Elementary Science Overview

  • RTSD uses Science and Technology Concepts (STC) program modules developed by the Smithsonian Science Education Center, a division of the Smithsonian Institution.  The STC Program is a set of inquiry-based science curriculum kits that cover life, earth, and physical sciences. Descriptions of the modules can be found on the grade level summaries page and are also available on the Carolina website.

    Young children are naturally interested in everything they see around them. During the elementary years, students are encouraged to observe, note properties, and develop explanations. As children become more familiar with their world they can be guided to observe changes and make predictions. Each year, students will use three hands-on modules that provide for opportunities to develop abilities of doing and understanding science. The students will focus on a four stage learning cycle:

    • Focus on what they know about a topic and what they want to learn
    • Explore a scientific concept (this is usually done in groups of four)
    • Reflect on their findings and record the information in science notebooks
    • Apply their new learning to real-life situations and other areas of the curriculum

Grade Level Summaries

  • Kindergarten

    Kindergarten students use the Exploring the World Set which focuses on 3 units of study: Exploring Forces and Motion, Exploring Plants and Animals and Exploring My Weather.

    Exploring Forces and Motion

    During Exploring Forces and Motion, students bring motion to a personal level as they consider their daily activities and the motions that accompany them. Students explore and describe motion, speed, and pushes and pulls. Using models, the class explores how pushes and pulls affect the speed and direction of an object’s motion. To conclude the unit, students apply what they learn to invent and play games as a class.

    Exploring Plants and Animals

    During Exploring Plants and Animals, students explore how living things are different from non-living things. They then focus on plants—their structures, their needs, their life cycles—and plant seeds to observe later in the unit. Students shift their focus to animals and explore the similarities and differences between animals and their environments. Students set up habitats for zebra fish and milkweed bugs and observe the animals over time. Finally, students explore the impact that humans have on the environment, particularly as related to trash and recycling. Students also observe the effects of pollution on plants. In a post-unit assessment, students compare and contrast plants and animals, and explore and describe interactions between plants and animals within the same environment.

    Exploring My Weather

    During Exploring My Weather, students use their senses and the tools of meteorologists to explore temperature, precipitation, wind, and cloud cover. Their observations help them develop a weather vocabulary and lead to new questions, such as how water changes between its different forms and how weather affects humans and other animals. Students discuss how to choose clothing to fit the weather, test materials, and design roofs and hats that protect against weather conditions. Students conclude by discussing seasonal changes and the importance of weather forecasting.

    1st Grade

    First grade students use three science modules which focus on three content areas of science: Earth and Space Science, Physical Science, and Life Science.

    The Life Cycle of Butterflies

    The Life Cycle of Butterflies unit introduces students to the concepts of life cycles by inviting them to investigate one organism—the painted lady butterfly for eight weeks. As students care for the caterpillars and butterflies, they observe, record, and describe in words and drawings the metamorphosis from caterpillar to chrysalis and from chrysalis to butterfly. In many cases, students will get to see a butterfly lay eggs. Some butterflies will die natural deaths, completing students’ observations of the life cycle. Through these investigations, students will understand that the term “cycle” implies continuity and that life cycles exist for all living organisms. This experience deepens their understanding of the diversity and complexity of life on earth.


    Weather introduces students to the concept of weather and to the idea that scientific tools can be used to measure the phenomena they observe with their senses. Students observe weather; use thermometers, rain gauges, and wind scales; record their own data; and discuss their findings on cloud cover, precipitation, wind, and temperature. Students are asked to apply their new skills and knowledge to make predictions about the weather in their area. They compare their own weather predictions to the predictions of the local meteorologist and what actually happens with the weather where they live. The lessons in this unit enable students to appreciate how weather changes and how it affects their daily lives.

    Solids & Liquids

    The investigations in Solids and Liquids introduce students to two key concepts of physical science—that solids and liquids are two states of matter and that each state of matter has its own identifiable properties. Students begin by investigating a set of solids, focusing on properties such as shape, color, texture, and hardness. They conduct experiments to determine whether the solids will float or sink, roll or stack, or attract a magnet. Next, students actively explore the properties of liquids, how they look and feel, their fluidity, how they mix with water, and their degree of absorption. Students communicate their observations and the results of their experiments through discussion, writing, and drawing and improve their ability to follow directions and conduct experiments.

