Teaching science to young minds--and hearts and bodies

Doug Heetderks ’80 and Robert Heetderks ’55


Fall 2011

In the fall of 2002, when Doug Heetderks ’80 arrived at Miami’s Westminster Christian School to teach kindergarten, parents lined up outside the principal’s office asking that their children be removed from his class.

“They saw this big guy with a beard from Alaska meeting their 5-year-olds at the door,” Heetderks said. “They thought I was Grizzly Adams.”

A year later parents lined up again, this time requesting that their children be placed in his classroom.

Heetderks came to Westminster Christian with teaching methods he’d refined at Susitna Elementary School in Anchorage, methods that in 1999 brought him the nation’s highest honor for teachers of math and science: the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching. There he helped write science curriculum that won the state a $5 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

“We said, yes, scientific concepts, skills and processes are important,” Heetderks explained, “but there’s a whole other piece to good science education that asks kids to do self-reflection and assessment. What are they wondering about, what shocks them, how can they apply what they’re learning to their lives? It’s science that engages not only their minds, but their hearts and their whole bodies, too.”

It’s the kind of science Heetderks himself has always needed. He was the kid who couldn’t sit still in a desk, who wanted to be outside, preferably in a tree or a stream. It’s the kind of science he saw modeled by his father, Robert Heetderks ’55, who not only loved teaching middle school science, but also directed Camp Roger, near Grand Rapids, Mich. 

At Westminster Christian Doug now directs a science enrichment program for all 350 elementary students. 

Preschoolers, kindergartners and first-graders come once a week to the Discovery Barn. Each eight-week quarter the kids first hear an animal story, then get up close and personal with the featured animal. For example, while Heetderks read Three Billy Goats Gruff, Gem the goat chewed hay in the pen beside him. He asked kids what they wondered about Gem. For the next seven weeks they got to know the goat, finding out whether it was male or female, whether it ate tin cans and what its milk tasted like. Among many Discovery Barn guests there have been a pig, an alpaca, emus, a blue-tongued skink and a turkey named Bob.

Second- through fifth-graders spend their science enrichment hour each week in a giant outdoor chickee hut. Heetderks calls their hands-on, inquiry-based program World Wonder. It begins with what the kids are dying to know. When a museum in Miami hosted an exhibit on the Titanic, Heetderks taught an eight-week unit called The Science of the Titanic, complete with student-made icebergs and experiments in buoyancy and sinking. He ends every lesson with his signature line: “Whoa, what an amazing God we have!”

“I want to help kids fall in love with learning about this amazing, beautiful world we’re given,” he said.

There are no papers or tests or grades in World Wonder or the Discovery Barn. But parents at the school attest that their kids are, undeniably, learning. More than information, what they’re learning, according to Heetderks, are the skills they’ll most need in the 21st century: creativity, communication, cooperative learning and the ability to make connections.

“This is the way we, as Christians, can be at the cutting edge of learning,” he said. “This is how we let our light shine.”