Firecracker loves science. He could sit and do science all day long in any format I choose and be happy. He finds it fun and exciting. However, Rose is not quite so excited about science. Most of the time she finds herself just bearing through science lessons to get onto the next thing. She does like watching videos though. So, when I got the chance to do a review for Visual Learning Systems, a company whose goal is to teach science through videos and images, I was optimistic about the opportunity to present science to Rose in a way that I imagined would be more fun for her.
We received a year’s subscription to both the Digital Science Online: Elementary Edition (Grades K-5) and the Digital Science Online: Secondary Edition (Grades 6-12). Because my children are 9, 8, 5, & 3, I did not use the secondary edition. I did browse through it though to make sure that the format was similar to the elementary edition, so if you have older children just imagine the content that I discuss on your child’s age level. We did, however, use both the primary and elementary science in the elementary edition, so I’m going to enumerate the features separately.
I also allowed my children to pick out the science topics for our review and they chose to stick exclusively to life science, so you’ll note that all my examples are from the life science branches of this subscription. Everything is contained online and operates through a video stream except that the teacher’s guides and student activities are downloadable.
Features of Primary Science
These are aimed at Kindergarten through second grade, and are perfect for young learners with short attention spans. Even my 3 & 5 year old children would sit down and watch the videos with us.
- Videos–The backbone of this science program is the videos. Each one in the primary science section is around 10 minutes long. There are several segments, broken up by “You Decide” or “You Observe” questions where the student is asked to make a decision or answer a question based either their prior knowledge or other segments of the video. There’s also a five question assessment at the end of the video. As the teacher, you could use this video in segments called “chapters” by the program or watch it all at once depending on information on your lesson plan overlaps with the videos.
- Animations–These are approximately 10-30 second animations from the videos that are isolated from the video. This is a great way to view certain processes and ideas without needing to watch a full video chapter.
- Images–Isolated graphics from the videos. They are captioned for explanation are are simple to use when you’re searching for a still image to convey an idea in your lesson.
- Teacher’s Guide–The teacher’s guides are very helpful and have multiple parts to help you flesh out a unit or a science class based on the video information. The teacher’s guide includes:
- Student learning objectives
- An introductory activity or question
- Literature connections. These are both living science picture books and related picture book fiction.
- A video script with key vocabulary highlighted
- Answer keys for student masters
- Pre-test and post-test
- a Video review to be able to write answers to the “You Decide” questions and the video quiz
- Worksheet based activities that include labeling, writing characteristics, word searches and occasional cutting and pasting.
The student’s side of the program is very similar to the teacher’s side. The only real difference I noted was that the teacher’s side had teacher’s guides and the student’s side had just the student masters on it. Since we were working together, we mostly used the teacher’s logins.
Features of Elementary Science
This is actually similar to the primary, with just a few differences, but I’m listing these features separately so that you’ll know exactly what to expect as a difference between the K-2 level and the 3rd-5th grade level.
- Videos–These are again where the heart of the learning takes place. These videos are longer, around 14-16 minutes and have more difficult ideas and vocabulary presented in them. Again, they can be viewed as a whole or selected in chapters.
- Animations–Some are as short as five seconds and other are as long as 20 seconds. These tend to be geared toward either processes or vocabulary, and are very helpful in reviewing over again to remind your students of the vocabulary terms.
- Images–with helpful captions
- Teacher’s Guides–These again are where we built our science units. They contain:
- National standards and learning objectives
- An introductory activity
- A video script and answer keys
- Often, but not always, there are additional science books and literature listed for further exploration/lesson development
- A few of these have around the curriculum themed tie-ins, making the units that have these (like the Activities of Plants) their own self-contained unit studies
- Pre-test and Post-Test
- Video Review
- Vocabulary Activities that involve choosing the right word for a definition out of a word bank
- A writing activity that involves using vocabulary words in the context of a paragraph and explaining ideas from the videos in your own words
- An extension learning activity that involves a worksheet where you read more on a topic and then either answer questions or label a diagram. For example, in the unit on Blood and Circulation you would read about “The Amazing Heart” and use the material that you read to label a heart diagram.
- There’s often a research activity. For example, on animal behaviors, the children are given a list of animals they can choose to research and write about their behaviors from.
- There’s also often one or two hands-on activities, such as making a cell model, dissecting a plant, practicing camouflaging animals, etc.
How We Used Visual Learning Systems
We looked around the website together, and I asked the children what they wanted to learn about. Both my 8 year old and my 9 year old were definitively all about the idea of doing life science. We decided, since the children are second and fourth grade to begin by doing the Primary Life science together as a review.
So, we would daily watch videos, pick out worksheets that interested us, and if I had one of the recommended books on the shelves, we would read the book together as well. Our preschoolers also watched these videos with us some days, but they just did it for fun, as I was not expecting them to do any of the activities that were included in the Primary Subscription with us, especially since we were doing them as a review for the older children.
Once we had finished watching and “reviewing” all the topics that we wanted to review in the primary life science section, we moved onto the elementary science using a similar format. We watch the video together, and we choose the activities and books that we might be interested in exploring together over the course of the week and we get started.
Each week we’re viewing the video (or chapters from it that relate to our living books) and picking out an activity or worksheet from the student activities to work through together. Some days it’s a simple worksheet with a reading activity and labelling or questions. Other days, we are spending part of our afternoon either building a model, researching or doing a science activity to go along with our unit. There’s so much to pick from in those elementary teacher’s guides as far as activities go that it’s easy for a unit to stretch into an entire week.
Our Overall Opinion
Overall, we love it. It’s a very enjoyable way to spend our science time together. I love the selection of activities and research possibilities in the elementary life science section, and I feel like my older two children have really learned a lot over the past few weeks using this program.
However, I had planned on my five year old working through the Primary science, and I felt, after viewing the teacher’s guides and videos that it wasn’t a very feasible plan for us. The content in the teacher’s guides for K-2 wasn’t very hands-on. We could have really used some crafty activities or simple science experiments to really make the science come alive for him. Although he enjoyed watching the videos, there was nothing further for him that held his interest. Because this is a very flexible curriculum tool, I could have found my own and added it in, but I didn’t want to take the time to do that, and would have appreciated some ideas for that in the teachers’ guides.
My nine year old also hated that the fun word searches that were part of the K-2 life science curriculum were not continued in the 3rd-5th life science curriculum. They are replaced by more fill-in-the-blank and match the word to the definition activities. He specifically told me to write that fourth graders like word searches too!
I also feel that I need to include a special note for my readers who want to be aware of evolutionary science resources that as we moved from primary to elementary, there are references to “millions of years,” etc. in the videos. If you’re trying to use mostly creation-based resources, you’ll want to be aware of that going in.
Having said that, this curriculum is a lot of fun. The children were excited that they got to watch a video as their primary source of learning, and between the videos and activities that we have done, they have retained many of the things that they have learned very well. In fact, my children ask to do this for science every day, and I’m excited to have such a fun resource to share with them.