    2nd Grade

    Second grade students use three science modules which focus on three content areas of science: Earth and Space Science, Physical Science, and Life Science.


    Using the natural curiosity that young children have about plants and animals, Organisms asks students to develop observational skills by caring for and looking at organisms. Students create and maintain an aquarium and a terrarium; making first-hand observations of plants and animals allows students to develop an understanding and sensitivity for living things.  Students are able to observe how animals and plants coexist in habitats that they themselves create and determine the basic needs of every living thing as well as needs that are unique to each organism. In a final lesson, students apply what they have learned about organisms to humans, exploring how human beings are similar to and different from other living things.


    In Soils, students investigate the chief components of soil—sand, clay, and humus— and explore the relationship between soil and plant growth. Early in the unit, students create their own compost bags. This activity enables them to observe the decomposition of organic materials over time. Students observe and read about earthworms to learn about their connection to plant roots and soil. The students also conduct tests that enable them to observe and compare such properties of soil as odor, appearance, and texture. Phenomena such as settling, water content, and soil consistency are explored. These observations are then related to plant growth, as students plant cucumber seeds in a clear plastic tube. By observing root growth, students learn about the role of roots in keeping the plant anchored and upright. In a final activity, students apply what they have learned to investigate a sample of local garden soil.

    Balancing and Weighing

    In Balancing and Weighing, students explore balance and discover that it is affected by three variables—the mass of an object, the length of the lever arm, and the position of the fulcrum. Using an equal-arm balance to conduct their investigations, students learn to measure mass and are able to arrange objects in serial order according to their mass. Students discover that mass is not directly related to volume as they measure the mass of equal volumes of foods and find that the masses are not equal. This is a perfect opportunity to introduce students to the concept of density and illustrate how mass, volume, and density are related. Students practice measuring mass, making comparisons, and recording data throughout this unit. They represent their data visually in a number of different ways, including line plots, data tables, and bar graphs.

    3rd Grade

    Third grade students use three science modules which focus on three content areas of science, Earth and Space Science, Physical Science, and Life Science.

    Plant Growth and Development

    Students plant their own seeds to begin an eight-week inquiry into the life cycle of a simple plant, in Plant Growth and Development. Using plants that complete their life cycle in 35 days, students are able to watch germination and maturation while learning about the specific parts of a plant and the function each serves. Because they care for their own seedlings, students learn that plants need light, soil, nutrients from soil, and water to survive. In addition, students use dried bees to simulate the pollination process to understand the interdependence of bees and flowers. These activities deepen their understanding of the characteristics of living organisms and their relationship with and dependence on the environment in general. Throughout this unit, students are asked to use their observation and recording skills, complete and analyze data tables, use simple tools, draw diagrams, and apply scientific vocabulary.

    Rocks and Minerals

    In Rocks and Minerals, students are asked to explore the differences between rocks and minerals by observing the properties of rock samples, and sorting them based on those properties. Students also investigate minerals, on which they perform tests similar to those conducted by geologists to determine luster, hardness, color, and ability to transmit light, strengthening their ability to conduct experiments and record and interpret their data. Students compile a Mineral Field Guide, which is the sum total of their observations and discoveries. They use this field guide and their new knowledge of rocks and minerals to identify several unknown samples at the end of the unit. Throughout Rocks and Minerals, students read about different minerals and how they are used. Students continue to practice recording data and interpreting their scientific findings to draw conclusions based on evidence.


    Developing their knowledge of states of matter, students learn to describe the properties of solids, liquids, and gases and categorize them by their identifiable properties in Changes. Students investigate the freezing, melting, evaporation, and condensation of water as an introduction to phase change. Rusting, dissolving, crystallization, gases created by effervescent tablets, and ink separated through chromatography are other phase changes students create and observe in the lab. This unit strengthens students’ ability to observe and describe the properties of solids, liquids, and gases. It also gives students many opportunities to predict results, plan and perform simple tests, and analyze, interpret, and discuss their results. Students have several opportunities to practice their new skills in lessons in which they devise ways of separating a mystery mixture, and plan and carry out investigations that involve other changes.

    4th Grade

    Fourth grade students use three science modules which focus on three content areas of science: Earth and Space Science, Physical Science, and Life Science.

