(Last Updated on October 13, 2021)
I’m so excited! I’ve been waiting years to write this review and the time has finally come! We started using this three volume science curriculum eight years ago when my oldest son was in kindergarten. He’s in 7th grade now and we’re using the final volume this year.
I don’t recall how I first found out about Dr. Nebel’s science series, Building Foundations of Scientific Understanding (BFSU for short), but I’m so glad I did!
Now, before we jump into this, I want to let you know I bought all three volumes at full price with my own money. Nobody is sponsoring this post, I’m not an affiliate of BFSU, and I’m not getting any kickbacks for the glowing review you’re about to read.
With that out of the way, let’s get on with it!
1 Minute Summary
If you only have a minute, here’s the bottom line. [spoiler alert]
BFSU is a complete science curriculum for elementary and Jr. High students. It’s not “open and go”, it’s not flashy, and you will have to do at least some teacher prep to use it.
But what it lacks in flashiness, it more than makes up for in content, flexibility, and effectiveness. It presents scientific concepts in a logical order and thoroughly covers all the science topics kids need to be well prepared for high school. There are three volumes in the series: BFSU Vol. I (K-2), BFSU Vol. II (3-5) Elementary Science Education, and BFSU Vol. III (6-8) Middle School Science Education. You can currently get all three volumes (an entire high quality kindergarten through 8th grade science education) for only $100 total!
The author doesn’t just tell the concepts but guides you and your kids as you discover scientific concepts through experimentation and reasoning of your own. The activities are fun and doable for the average homeschooling family. Book lists and ideas for follow-up activities (as well as lesson goals, relevant science standards covered, and material lists) are provided. The only additional materials needed are mostly common household products (water, straws, rulers, balloons, etc.) that you’d have on hand already (apart from a semi-optional microscope purchase).
There is also a growing forum of additional links, resources, and Q&A available to families using BFSU. The author himself responds quickly to questions posted on the forum or sent directly to his email.
Our family has had an excellent experience with this program and I highly recommend that any homeschooling family in search of an in-depth, engaging science program seriously consider Building Foundations of Scientific Understanding.
BFSU Curriculum Review
Bernard J. Nebel, Ph.D., is the scientist and educator who wrote the BFSU series (in addition to an Environmental Science textbook and a few other books). You can find out more about him and the BFSU series on his website, www.pressforlearning.com.
The three volumes together make up a complete K-8 science program. In my opinion, after completing all three books, your student will be more than equipped for high school science.
The lessons cover the full scope of the main branches of elementary & middle school science. Dr. Nebel calls these branches “threads” and labels them like this:
- “Nature of Matter” (Chemistry)
- “Life Science” (Biology)
- “Physical Science” (Physics)
- “Earth and Space Science”
Each book follows the same format and the volumes should be completed in sequential order. Though they are labeled with their intended grade ranges, you could easily start with an older child in Volume I and simply move at a faster pace. And you can move back and forth between the threads in whatever way works best.
For example, you could work on the first Nature of Matter lesson and then switch to a few lessons of Earth and Space Science. Or, you might spend an entire quarter or semester on Nature of Matter before switching threads. More about this later.
Volume I is for kindergarten, first, and second grade students. It starts with very basic topics like “Organizing Things Into Categories” and “Concepts of Energy I: Making Things Go” but doesn’t waste any time with cutesy “baby” science. It begins at a level that most kindergarteners can easily grasp and builds a foundation (hence the name of the series) one logical step at a time. Information is presented at an age appropriate level, but I found that because of the way the program builds on itself my kids were able to jump into more difficult scientific concepts even at very young ages.
Volume II is aimed at third, fourth, and fifth graders. Its first lessons cover things like “Cells I: Microscopes, Observations of Tissues, and the Cell Theory” and “How Things Fly.” I remember being amazed that my 3rd grader would be learning about “Brownian Motion and Diffusion” at the ripe old age of eight. By the end of this book, students will have covered concepts like “Parallel and Series Circuits, Fuses, Short Circuits, and Ground Wires” and “Convection Currents” and “Mechanics II: Inclined Planes, Pulleys, Gears, and Hydraulic Lifts.”
Volume III picks up where Volume II leaves off. It’s definitely geared toward upper elementary or Jr. High students (though a younger kid with an interest in science could continue into this volume ahead of schedule). It covers a lot of chemistry, physics, and biology concepts that I don’t recall learning until high school. But Dr. Nebel writes it in a way that makes these more complex topics very understandable to middle schoolers.
Content was key for me when looking for a science curriculum. I personally find science really interesting and it’s a pet peeve of mine when school curricula ruin science by making it boring. I also think many grade school science books dumb science down because they assume early elementary kids can’t grasp complex science topics. BFSU proves otherwise. By presenting the information in a logical order, even difficult concepts can be understood because the students are guided one small, understandable step at a time.
