Exploring the Building Blocks of Science, a religiously neutral science series of eight courses created by Dr. Rebecca Keller, is a repackaged version of the content in her Focus On series with some changes and additions. Overall, Building Blocks has more content than the Focus On series.
The Focus On series has individual textbooks on chemistry, biology, geology, astronomy, and physics for kindergarten through fourth grade, then addresses those same disciplines again in textbooks for grades five through eight. Building Blocks covers all five science disciplines each year for a span of eight years, beginning with Book K for kindergarten then continuing with Book 1 through Book 7 for grades one through seven. For example, in Exploring the Building Blocks of Science: Book 1, the first chapter (consisting of four lessons) is an introduction to science, the history of science, and the scientific method. The next four chapters are on chemistry, with a total of 18 lessons within those chapters. Then biology, physics, geology, and astronomy follow in that order. Each of those disciplines has four chapters with 12 to 17 lessons each.
This approach is more like that of most textbooks used in the elementary grades rather than the Focus On series, since it covers five science disciplines in each course. Building Blocks courses repeat topics at a higher level beginning the repetition in Book 5.
The content throughout the series is substantive and challenging. For instance, the third chapter of Book 1 introduces the concept of electrons and their availability for bonding, and Book 7 introduces the complex structures of carbon-containing molecules such as polysaccharides. Dr. Keller stresses the use of the scientific method, critical thinking, and creative thinking while also incorporating observations and hands-on activities. The courses do not require a lot of written work and testing.
Exploring the Building Blocks of Science: Book K for kindergarten is quite different from both the Focus On series and the rest of the Building Blocks series. While the Focus On series offers the same level of content for kindergarten through fourth grade, this book offers much lighter content in a format that is age-appropriate for kindergartners.
Book K is a black-and-white workbook with simple activities and coloring pages that touch on all five areas of science. It might be most useful as a way to allow kindergartners to follow along (at a simpler level) with what their older siblings are learning from either the Building Blocks or Focus On series.
You can use Book K on its own, but Gravitas Publications (the publisher of Building Blocks) offers a bundle that includes Tess and the Mystery Rock, a storybook with a companion notebook for learning about the scientific method.
Books 1 through 7
In the rest of this review, I address Exploring the Building Blocks of Science: Book 1 through Book 7. In most cases, the course number will correspond with the student’s grade level, but there might be exceptions. See the publisher’s page on how to place a student for details.
The three essential books for each of these courses are packaged together as a book bundle. These are the student textbook, a teacher’s manual, and a laboratory notebook. However, there are other optional components that are provided as PDFs: a study notebook, the lesson plan, and a packet of tests. These are available along with the three books as a study bundle. (This is the bundle I would recommend for most situations.) There is also a research bundle that provides course material online and through downloadable files. The online courses are designed for independent study and they incorporate the student textbook, the teacher’s manual, and the laboratory notebook. Students enter their responses into the computer and parents can go back through the lesson material and see what students have written. You will still need to work with students on laboratory notebook activities, and you will need to print out pages when students are supposed to draw something. As with the book and study bundles, with the online option students have access to only one level of Building Blocks, and the online subscription is for one year.
Each textbook for Building Blocks is intended for a full school year. Building Block courses have more content than the Focus On textbooks since the latter are intended to each serve only as a semester-long course.
The student textbooks are printed in full color with plentiful illustrations that make it easier to grasp the sometimes challenging content. Each textbook has 22 chapters, and students are expected to complete one chapter per week. The textbooks are self-explanatory, so lessons don’t need to be presented by a parent or teacher unless this is needed for other reasons. Each chapter concludes with a summary of key points. There are no questions in the student textbook.
Laboratory Notebooks and Teacher’s Manuals
The laboratory notebooks have one experiment or observation for each chapter of the textbook, and each experiment or observation has a number of sections. First, students are given questions to answer to help them think about the topic. Then they will perform one or more steps in an experiment or observation, drawing pictures or writing about what they observed or discovered. Each experiment or observation concludes with an explanation and an optional follow-up experiment under the heading “Just for fun.”
The teacher's manual for each course serves as a guide for the laboratory notebook rather than for the textbook. It lays out a lesson presentation for each activity. While the laboratory notebooks require students to work through the scientific method, they also pose "Think About It" questions where students must apply what they have learned in the textbook. Additional discussion questions are in the teacher’s manuals.
The teacher’s manuals have lists of materials you will need for each experiment. These are mostly household items or those that are easy to find. However, there are occasional exceptions, such as a microscope for biology. The lists are quite long, so you do need to plan ahead to gather what you will need.
The laboratory notebook activities are supposed to be completed in one day according to the lesson plans, but some of them, such as sprouting beans, will definitely take longer.
Suggested answers or expected results are often shown in the teacher's manuals, but many questions are open ended. Parents should be reading the textbook and discussing it with their children as well as guiding them through the lab activities. As they do so, parents should be able to easily evaluate student responses in the laboratory notebooks. Parents who want to use tests can use the optional test packet that has two midterms, a final exam, and an answer key.
The study notebook for each course is optional, and the format differs significantly between those for the first four levels and those for Book 5 and above. Study notebooks for grades one through four reinforce and review the material in each chapter. They have full-color pages with activities such as filling in blanks, drawing, writing, cutting and pasting, and assembling mini-books. The instructions have students use a file folder to create a cover for this notebook, but you could just as well put the pages into a thin binder. These study notebooks might make recording and studying information more appealing for some students.
The study notebooks for Book 5 and above are much more open ended. They have black and white pages that give prompts for additional research and writing, offer opportunities for creative thinking, provide space for students to draw, and encourage students to explore ideas about science in a way that is not graded or evaluated in a traditional manner.
The lesson plan PDF for each course has one page suggesting how you might schedule your week. Then there is one page for each chapter with space for daily scheduling for the week plus lists for both planning and keeping track of what you have accomplished. These pages also have suggestions for extension activities that connect to other subject areas.
Self Review and Self Test pages in the lesson plan files can be used as a form of review and reinforcement. Self Reviews ask students to write down everything they learned about a topic. Self Tests ask them to come up with questions that a teacher might ask on the chapter’s material. This is an unusual way to assess student mastery of the material, and it will probably work better for some students than others.
The lesson-plan file for each course also has templates for creating stickers for teachers to use on the planning pages, but these don’t seem very useful.
The publisher of Exploring the Building Blocks of Science has also published many small, colorful information books, such as Atoms, DNA, Molecules, Photosynthesis, Sea Jellies, and Wheels on a Bike. There are 14 of these supplemental books on biology, 10 for chemistry, and 8 for physics. (None are available for geology and astronomy.) They are sold either individually or as sets for biology, chemistry, or physics. These fit in very well alongside the courses for kindergarten through fourth grade.
You might need additional time for some activities, reviewing, and tests, but that should still leave you with a few extra weeks in the school year without science lessons. I wouldn’t be concerned since the content of these courses is challenging, and students will learn plenty of material if they complete one course per year.