Homeschoolers turn to SERC for science education

Posted by KristenM on April 9th, 2010

“Ms. Karen’s” homeschoolers don’t give her apples to show their thanks. They leave her jars of black sand and shards of volcanic rock. It’s fitting for a teacher who packs her lessons with as much hands-on science as possible.

Student color in drawing of bird anatomy.

Class begins with a bird-anatomy coloring project. Photo: Kirsten Bauer

There are more than 24,000 students who are homeschooled in Maryland. This spring SERC is offering nine programs to these students. They include new classes on shark dissection and a laboratory-based class focused on Chesapeake Bay fish.

For many of these parents, teaching science is a daunting proposition. They may not have the background or the lab equipment to help their kids develop the skills and knowledge they need. “We saw that it was an underserved population,” says SERC’s education director Mark Haddon. Enter Karen McDonald. She launched SERC’s homeschool program in earnest four years ago. Since then, she has expanded it from elementary-age kids to include students up to age 16.

Today’s class is about birds. A stuffed osprey, a kestrel, a woodpecker, a duck and two owls sit on a table at the center of the room. In one hour, McDonald’s 15 homeschool students and a smattering of mothers will learn about bird anatomy, the different types of feathers, and how eggs become pigmented. McDonald doesn’t lecture, she engages. During this lesson the students will use crayons, feathers, clay, plastic Easter eggs, markers and even tube socks.

Students and teacher closely examining feathers.

It's safe to say these students have never looked this closely at feathers before. Teacher Karen McDonald asks them to figure out what type of feather they're holding: flight, bristle, filoplume, contour, down or semi-plume. Photo: Kirsten Bauer.

Like a normal classroom teacher, McDonald gives her students prep work, vocabulary words and take-home exercises. Homeschool parent Julie Nolan describes a SERC class the way some parents might talk about a video game. “It’s a take-away,” she says, as in she can threaten to take the classes away from her children if they fail to clean their rooms. “They’ll do whatever I ask so they can come to SERC,” she laughs.

Nolan has three children ages 5, 7, and 9. This age span among siblings is common in any family, but for teachers like McDonald it poses a unique challenge. McDonald’s classes contain a range of ages. It is not as drastic as an old one-room schoolhouse, but 5-year-olds learn with 7-year-olds, 8-year-olds learn with 12-year-olds and so on. The parents say they like this aspect of SERC’s homeschool program because it lets older students teach the younger ones. The classroom setting also gives them the chance to socialize with other kids.

Teacher and student work with a clay modely of a bird feather.

McDonald shows a student how a feather is 'born' by making a clay model. Photo: Kirsten Bauer.

The spring classes are at-capacity. “It’s easier to get into Harvard,” remarks Nolan. Education director Mark Haddon recognizes the growing demand. He says SERC continues to look for ways to offer more opportunities to homeschoolers, but is committed to maintaining the quality of instruction that McDonald’s classes offer.

To find out about SERC’s upcoming classes, hikes, canoe trips and lectures visit our online calendar.

Also be sure to visit our Education Department’s Web pages.


8 Comments so far ↓

  1. Brenda says:

    That sounds like a really fun way to learn science! Hands on is so much better then just reading a textbook

  2. Agreed. That looks much better than textbooks. We always preach that hands-on learning is almost always preferred. Glad to see the SERC providing programs to homeschool students.

  3. Wow, I wish that we lived closer so I could bring my kids to participate. I’m sure the local homeschoolers really appreciate what you offer them.

  4. Paula Proctor says:

    My son Steven (14 yrs old) is hoping to attend another home school class this fall, 2011. Anything that Karen thinks of would be great. He has taken the Entomology and Watershed Science classes and enjoyed both. Thanks so much.

  5. Great article! Thanks for sharing. I hope you will be doing posts that are more similar in the future.

  6. Crystal Reed says:

    Ms. Karen’s classes are awesome! Informative, fun, hands on and useful. We love classes at SERC! Thanks to Ms. Karen and her crew for making learning a great experience.

  7. Akihiro says:

    I LOVED that video! I am assuming it is you and your betauiful family! How cute and awesome! Yes, us homeschoolers do appear to be peculiar to many. I seem especially peculiar being African American, as well. But didn’t God’s word say that as followers we were peculiar people??? I like peculiar!

  8. Katherine says:

    Science is definitely more fun when taught hands on. This is awesome! Hope my kids will experience the same.

    best homeschool curriculum

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