Growing up, Gary Koppelman, now an award-winning science teacher, didn’t think he’d make it to college. In elementary school in the late 1950s, he struggled with math and reading and got mostly Cs and Ds. Speaking in front of his classmates made him stutter. He was teased relentlessly, and he had very few friends. By the time he began high school in 1966, his counselor told him to forget about college.
And then, as has happened to many students, one teacher changed everything. Koppelman’s high-school Spanish teacher, Doug Cline, made a point of frequently praising Koppelman’s strengths, like his work ethic and resilience, and helped him navigate incidents of teasing and bullying. When Cline and Koppelman discovered that they shared a passion for horses, the teacher taught his student how to compete in horse shows, and Koppelman went on to win many of them.
“Mr. Cline helped me feel successful, and convinced me that my challenges will make me stronger to help others in need,” Koppelman told me late last year. We were sitting in the science lab that he designed at Blissfield Elementary, a small rural school in southeast Michigan, where he worked for 32 years until retiring in 2019.
Cline also encouraged Koppelman to try college for at least a year. In 1970, Koppelman enrolled in Eastern Michigan University to pursue a degree in teaching. There, in a class on reading methods, another teacher changed his life. His professor noticed his difficulties with reading, gave him a few assessments, and diagnosed him with dyslexia and challenges with hearing. Following his professor’s advice, Koppelman started using books on tape and seeing his teachers after lectures to receive extra help. He also realized that designing his own lab experiments and projects helped him understand how theories worked in the real world. In 1976, Koppelman graduated with a master’s degree in elementary education, near the top of his class.
Koppelman’s discoveries about his own learning challenged him to design an alternative method to teach science to all young children, including those who struggle with the lectures, textbooks, and occasional lab experiments of the traditional academic setting, like he did. What started as an empty room with a few plants when Koppelman began teaching at Blissfield in 1976 has since transformed into an acclaimed STEM lab that today gets visitors from all over the country to see its nearly 80 species of animals and more than 125 species of plants.
A few hours before our conversation, Koppelman had set up the Environmental Life Lab with a few crates filled with stuffed animals amid cages of live lizards, snakes, and insects. After our conversation, we watched two dozen cheerful kindergartners circle the room with clipboards, collecting data for their “Living or Nonliving?” project. “Is he breathing?” a girl in round pink glasses asked her classmates, who had their faces pressed against the glass cage housing a large tarantula. “Living!” a tall girl called out, when the spider suddenly moved. “What other data can we add?” a boy chimed in. “Is there water? Is there food?” All of the kids marked their clipboards. Next week, Koppelman said, this group will ask the same questions about plants: “Are trees living or nonliving? Do they move? Do they drink water? How do we know?”
As children gathered around a stuffed turtle toy to record evidence on their clipboards, Buddy, an ash-gray, 32-year-old parrot, squawked with delight. “Dustin, sit down please!” the parrot said, mimicking a teacher in the classroom next door, according to Koppelman. Like most parrots, Buddy is extremely social, and she prefers to sit in her aviary near the entrance of the lab, since children love to talk to her.
“All lessons should start with the interests of young children” is how Koppelman sums up the philosophy behind what he calls his “hands-on, minds-on” teaching approach. He tries to provide daily opportunities for students to engage with the natural world, ask questions, collect and analyze data, and work with their peers to come up with answers. “At a young age, children are so intrigued by animals and insects. I think life sciences is a powerful springboard to get them interested in earth and physical science, and then extend that into math, geography, and social studies.”
When Koppelman was growing up, he shared this curiosity about the animal world, but he rarely had opportunities to ask questions in class. After school, however, he felt free to investigate his own questions in the crop fields and forests near his family’s farmhouse: following the tracks of a fox while riding his pony, Prince; digging in creeks; and observing various insects, and then researching their names and behavioral patterns in books at home.
A 2003 review of 110 studies on children’s attitudes toward science in the U.S., the U.K., and Australia found that their interest in the subject begins to wane after age 11, suggesting that the elementary years are a key time to build and sustain engagement with science.
