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Science program helps children absorb larger lessons

LAFAYETTE ” Mike Wineland is not running your typical preschool.

Start with the wooden sign out front announcing that the rented home the school occupies is in fact the Young Child Science Discovery Center. A 4-inch magnifying glass and sunlight were used to burn the sign’s letters.

Inside on a recent Thursday morning, the school had a dinosaur-themed learning zone. Weeks or months before, it might have been themed polar, space, health, insect or ocean.

But most striking was what was inside the heads of the 15 children seated in a circle on the carpet, ages 2 1/2 to 5 years. Wineland sat cross-legged with an array of fossils, from trilobites to dino-fangs, many from his personal collection. He rested his hand on a vertebra of a long-necked dinosaur and asked: “What’s the generic name for all different longnecks?”

“Sauropod!” rang the answer, from more than one child’s mouth.

“You’re going to rock in kindergarten,” Wineland said, and then led the children in a letter-by-letter writing of the word “vertebra,” each child following with his or her own pencil.

Wineland, 39, founded the school in 2001 with longtime preschool teacher Kyle McDonough. They still lead it together and team-teach. Their goal is to imbed everything from counting to phonics to fine-motor skills using science as a mnemonic hammer. They have morphed Montessori, Waldorf, Carden, Gardner and other pedagogic approaches into something all their own.

“The whole thing about teaching isn’t trying to make a superkid,” Wineland said. “It’s trying to make sure there’s nothing in their way.”

Although McDonough is no slouch, Wineland has an apparently encyclopedic knowledge of dinosaurs, meteorology and magnetism, among other fields. He leads children just out of diapers in such activities as making eyes using Styrofoam bowls and colored pipe cleaner.

It’s not quite what you expect.

“There are more rods outside and more cones in the middle,” he said, pointing to different colors of pipe cleaners. “That’s why at dusk you lose your color vision.”

This all from a man who studied English and education and remains, he says, a gym class away from his bachelor’s degree.

But science is in his blood. David Wineland, his father, is a National Institute of Standards and Technology physicist in Boulder. He leads one of the world’s top atomic physics research groups, focusing on quantum computing.

Mike Wineland taught for nine years at Boulder’s Sunflower Preschool and was key in establishing its science curriculum, said Debra King Ellman, that school’s founder and director.

“He can take the most complex idea, such as black holes, and show it in a hands-on way,” she said. “He’s passionate and excited about teaching, especially science, and he relates well with young children.”

The Young Child Science Discovery Center lacks a permanent home, something Wineland and McDonough hope to change this summer.

Wineland wants to move to the house he lives in four blocks away. Because of zoning restrictions, the new neighbors will have to approve. There has been no resistance so far, Wineland said. A public meeting is scheduled at the school on March 11.

Despite a waiting list that rarely cycles, Wineland and McDonough say they don’t want to expand. They just want more room to do their thing.

Wineland is considering training other teachers to do as he does, though.

“I would like to see a lot of schools integrate this,” he said.

On the Net:

Young Child Science Discovery Center: http://www.ycsdc.com/

Information from: Daily Camera, http://www.thedailycamera.com


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