers, you’ll likely be delighted by their enthusiasm as well as their immediate desire to connect with these offbeat stories. At last, just like their older brothers and sisters, beginning readers can finally enjoy Fred’s offbeat world first hand.

The 32-page books do not teach phonics or specific concepts. Instead, this fun-filled romp takes readers on an absurd trip with Fred and his doll Kingie to Fall River Lake, where the two intend to enjoy some R-and-R. If you are familiar with Mo Willems’ Gerald and Piggie books, you’ll be struck by the similarity of tone and style of the two series. Simple text scattered on uncluttered pages is mixed with illustrations that provide meaningful context clues to help readers puzzle out new words. Both sight and phonemic words are repeated throughout the texts. The stories are engaging and full of quirky fun.

I tested this series out with my 4-year-old. When his 6- and 9-year-old brothers (both die-hard Fred fans) joined us on the couch to read along, my youngest guy beamed with pride to find the “big boys” sitting in on his learning time with Fred. The text is easy enough to keep early readers challenged, but will generally not be frustrating. The stories are colorful and will entertain older children (and their parents) as well. This versatile series is appropriate both for early readers and older struggling readers. Another nice feature of the Eden series is that in between the laughs, Schmidt succeeds in unobtrusively including lessons about time, counting, nature, and basic shapes, among other things. An emerging trend of intelligent, effective readers is a genre I’m eager to see expanded.

These volumes manage the same high quality and affordability as the rest of the Life of Fred series and retail at about $6 per book.


Curriculum Review: Resources for Young Entrepreneurs

Curriculum Review: Resources for Young Entrepreneurs

Greetings! I am the Curriculum Junkie at home/school/life magazine, where I have the privilege of reviewing the absolute best of homeschool materials. I am also mom to 3 young homeschooling boys and a writer at www.steampoweredclassroom.com. I love my jobs; there is truly never a dull moment! It is a great joy to write about resources that help enrich the time we spend learning with our kids. There are so many treasures out there that I can’t possibly present them all in the magazine, so I’ve jumped on board at HSL’s blog for some more fun and sharing.It’s my hope you’ll glean information from this feature that truly enriches your homeschool experience. If there are particular subjects or themes related to curriculum that you would like to read about, let me know at rebecca@homeschoollifemag.com. For more in-depth looks at curriculum, check out my column in home/school/life’s magazine. Now on to the review!

The homeschooling lifestyle is ripe with potential for learners endowed with an entrepreneurial spirit. Hands-on opportunities to learn the basics of developing and operating a business can be made abundant. However, for those children wishing to deepen their understanding of the subject, it is helpful to have a guide that provides financial and business vocabulary, terms and concepts and that also guides the development and implementation of strategic thinking.

If your child is asking for such a resource, you might consider Y.M.B.A’s series of business workbooks designed for students ages 9 and above. The 5-volume set includes the titles, Marketing, Finance, Business Law, Business Math and Accounting.

The workbooks, which are approximately 70 pages, contain easy-to-read text with good-sized font and are made all the more user friendly by their many graphs, cartoons, and illustrations explaining key concepts. A motivated child could easily enjoy and work through this program independently, if they wished.

Each concise lesson begins with a one-page introduction to new concepts such as the history of money, how to write a check, loans and invoices and investment strategy to name just a few. The page that follows each lesson is called the “Drawing Room.” These worksheets provide readers a chance to engage with the new terms and concepts presented on the previous page. In completing each of these lessons, a wide use of skills are practiced; computation, creative and strategic thinking, exploration and application of ideas. Examples of Drawing Board exercises found in Marketing and Finance include writing a check, creating an organizational chart, word searches, making a comic strip, identifying the features of a saving bond, pricing a series of items for a shop, identifying a target market, and designing an eye-catching box for a specific sales item. A complete answer key follows at the end of the books. Each workbook is $9.95 and can be ordered on Y.M.B.A.’s website at www.YMBAgroup.com.

In the end, there is no better teacher than experience itself. This series is a comprehensive accompaniment that will reinforce the many concepts and skills a child encounters as they work to establish their own exciting business venture.


Free Secular Science for Homeschool: Forensics Illustrated: Step Under the Tape

Free Secular Science for Homeschool: Forensics Illustrated: Step Under the Tape

Kids who love crime shows will love the chance to dig into real forensic science and you can't beat the price on this free science program, but be aware that lab work requires a lot of specialized equipment and there are some careless errors you'll want to keep an eye out for.