I participated in a summer FIU inquiry class for selected science educators, led by biology professor Philip Stoddard (who is the mayor of South Miami in his spare time). One of his favorite topics is how to get students out of the passive technician role and into an active scientist role.
Stoddard said, “Kids have lost the opportunity to become scientists — we need to get that back.”
A step-by-step bubbly experiment doesn’t make it happen — but allowing kids an opportunity to negotiate the answer to their own problem or question just might.
He reminded us that people derive great satisfaction from accomplishment, and figuring something out for oneself is an accomplishment. Thus, for a teacher (or any adult) to answer a student’s “why” question deprives the student of satisfaction from figuring out the answer him or herself.
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It’s more generous to say “Hmm. Let’s see if we can figure it out,” and then ask some leading questions.
Stoddard says the importance of studying science is to learn the practice of discovery in addition to learning about what other scientists discovered before us.
Science writer Sarah Zielinski, in a Smithsonian article — “It’s time to speak up — Why do you like science?” — reminds us that when we are young, we ask “why?” all the time: “Why is the sky blue?” “Why do balls fall down and not up?” “Why can’t my fish live outside water?”
Good parents root their answers in science. The sky is blue due to the way light is scattered in the atmosphere. Balls fall down because of gravity. Your fish doesn’t have lungs, and gills only work in water.
She says that science doesn’t only give us answers to those whys; it gives us the tools we need to keep answering them as we grow up. Science provides logic and sense and order in what might otherwise seem chaotic. And though the answer to the whys of adulthood may sometimes be “we don’t know,” it’s really just “we don’t know yet.” The answer will eventually be found, with science.
Science is also the light that keeps us out of the dark ages. It may not solve all of our problems, but it usually shows us the path to the solutions. And the more we know, the more questions we find. It’s a never-ending search for answers that will continue for as long as the human race exists. And guaranteed satisfaction for the little child in all of us — the one that still asks “why?”
So why don’t American kids seem to like science?
On AOL’s Big Think video program, Princeton Professor Bonnie Bassler recounts a time about 100 years ago when science was led by prestigious and brilliant men who appeared to understand what regular people could not. Bassler feels that the notion that only smart people could engage in science ultimately created fear of science. It is just too hard. In addition, the images of scientists like Darwin, Hawking and Einstein don’t reflect what today’s kids want to look like. While it’s not OK for people in our country to say “I can’t read, so I won’t,” she is concerned because we have allowed them to say “I can’t do science, so I won’t.”
Bassler asks how many science heroes are out there today. If a famous athlete were to walk down the street, he/she would be recognized in an instant. Yet in most cases, a science Nobel Laureate remains unrecognizable — even at his or her own institution.
Where the 1950s had science heroes like Einstein and Salk, the current culture says it’s not cool or heroic to do science or look like a scientist. Sure, robotics and space stuff are kind of cool, but as a whole, the nation has turned off from science.
Importance of science
Teacher Kevin Squires says science is important because:
▪ It involves a lot of communication with other people. It involves a lot of talking and listening to others.
▪ It develops patience and perseverance in kids. In science, things don’t happen overnight. Science helps kids think about what could happen before they do it — a hypothesis. And in science, not everything works the first time. Experiments can fail and they have to find out what went wrong and try again. Perseverance, problem-solving and researching are life skills.
▪ It helps kids develop a healthy skepticism. It can teach children to form their own opinions, rather than taking those of others for granted.
▪ It teaches kids about the world around them and how it works, like how clothes are made or why volcanoes erupt.
▪ It gives kids the idea that they can help solve the world’s big problems, like reducing poverty through seed genetics and improved crop yields.
Why, Why, Why?
Marcelo Gleiser, in his NPR article “Every Child is Born a Scientist,” recalls the statement made by the great physicist Isidor Rabi: “Scientists are the Peter Pans of society — they never stop asking the questions that children ask all the time. Why? Why? Why?”
