The Foundations of Science series from TAN Books consists of eight courses that can be used with Catholic students in grades one through five. First and second graders should aim to complete one course per year, while students in grades three through five should be able to complete two courses per year.
The courses in the series are:
- Animals: Creatures of the Wild
- Plants: Wonders of Nature
- Earth: Exploring Our Home
- Oceans: Mysteries of the Deep
- Space: A Tour of the Cosmos
- Ecosystems and Species: The Web of Nature
- Cells and Systems: Living Machines
- Chemistry & Physics: Elements and Forces of the World
The courses are all written at about the same level, but the Animals and Plants courses are recommended as the starting place for first and second graders because the subject matter is the most accessible for them.
For each course, there are two softcover books—a textbook and a workbook, plus an audiobook and streamed videos.
The full-color textbooks are written by an experienced science teacher, Timothy Polnaszek. He writes directly to students, often in a casual, conversational style that works well for reading aloud. Because of the level of the writing, I would probably not expect students below fifth grade to read the text entirely on their own. The content of the books is also above the introductory level you would expect for first and second graders. Both the vocabulary and content seem most appropriate for fourth and fifth grade. For example, on page 38 of Plants, it says,
Now that we have taken a quick look at seeds and germination, let's look at the first of two plant groups that produce seeds: the gymnosperms. We'll take a brief look at three major groups of gymnosperms: conifers, cycads, and ginkgos.
The glossy, white textbook pages feature numerous full-color photos and illustrations. Younger children who might find some of the information over their heads will still love to examine the images.
Each textbook has twelve lessons that vary in length. For example, Animals: Creatures of the Wild begins with a chapter titled, “What Is an Animal, Anyway?” The other 11 chapters teach students about invertebrates, insects, vertebrates, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals, animal foraging, animal movement, and communities and interactions. Rather than cover each of these topics thoroughly, the author selects representative groups of animals for each topic.
For instance, in the chapter about fish, he teaches about cartilaginous, ray-finned, and lobe-finned fish. On the page about cartilaginous fish, he mentions that among them are sharks, skates, rays, and sawfish. He discusses some common characteristics, and then he adds some interesting details about particular cartilaginous fish, such as the huge difference in size between a whale shark and a dwarf lantern shark. On the page about cartilaginous fish, the words cartilage and spiracles are highlighted as vocabulary words for students to learn. You will probably want to read each lesson (or have a student read it independently) over a few days because the content is so substantial.
A summary near the end of each chapter reviews the three most important pieces of information or concepts that students should know. Each chapter concludes with one or two pages that make a connection to faith or ecological responsibility. For example, in Animals some topics covered at the ends of chapters are St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals; St. Modomnoc and the Bees; endangered species; and birds in Scripture. I found the faith connections interesting, and I think students will too.
The black-and-white workbooks are consumable, and each student will need his or her own. Because the workbooks are for students from first through fifth grade, parents need to select activities that are appropriate for each child. Brief instruction at the front of the workbooks provides some guidance regarding the assignment of activities.
There is one set of activities for each chapter in the textbook. The activities for every chapter begin with the same two pages. The first page, titled “My Science Journal,” is a page where students are supposed to take notes as they read the textbook. They might also write in other observations, discoveries, or thoughts. The second page always has the same four questions that ask students to write about their favorite part of the chapter, something new they learned, questions they wonder about, and something interesting they observed in nature during the week.
The rest of the pages have activities that vary. These might include a coloring page, questions (matching, true/false, short answer, paragraph answer, fill in the blank, and multiple choice), and puzzles (word search, maze, or crossword). Occasionally, there will be another type of activity, such as a topic to discuss or an assignment to write a reflection on a biblically related topic. There are only a few hands-on activities per course. The workbook for the Animals course has students do a craft project to illustrate the life cycle of a butterfly and another for creating a paper-bag frog puppet. The workbook for the Plants course has a craft activity for creating a paper flower, and students will create a mini nature field booklet as a culminating activity.
A glossary of many (but not all) of the vocabulary words that are highlighted in the textbook is near the back of each workbook. The glossary is followed by an answer key. The first page of the answer key is on the reverse side of the last page of the glossary. I would remove the rest of the answer key to avoid any temptation for students to take shortcuts.
In trying to provide useful activities for such a broad age range, the workbooks end up providing fewer opportunities than you might want for older students to demonstrate mastery of all of the material. It will be important to require older students to do as many of the lengthier written activities as possible. You might also consider having older students create flashcards with definitions of the vocabulary words or come up with another activity using those words.
There are no tests for these courses.
Audiobooks and Videos
The audiobooks (downloadable MP3 files) feature Kevin Gallagher reading each textbook. This might be useful in some cases, but the textbook illustrations are so important that I think reading aloud from the textbook will be much more beneficial for the initial lesson presentation. In my opinion, the audiobooks serve best for review.
The online videos, presented by Brian Kennelly, expand on spiritual and religious connections related to the content of each lesson. These are relatively short videos running no more than ten minutes each. The videos are presented as lectures, punctuated occasionally with other video footage and images. Kennelly speaks at a level that even younger children can understand. For example, he illustrates the difference between man and animals by talking about trying to take his dog to church with him. These are interesting, but I expect that some first- and second-graders might not be able to stay tuned in for the entirety of each video.
The Foundations of Science courses provide Catholic families with an excellent option that allows parents to teach a wide range of ages together. However, there might be material too hard for the youngest students and insufficiently challenging for the oldest. Parents need to assign age-appropriate activities for each child, but that should be easy to do.