Studies that have looked at time dedicated to science in elementary grades since the mid-’90s, have found variation between states, but generally show an overall decline, especially in schools serving high numbers of low-income children. Meanwhile, jobs in the STEM-related fields are now projected to be among the fastest growing in America, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Koppelman dreamed of creating a science lab as soon as he began working at Blissfield Elementary, but for more than 20 years there weren’t any funds for it. Then, in 1999, the school received grants from a few local foundations and built a lab for the elementary grades. Today, the Environmental Life Lab is open to the more than 1,200 students in the district’s elementary, middle, and high schools. Over the years, teachers in all grades, working in subjects ranging from math to English to social studies, have developed lesson plans that incorporate the lab. Michigan’s long, harsh winters make it difficult for students to engage with the natural world throughout the school year, but thanks to the lab, students are able to learn about rain forests, deserts, and various other ecosystems in all seasons.
Dozens of fish, frogs, toads, and turtles live in a freshwater pond in a room that mimics a tropical rain forest. As students study freshwater systems by investigating the plants and animals living in the pond, they can contrast them with the other life forms in a nearby 1,500-gallon saltwater pool. Buddy lives in a bird aviary, next to a section with various species of hamsters, lizards, spiders, and snakes in an area that is set up as a desert ecosystem filled with cacti and succulents. “I specialize in hamsters,” a fifth grader who works as one of the lab’s “zoo keepers” told me.
In Koppelman’s view, children are born with all the traits of a good scientist: They are curious, eager to investigate their surroundings, and happy to experiment. But too many students enter elementary-school classrooms that extinguish that passion with lessons that are disconnected from their lives and the natural world around them. As Koppelman told me this, he was holding one of the most popular inhabitants of the lab, a bearded dragon named Harold. “Does he bite?” a second grader asked Koppelman. “Will he run away? What does he like to eat? How come he doesn’t have teeth?” Koppelman eagerly answered every question.
Inquiry-driven science classrooms in elementary grades are rare, says John L. Rudolph, the author of How We Teach Science: What’s Changed, and Why It Matters and a professor of science education at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Most schools focus on factual content, he told me. You might see elementary students asked to memorize the parts of the eye, for example, and draw diagrams and write reports to supplement their learning. It’s less common, Rudolph said, for students to get the chance to engage in intellectual dialogue around questions such as “Why do humans have eyes?” or “How are the eyes of various animals different and why?”
The latter approach requires more teacher training, funding, and complex assessments, but the payoff is worth it, Rudolph said. Not only do students learn critical thinking and communication skills, they also develop an intimate understanding of and appreciation for how scientists come up with evidence and develop conclusions, which Rudolph views as a largely neglected part of science education. A lack of such understanding, he thinks, contributes to scientific illiteracy—from skepticism about climate change to growing opposition to vaccination.
The impact of Blissfield’s Environmental Life Lab has been huge: The rural district consistently outperformed state averages on standardized science tests between 2002 and 2015, and some years Blissfield Elementary scored near the top of the state, according to Linda Mueller, the school’s principal. More of the district’s students are going on to major in STEM fields in college, including alums like Jim Raines, a climate and space scientist at the University of Michigan, whose research helped send a solar orbiter into space this year, and Jodi Sterle, a swine geneticist at Iowa State University. According to several Blissfield teachers, more parents are choosing the district’s schools for their children, including the current supervisor of the lab, Kim Gray, a seventh-grade teacher who moved there with her family in 2003.
For dozens of current and former students I interviewed, work in the lab was the highlight of their time in Blissfield’s schools. “I learned that even though hamsters are the same species, they all need and like different things,” the fifth-grade zoo keeper said. “Every day feels like a field trip day,” a seventh grader told me. “The lab is so awe-inspiring in our little town,” said one high school senior, who applied to several colleges to study computer science. He credits the lab with making science and math his favorite subjects.
Even in retirement, Koppelman still came to the lab every day until the pandemic hit, but he was spending more of his time speaking at science conferences and in front of policy makers to advocate for what he views as a more meaningful way to teach science. If reading, worksheets, and standardized tests were the best way for kids to learn and show their knowledge, he told former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and state board members at a gathering in 2017, he’d never have even had a chance to go to college, much less create a STEM lab that has been used by thousands of rural students over the past two decades.
“It’s hard to explain to people who are not teachers what it looks and feels like when something in nature or science touches a child’s sense of awe and wonderment,” Koppelman said. “But my colleagues and I see it every day. That’s the payoff. There is nothing else like it.”