Dan Del Duca: The Idea of Wonder in Lower School Science

Kathy Smith
In Mr. Del Duca’s classroom, kids have their jackets at the ready. On any day they may head outside to examine Shipley’s gardens, the status of the hundreds of perennial bulbs they planted for their Journey North project that observes the coming of spring around the world, to measure the lengthening shadows of the trees lining Shipley’s campus, or to catalogue their sightings as they take a bird walk on Bryn Mawr’s campus. “We’re not confined to our classroom,” says Mr. Del Duca, Lower School Science Teacher. “I have a classroom, but it’s not about my classroom.”

When children step into Mr. Del Duca’s world, it’s all about participation. “I’m totally into the experience of science. I’m totally into the process. I want the kids to be scientists.”

Jump Right In

At the Lower School level, science is taught differently than in the Upper School. “As adults, when we want to learn something, we’ll often seek out background information,” says Del Duca. “Chemistry class, for example, begins with lectures and then students graduate to the lab. But younger kids,” Del Duca notes, “they want to jump right in. They want the experience first. Once they get a feel for something, they become open to learning the principles surrounding their experience and they can apply them.”

Pennies on the Water

In third grade, for example, Del Duca challenged students to build tin foil boats to carry as many pennies as possible. Each child was given the same materials with which to work and had to present his or her findings at the end. “It was fascinating to watch because the kids learned very differently. Some kids wanted to complete the process as fast as possible. They made really cool raft designs but the science behind them didn’t really work. Other kids went slowly and applied the science. After the students presented their findings, everyone wanted to try it again.” The second round boats were universally more successful. By allowing the students the opportunity of trial and error, Del Duca provided the space for them to make the scientific connections through their own experience.

Excited About a Worm Bin

While providing the basic structure for his classroom, Del Duca encourages student-driven inquiry and initiative. The fourth grade year, for example, begins with an overnight trip to the Outdoor School in Horsham. “A lot of what they talk about at this camp is soil science. Rather than keeping it at the camp, I wanted to start a garden at school, so we went into the garden here and took some soil samples. The kids found earthworms in the garden and they were so excited. Now I have a worm bin. I added composting and now we study the earthworms and identify how they move and what their structure is. Now, we talk about composting and what that means. This is how it works. They’re given the experience of the outdoor trip, and from that experience, they have interests and questions, so then we follow their questions and leads. It’s very student driven.”

Del Duca has been teaching science for over twenty years but prefers to teach at the lower school level. “Lower School is a perfect spot for me. I’m interested in the children’s experience as they go through. It’s nice in the elementary school because they are so enthusiastic. The idea of wonder and curiosity—it’s an important piece throughout.”

For more photos and detailed descriptions of what goes on inside and outside of Mr. Del Duca’s classroom, visit his blog,


The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.