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TOPS emphasizes doing, using activities to teach science facts and principles. Students are guided through each project by little "peoplets" who make learning fun. The texts are softcover with tons of black and white drawings; the publishers proudly tout the lack of color as truly novel in this age of sensory overload. From their website, the authors and publishers seem like fun, interesting hippies willing to make sacrifices to ensure kids learn science well (their operation is non-profit).
Math is treated as an integral part of scientific study. A few of the books even deal specifically with math. All activities are performed using "simple things," mostly around-the-house stuff, or items found at non-specialty stores. A list of necessary materials begins each volume. (Kits are available from the publisher, but they still take a lot of extra set-up.) Topics range from simple (basic magnetism, weight) to complex (physics, oxidation).
How Do These Work?
This isn't a systematic or comprehensive curriculum. It isn't geared toward a specific grade level; in fact, the authors encourage teachers to adapt the material for any age from grades 1-12. The simplicity and clarity of the texts make them flexible to most schedules, though some titles (Lentils, Corn and Beans, etc.) require extended work since the plants must be grown (which can be done inside the house in glass jars). Students keep journals and do written work to ensure they're learning.
The amount of teacher involvement is up to the teacher. Once kids get started they can generally finish activities and assignments on their own (less likely for younger kids). However, parents can add content and help with experiments. All this flexibility doesn't translate into disorderly lessons—each activity is structured, with detailed instructions relating each stage to the principle it illustrates.
Since its purpose is to get kids interested in science and not to fulfill specific curricular requirements, this series should probably be supplemented by outside reading. While its tactile approach gets kids excited to learn and helps cement facts and ideas, the information is not comprehensive. Like the Science for Every Kid series, this one is best used in conjunction with other material.
Some home school familes find it difficult to get started on the different texts because set-up can be time consuming. However, once they start many say it's hard to stop because their kids get so involved. There is supplemental teacher material alongside the student text in each book; some teachers present this material, others simply let students read it on their own. Either way, this isn't (after getting started) a teacher-intensive program unless you want it to be.
Our Honest Opinion:
TOPS is pretty cool. The text is fairly laid-back, without sacrificing information or clarity. The activities aren't of the goofy variety—they very clearly illustrate what the authors intend. Parents whose kids have used the program generally write raves about it (except for the amount of set-up involved for the argricultural books), excited that their kids enjoyed studying science in a less-than-traditional way.
The authors never identify themselves as Christians, but there is very little in the series that anyone would find offensive. The emphasis is on facts, the real meat of science, so there isn't really anything to argue with. The main weakness of the series is that it generally needs supplementation if you want your students to have a complete science education by the time they graduate high school. The strength is that it is fun and actually teaches kids science—it's not just fun for the sake of fun or baby-sitting.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
Sample Experiment (Magnetism):
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