I really can’t say enough good things about the content in this book. I love it because it’s…
LOGICAL & ORDERLY
I’ve already mentioned BFSU’s logical presentation a couple times, but here’s what I mean by that.
Oftentimes, you’ll see textbooks or classes for young students doing fun experiments to get everyone excited about science. They have the kids make a cloud in a bottle, do a colorful word search worksheet that includes the word “condensation,” and call that a lesson. Argh!
Why is there a tiny cloud in their empty Pepsi bottle? They have no clue. How did it get there? Who knows. What do the words “condensation” and “evaporation” and “water vapor” and “molecules” mean? No idea… but they found them in the word search! ?♀️
In order to begin to understand their little cloud, they need to understand other concepts first. In BFSU, the chemistry thread, Nature of Matter, follows this progression before attempting to teach about condensation:
Lesson A-1: Organizing Things Into Categories
Lesson A-2: Solids, Liquids, and Gases
Lesson A-3: Air is a Substance
Lesson A-4: Matter I: Its Particulate Nature
Lesson A-5: Distinguishing Materials
Lesson A-6: Matter II: Air Pressure, Vacuums, and the Earth’s Atmosphere
Lesson A-7: Matter III: Evaporation and Condensation
See that? Before they can begin to grasp condensation, a student first needs to know things like the difference between gas and liquid (A-2), or that air is made of “stuff” and takes up space (A-3), and that matter (including air) is made of little particles we can’t see (A-4). If they have that foundation, then even young students can begin to form a real understanding of concepts like evaporation and condensation. But without that orderly, logical presentation, the cloud in the bottle might as well just be a magic show trick.
All the lessons in each of the BFSU threads are presented in an order that makes sense. Every lesson includes a brief section called “Required Background” where the author lists any prerequisite lessons needed. This is especially helpful if you bounce around between threads or if you have an older student starting in a later volume. You can easily go back and make sure all the prerequisite knowledge is there before jumping into a new lesson.
Dr. Nebel also lays all the lessons out visually in a flowchart diagram at the beginning of each book. I’ll get into more detail about the flowchart later but, for now, I’ll just say it’s an immensely helpful planning tool.
THOROUGH & COMPLETE
The BFSU volumes are also complete. I was skeptical at first since the price is amazingly low for the amount of content included. But they are definitely a full elementary and middle school science curriculum, not a supplement.
I’m confident that my kids will be more than ready for high school science after having completed the BFSU series.
Keep in mind, I’m talking about the content itself. BFSU covers all the topics and concepts needed to give your student a thorough understanding of science. Electricity, Matter, Magnets, Anatomy & Physiology, Energy, Seasons, Mechanics, Atoms and Molecules, Cells… you name it. But whether or not the curriculum provides everything you need to teach it depends on your teaching style which brings me to my next point…
In my opinion, BFSU follows the best approach to teaching science (that is, after all, why I bought it). Dr. Nebel is a knowledgable scientist but he also knows how to communicate science concepts to different ages – he’s a gifted educator, too. The key, I believe, is that he encourages the kids to discover the answers through their own investigation. He often poses questions and then writes “Think time!” as a reminder to let the kids wrestle with the questions and then find the scientific conclusions for themselves.
BFSU fits well within a variety of homeschooling approaches including (but not limited to) Charlotte Mason, unschooling, relaxed/eclectic homeschooling, unit studies, and project-based methods.
Each lesson in all three volumes is structured like this:
- OVERVIEW – brief summary of the lesson goals and content
- TIME REQUIRED – short description of estimated time for various parts of the lesson
- OUTCOMES – the goals or desired outcomes of the lesson
- REQUIRED BACKGROUND – prerequisite lessons in current and prior volumes
- MATERIALS – list of required or optional materials for activities/experiments
- TEACHABLE MOMENTS – a hook to start the lesson or ideas for naturally bringing up the lesson topics in daily life
- METHODS AND PROCEDURES – the actual lessons, typically broken up into two to five subsections
- QUESTIONS/DISCUSSION/ACTIVITIES TO REVIEW, REINFORCE, EXPAND AND ASSESS LEARNING – the long title says it all
- TO PARENTS AND OTHERS PROVIDING SUPPORT – additional ideas for facilitating the lesson or encouraging additional study (mainly geared toward parents whose kids are doing BFSU as part of an outside class, but also helpful for homeschooling parents)
- CONNECTIONS TO OTHER TOPICS AND FOLLOW-UP TO HIGHER LEVELS – a brief list of suggested next lessons and additional topics of related study
- NATIONAL SCIENCE EDUCATION (NSE) STANDARDS – an outline of how the lesson aligns with the NSE Standards (Note: This section is omitted from Vol. 3 since the national science standards are a work in progress. Dr. Nebel encourages parents to be aware of their own state requirements.)
