Giving Students a Scientific Framework and the Freedom to Explore

Sixth-grade science teacher Larry Hurst believes all students are born scientists, and he’s committed to helping them tap into that potential.

As a student, Larry Hurst’s professors encouraged him to pursue a Ph.D, but he resisted because the path seemed too narrow: he had too many interests to focus on just one. After completing his undergraduate studies in Environmental and Systematic Biology at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, he joined the Peace Corps and spent two years in Jamaica, where he was a curator at a zoo and occasional guest speaker at local schools. He returned to academia at the University of Florida to earn a Master’s in Latin American Studies with a concentration in Tropical Conservation. While in grad school, he also worked for the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service, and earned his teaching credential.

Larry spent the next decade in a series of positions that combined teaching and field work: as a marine biology instructor at the Catalina Island Marine Institute; as a teacher-trainer for Ocean Alliance in San Francisco; and as a space science instructor at the Desert Sun Science Center in Idyllwild, California. He began his career as a classroom teacher at a small K-12 public school in Long Creek (eastern Oregon) where he taught science for grades 3-12 for four years. He came to Catlin Gabel as a sixth-grade science teacher in 1998. The following are excerpts from an interview with Larry in November 2021.

In the classroom we talk about and practice “claim, evidence, and reasoning.” We learn that the scientific method isn’t a formula. It’s more like, if you observe something, can you explain it? Or if you can’t explain it, do you have any questions that you could test or that you can think about that could lead to an explanation?

To get an idea of the students’ thinking about a concept or phenomenon, I often use a collection of diagnostic questions called “probes.” For example, one probe about the moon asks, “Where is the light from the moon coming from?” It then gives several explanations to choose from. The students pick a scenario that they think is correct, then explain their reasoning. When everyone has had a chance to explain their reasoning, we look at the question together as a class to figure out which answer offers the best explanation. By the time we’re done, any misconceptions have been exposed and I have a better idea of what we need to go over or modify in the lesson.

I’m always trying to pull into our discussions something that’s happening in the news. That’s why science is so fun, because every day there’s something new that’s been discovered or something old that has been revised or reconsidered. With space science, it’s easy to connect to current events. We have SpaceX launching something every month or so, we had the aurora borealis potential this past weekend, and in a couple of weeks we’ll have a lunar eclipse, so I’m always sharing these events to generate discussions and questions like, “How does that work?”

I tell students, “When I was your age, we used to know this, and now we don’t. Now it's been changed.” That’s science: people continually learn new things because we gather new information, reconsider our thinking, and develop new explanations.

A teacher’s job is to show the students all the things that are out there that they might not be aware of. A lot of times they think, “Science is just a person who wears a lab coat.” And I’m trying to always show them, “This is science.” I’ll ask, “Am I a scientist?” They say, “Yes, Larry, you’re a scientist.” I say, “No, I’m not. I'm a science teacher.” “Now, this person who works out of his garage, he’s a postman during the day, but at night he’s tinkering in his garage designing or discovering whatever. Is he a scientist?” “Yes, he is.” “Why?” “Because he’s doing science.” So a scientist is someone who does science. It doesn’t require a credential.

I want students to know we’re all scientists if we do science. I think kids are born scientists. They’re curious. They wonder. They ask themselves, “How does this work?” Why some don’t remain scientists is because they kind of give up on it, or they find something more attractive. Their interest goes somewhere else. I just try to show them, “These are all things that you could potentially be interested in looking at, and you get to choose all through your life which ones you want to explore.”