Gleiser reminds us that a child’s world is a vast laboratory of things interacting with other things. How animals live and eat, how plants grow and die, and so on. Every child is born testing hypotheses and pushing things to the limit to see what happens … until they are caught by their parents and teachers.
Don’t touch! Careful! Don’t run, you will fall, get electrocuted, get bitten, fall into a black hole, etc. As parents, we must teach our children to be careful but there is a difference between being careful and restricting their innate curiosity and exploration. All too often, both at home and at school, adults unknowingly ask kids to conform in their questions to their behaviors.
Making scientists takes a village
To make this seismic shift, it is imperative that everyone — teachers, parents and communities — support and nurture student passion for science. When kids were asked what would make them more interested in science, most replied:
▪ Lessons should be more relevant to real life;
▪ They wanted to do more of the experiments themselves;
▪ They wanted to learn about the science behind everyday items like shampoo or cellphones.
Gwen Dewar, Ph.D says in “Science for kids: An evidence-based guide to fostering scientific thinking and passion for understanding the natural world” that scientific thinking begins at home and continues in the schools.
Science-friendly homes encourage questions, critical thinking, experimentation, reasoning, reading, writing, model creations, and TV science programs.
The Scientist in Schools website says that although most children will not grow up to become science professionals, they will grow up in a world that requires scientific literacy and critical thinking skills. So as parents, we should have the goal of raising a scientist, regardless of our child’s ultimate career path.
Children can be scientists by following their own natural curiosity, and parents can help them in this process. Below are some ideas to help your child become a scientist at home.
▪ Preschool and kindergarten-age scientists: Play is very important for young learners. In fact, play has now been recognized by scientists and educators as critical to children’s intellectual development.
▪ Elementary-school-age scientists: Doing means everything to scientists aged 6-10, so it’s hands-on time. Start doing science with your kids. You don’t need specialized equipment and materials to be a scientist at home because many common household items can be used for scientific exploration.
▪ Middle-school-age scientists: These kids are at that magical age where everything is “boring,” so they need to be challenged. Find the things that they do care about and link the investigations to those things. For a hockey lover, challenge him to use science to improve his skating or shooting technique. For a musician, challenge her to explore the physics behind the sound. Got a gamer? Try one of these educational applications that provide some science while playing.
Kavitha Sundralingam, in her Asian Scientist Magazine article “5 Ways To Get Children To Love Science,” says that the one thing that must be reckoned with prior to kicking off home science activities is the fear of science. Children should come to understand that science is not all about facts, figures, or countless equations. Children exposed to science at an early age are more likely to study science.
In school, Dewar says that kids benefit from lessons in critical thinking. Students become better problem-solvers when they are taught principles of logic, hypothesis-testing, and other methods of reasoning. Kids learn more when they are required to explain their own reasoning.
When kids follow breaking science news stories, they may feel more personally connected to science. Science news is also an opportunity for kids to consider the process of science — how new data may support or challenge old ideas.
Some high schools embrace a “self-led inquiry” approach where students are free to direct their own research projects. While this sounds fun and may be a good approach for students strong in math and science, it may not work for others. Researchers found that high school students with less advanced math backgrounds learned more science from structured laboratory experiences.
General classroom guidelines include:
▪ Depth, not breadth: Kids benefit from being immersed in the same subject matter for months, rather than jumping from topic to topic;
▪ Interactive teaching: Students of all ages don’t like lectures. They want lots of “hands-on” experiences to learn about science.
▪ Emphasize effort, not innate talent: People who believe that intelligence is influenced by effort learn better and achieve more in school.
▪ Counteract stereotypes: Parents are often likely to believe that science is less interesting/more difficult for daughters, not sons.
So if we want kids to grow up to be scientists or scientific thinkers, we need to learn to set them free so that they can get back to performing their exploration and experiments while growing up in this strange world of ours.
Laurie Futterman ARNP is a former heart transplant coordinator at Jackson Memorial Medical Center. She now chairs the science department and teaches gifted middle school science at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center. She has three children and lives in North Miami.