- BOOKS FOR CORRELATED READING – suggested reading list of books related to the lesson topic
You can find a full sample lesson for each volume on the BFSU website. You’ll see the bulk of the actual content is in the “Methods and Procedures” section. I’ve found the author’s approach unique among the homeschooling curricula I’ve seen for any subject. It’s easier to explain if I first tell you what it’s not.
It’s not a textbook, that’s for sure. It is written to the teacher. You, as the teacher, need to decide how you want to present the information. So, in that sense, it’s most similar to a Teacher’s Manual. But the lesson text is a combination of the following:
- Teaching the content to YOU, the teacher, so you’re equipped to teach it
- Suggesting questions to ask students and explanations to give them to actually teach the concepts (though it is not a fully scripted program by any means)
- Describing activities and experiments, explaining how to do them, and suggesting how to integrate them into your discussion
Here’s an excerpt from BFSU Volume II (Lesson C-12: Mechanics II: Inclined Planes, Pulleys, Gears, and Hydraulic Lifts; pg 310):
“Guide students to reason that a single pulley by itself does nothing to change the force needed to lift a load. A single pulley only enables one to change the direction of the pull, in this case down rather than up. Expand the setup adding a pulley attached to the load…”Bernard J. Nebel, Ph.D. (BFSU Vol. II)
So he’s explaining the concept of single pulleys to you while, at the same time, telling you to guide the kids’ exploration toward a certain learning objective. Then he continues right into the directions for the next step in the activity.
This is, in my opinion, one of the series’ biggest strengths. The content all flows together, naturally leading you through the reasoning needed to understand and explain the topics. It essentially holds your hand and walks you through the lesson.
But this approach is also the main hurdle educators need to find a way to jump in order to use these books. This series is getting rave reviews on Amazon but, when there are negative reviews, it’s almost always because the reviewer feels it takes too much work or time to sift through the text to find out what, specifically, to say or do or teach.
In a future post I’ll be sharing my method for making the teacher prep process as streamlined as possible. Overall, this has been the subject that takes me the longest to prepare but it’s also been worth it.
Here’s an analogy. Let’s say you want to get your preschooler across a river along a stepping stone path. It would be fastest and easiest to just pick them up and carry them while you walk across. It’s definitely going to take longer if you hold their hand and let them maneuver their own feet on the stones. But by doing it themselves, they’re learning and growing and better equipped to help others across in the future. You, my friend, are the preschooler. Dr. Nebel’s books are the parent holding your hand. It will take longer for you to read and understand the book (as compared to, say, a video curriculum you can just turn on and walk away from). Ultimately, only you can decide what kind of involvement and learning experience you’d like to have when it comes to your family’s science education.
It’s not a workbook, nor are there worksheets, quizzes, or tests provided. Instead, the author recommends that students create a science notebook to record their observations, graphs, data tables, sketches, etc.
I’ve had no problem assessing my kids knowledge of the topics by seeing what they write in their notebooks and simply by talking to them. But, if you do want or need more concrete assessments, you could easily use the “Outcomes” section of the lesson for quiz or test material.
For example, the objectives for lesson C-12 include things like “explain why/how an inclined plane works to make it easier to get a heavy item up one or more steps” and “Explain using diagrams… how a pulley system involves a tradeoff between force and distance…” You could select a few of these to create a verbal or written quiz or test.
The “Questions/Discussion/Activities to… Assess Learning” section also gives project ideas and suggestions for what to record in their notebooks to demonstrate what they’ve learned.
The best way to decide if the approach works for you is to look at his sample lessons. Try to really think through exactly how you’d use it.
Do you have time to read through science lessons before presenting them to your kids? Would you feel like you need/want to create formal tests (and are you willing to do that) or are you comfortable just assessing your student’s learning through their notebooks, projects, and discussion?
For us, BFSU’s approach has really worked well. I can learn alongside my kids, we’re learning through real-life experiences, and my kids are actually understanding the concepts (instead of just memorizing things for a test). The more I’ve broken free from the traditional “tests and textbooks” mentality, the more I’ve enjoyed BFSU and the better it’s worked for us.
If you’re looking for the quickest way to check science off your to do list and move on with your day, there are easier ways to do that. But if you really want to build a solid foundation of scientific understanding for your kids then you should definitely consider BFSU.
If you’ve made it this far, thanks for sticking with me! This post is already three times as long as my usual posts, so I’m going to stop here for now. But there’s a lot more nitty gritty I want to share about our experience with BFSU, so check back soon for Part 2 of my Building Foundations of Scientific Understanding Review!
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