Mike Szydlowski revamps science learning in elementary curriculum

By Taylor Malottki

Mike Szydlowski is the science coordinator for the Columbia Public School District.

Mike Szydlowski is the science coordinator for the Columbia Public School District. Photo courtesy of the Columbia Public School District

Some kids may think reading about science is boring, but what about the magical adaptations of reindeer? Or drinking water recycled from poop?

Those topics and more are catching students’ attention through Mike Szydlowski’s weekly “Did You Know Kids” articles in the Columbia Tribune.

Szydlowski, science coordinator with the Columbia School District, aims to help kids learn about science, while keeping it interesting.

Szydlowski came to our Science, Health, and Environmental Writing class to discuss how to write about science for younger audiences. He has had plenty of practice.

Three years ago, in an effort to help students develop skills in science, reading and critical thinking, Szydlowski created worksheets consisting of kid-friendly science readings and a list of related questions. His students had to complete the readings based on the articles. However, the students made a lot of mistakes.

Szydlowski found a lot of students didn’t actually read the material; they just skimmed the article for information in order to answer the questions.

He added math problems that required students to do calculations, rather than just copy a number from the text. Students would get the answer wrong if they tried to “fill in the blank” without doing basic arithmetic.

Each worksheet is a step forward in helping his students apply the readings.

“We have not overcome [the problems], but we are making progress,” Szydlowski said in an email. “Kids know they can’t go and find the answer, they have to understand it.”

Within a year, other teachers began requesting his worksheets so they could add them to their lesson plans.

“It was an honor to have them using [the worksheets], but it also showed that there is a need for these types of resources,” Szydlowski said in an email.

Soon the Columbia Tribune recruited Szydlowski to write the kids’ science articles published every Wednesday.

Szydlowski explained to our class how he breaks down interesting studies or topics to introduce science to kids in a manageable way. First, he searches scientific journals or science news websites for recent studies. Sometimes, he chooses local or seasonal topics.

Then he writes the articles using kid-friendly language, aiming at a fourth- to eighth-grade level. Sometimes he tests the articles on his 10-year-old and 12-year-old daughters.

Each article includes a series of questions to test comprehension.

Now, the articles from the Tribune are being used across different school districts in Missouri to help improve student understanding in science.

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