Science can be both one of the most exciting and most frustrating subjects to teach. On the one hand, there are tons of easy, interesting experiments that can be performed in the home with basic materials. Many of these are fascinating and engaging to children. On the other hand, it is difficult to convey a sense of the flow of science. It is easy for it to come across as a collection of trivia to be learned, or a completely abstract process that doesn’t ever seem to be really used. This is a shame, because Man’s quest to understand the world around us is an epic tale that moves in leaps and bounds, with many dead-ends and false starts. Too often, these elements are omitted and “science” is presented as a body of facts that are just known, with no underlying story.
Our approach to science education so far has been to focus on engaging with what I consider “real” science. With a few exceptions, we mostly avoid science books for children as the main source of information. These tend to be too watered down, and either are over simplified or simply inaccurate. The exception to this principle is that we do try to provide materials for self-exploration. This fits with our idea of promoting frictionless learning, a concept I hope to expand on in future posts. The idea is to provide plenty of materials that are accessible to the child on their own terms. Children are naturally interested and want to know how the world works. We try to give them the tools to explore that on their own or with our help. One of the best children’s books for this is David McCaulay’s The Way Things Work. It provides comical imagery that does a very good job of giving the basic idea of how many machines and devices work. These range from simple planes and screws, up through computers and lasers.
We also have some of the Real Science 4 Kids, a few Usborne books, and some of the Doring Kindersley Eye Witness series available for the children to read on their own.
The main avenue for teaching science though, has to be through direct interaction with nature or with real scientists. The first we work on by participating in nature walks and providing lots of free time for the children to play outside and explore the world. We watch for interests to develop and aggressively encourage these. For example, our eldest has shown an interest in birds, so we provide adult bird guides and take trips to wildlife refuges to engage in bird watching. Since I am an amateur wildlife photographer, I have my son help identify images that I bring back from the field.
Similarly, he has shown an interest in herps (reptiles and amphibians). We have a great Rattlesnake Museum in Albuquerque, and we started off by visiting it. This lead to joining the New Mexico Herpetological Society, an organization for amateurs and working scientists. By participating in the society, we’ve been able to take part in field surveys, where our son could observe how real science happens first hand. Through a society camping trip, he had the opportunity to directly spend time with working and retired herpetologists. It was very rewarding to see him side by side with a professional herpetologist working through an identification in the field using our field guide. These types of experience are available if you look for them. Of course, you have to be careful. We currently have a snake, four Tiger Salamanders, three Fence Lizards, and a Whiptail in terrariums. We’ve caught and released many others in our backyard.
A second approach to learning science is to study material that is designed for college courses and adults. We’re currently going through a university level lecture series on the great ideas in classical physics. This course is designed so that very little mathematics is required, but it does a good job of developing the history and sense of wonder and discovery in physics. The math can come later. This course is part of the Great Courses series and can be found here. Note that the way that the Great Courses work is that they regularly offer sales on courses that they are currently printing and that the back catalog prices are much higher. If the price is listed over $100, just wait until it goes on sale. They seem to cycle through them all at least once a year or so. We’re also in the middle of a geology course through them. Many college level classes are available through iTunes U, MIT OpenCourseware, and other universities for free. The advantage of the Great Courses series is that they are produced to be watched as video and do a better job integrating visuals. You also aren’t simply watching a taped recording of a classroom which spends time on details of quizzes, homework, and tests. They are worthwhile if you wait for them to go on sale.
We have also enjoyed some other video material. The BBC has developed a wonderful series of programs on natural history. I highly recommend these, although they do have a tendency to include some very violent and tragic scenes having to do with animals killing each other, so we generally make a point to watch them before showing them to the children and occasionally skip an episode. Some children are more sensitive to this than others. If you look into these, make sure you get the versions narrated by David Attenborough. For some reason, the American cable companies dubbed American actors on the versions presented in the US.
David Attenborough has been creating nature videos for the BBC since the 1950s and has a real passion for his subject. We enjoyed watching these series at least as much as the children. Make sure to watch the “making of” features at the end of each episode to get a sense of how they are produced.
The goal in the elementary years is two-fold. The first is to understand how the world works. To this end, always be ready to provide answers or look things up. We live in a unique time in history, where most of the accumulated knowledge of humanity is available at our fingertips. Many times a child has come to us with a question and within minutes we are watching a YouTube video or reading a Wikipedia page together to discover the answer. Fascinating programs and simple exposure to nature provide the hooks to stir curiosity and start the questions flowing.
The second goal is to develop a sense of how science has progressed through the years. Rather than reading a science book for children, that presents a collection of trivia, read a biography of a famous scientist, or delve into college level material that presents things in the proper context. This may require a lot of work on the parent’s part to interpret and select appropriate materials.
Fundamentally I want our children to have a love for the process of trying to understand the world around us, and an appreciation for the centuries of human effort that have supported our current understanding. I’m not as worried about whether they have memorized a particular set of details. They can always look it up later.