    Animal Studies

    By caring for and observing animals during the Animal Studies unit, students are able to focus on animal behavior, comparing and contrasting the needs, behaviors, and anatomical structures of each organism. Each student creates and maintains a personal observation log in which he or she records notes about each animal throughout the unit. Students apply what they learn about body structure, habitat, survival needs, and behavior to a fourth animal—the human—identifying ways that humans are similar to and different from other animals. Students practice observing and recording data in their logs as well as in Venn diagrams, class webs, tables, and drawings. Students conduct a research-based inquiry that moves students away from general observations and asks them to apply their scientific process skills as they gather and synthesize information about their animals’ behavior.

    Land and Water

    Using a stream table, students explore different interactions between land and water, such as how runoff causes stream formation; how groundwater forms; how soil is eroded, transported, and deposited; and how water shapes land. The unit Land and Water invites students to manipulate their model, create hills, build dams, and grow vegetation to observe how these things affect land and water interactions. Students come to understand how water shapes the land and how, in turn, the land directs the flow of water. Connections between the stream tables and the real world are made as students apply the concepts they have learned to photographs of land and water on earth. Finally, students have the opportunity to plan and create a landscape in their stream tables. Students use the concepts from the unit to predict the flow of water and how the landscape they create will alter the direction and flow of the water or how the shape of the land may change. Students design and conduct experiments and test their predictions.

    Electric Circuits

    In Electric Circuits, students investigate electricity by wiring a circuit to light a bulb. They come to understand that a circuit must form a complete circle through which electric current can pass in order to light the bulb. Students use this knowledge to explore other electrical concepts, such as what conductors and insulators are and how they work and how diodes affect the flow of electricity. Students also learn about the symbolic language of electricity and use it to read and draw diagrams for wiring circuits and constructing a flashlight. Students apply what they learn about electricity and electrical safety to a final activity in which they design and implement a wiring plan for a cardboard house. These activities cultivate students’ abilities to analyze problems, think critically, and develop solutions.

    5th Grade

    Fifth grade students use three science modules which focus on three content areas of science: Earth and Space Science, Physical Science, and Life Science.


    In Microworlds, students explore magnifiers, learning that tools like lenses and microscopes can be used to extend the sense of sight to view objects in greater detail. By observing everyday objects with a variety of lenses, students learn that a magnifier must be transparent and curved. Students use a microscope, learn the functions of all its parts, and practice proper lighting and focusing techniques. Preparing their own slides, students are able to view onion skin under magnification. Students turn their attention to living specimens and view several microorganisms. Observing the structure of these microorganisms, and how they move, feed, grow, and multiply, develops the students’ sense of microbial life and interactions among living things and between living things and their environment.

    Motion and Design

    The Motion and Design unit combines the physics of forces and motion with technological design. Students use plastic construction materials, weights, rubber bands, and propellers to design and build vehicles, then test how those vehicles respond to different forces of motion, like pushes, pulls, or rubber band energy. They explore, through experiments and multiple trials, how forces like friction, gravity, and air resistance work against motion to slow their vehicles down. Students must apply the concepts they learn to a design challenge, designing a vehicle that can perform to certain specifications, but also meets certain “cost” requirements. Collaboratively, student teams must design a vehicle, calculate the cost, test it, and refine their design. This unit develops skills in recording design through drawing, making accurate measurements, completing and analyzing data tables, making and testing predictions, and communicating results and experimental data.

    Floating & Sinking

    In Floating and Sinking, students begin by simply making and testing predictions about whether a set of objects will sink or float. This investigation serves as an introduction to inquiries regarding the effect weight, size, and shape have on whether an object floats or sinks, which challenge most students’ conceptions. Students are introduced to a spring scale, and use it to measure the weight of their objects and the buoyant force on fishing bobbers. Students explore the effect of shape on buoyancy in depth by manipulating a ball of clay and testing multiple times to determine whether it sinks or floats. This prepares them for a design challenge in which they design a clay boat that will float and hold a specific capacity of marbles. By recording and analyzing their own data, students become aware of surprising phenomena—some "floaters" are heavier than some "sinkers", and large objects are not always heavier than smaller objects. Students are challenged to apply prior knowledge to the inquiries in each lesson to make predictions and solve challenges.