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September 12, 2006

So What About Science?

By Linda

Author’s note: This column is dedicated to my parents, Loretta and Richard Battin, who allowed their four kids to be scientists by example.

My neighbor, Keri, is a sixth grade teacher in Fairfax County Public Schools. Often we sit and chat about how she teaches in her classroom and how we teach as a homeschooling family. Keri is a cool teacher. She is beautiful, nice, creative, and enthusiastic about being a teacher. I would love to have my daughter in her class. She is the best of what being a teacher is all about.

She has recently been promoted to the lead science teacher for sixth grade at her school. As a result, she is taking some classes this summer that are designed to help her accomplish this goal. One of the assignments is to read a particular book about inquiry based learning in science (Beyond the Science Kit, Inquiry in Action) and write a report about how to implement it in the classroom. So the other day we were sitting outside, discussing her assignment. Just as she was about to begin her paper– our daughters (ages 10 and 9) and another neighbor (age 6) decided that now was the time to solve an important problem.

A small ball had rolled into the storm drain, and they wanted it back.  The kids took packing tape, wrapped it around the end of a garden house and then lowered the hose into a street drain. After several failed attempts with the tape/hose arrangement and much discussion, they decided to turn on the water in hopes of getting the ball to flow through the drain to the drainage field. They already knew where the water would flow after observing this from numerous rains.

They experimented with different levels of water pressure and flow and came to the conclusion that the force and/or volume of water were insufficient to move the ball. At that point, one of the kids suggested that a heavy rain (or perhaps the water from the pool – which later was disproved) would provide the amount of flow that they needed.  There was no evidence of frustration stemming from their “failed” results.  Instead, they were excited for the next rain storm and prepared to wait. 

Now here is where it gets interesting. Keri saw this and said: “Ah HA! This is a perfect example of child-led discovery. Inquiry in action. This is what science education needs to be about.” And as a first statement I agree with her. In her written report (which she shared with me), she discussed that science-kits do nothing to teach inquiry. And I agree with her about that.

But (yes there has to be a but). Science education is not (or should not) be all of one or the other. Part of the scientific process is sharing knowledge, concepts, and theories. Demonstrating and being able to repeat experiments are all part of science too; a very important part. So while science-kits do not teach inquiry, they do provide a basis from which inquiry may develop; i.e. here is what we know today and how we can prove it.

I think (as a scientist myself) that the goals in science education need to be more clearly defined. Is the purpose of science instruction to demonstrate principles, or develop scientific thought? These two goals are different, and both should be present in any science education plan. The question is when is the right time to do which!

It is important to demonstrate principles in order to explain concepts. If you wish to explain acids and bases, having a lab that demonstrates the behavior of acids and bases helps kids to understand the concepts – because they can see it in action. From that point, allowing inquiry to take place by asking them to find areas in their every day lives where acids and bases play a part would allow them to discover on their own and hopefully give them a starting point for discovery.

I think it is a mistake to say that demonstration labs are not important. Just as it is a mistake to not allow inquiry. Both are necessary. They serve different functions and achieve different goals. Furthermore, I believe that concepts and demonstrations need to happen either when an inquiry is made first – or when a student is old enough to appreciate and understand the concept. In all cases – a good teacher must introduce how the concepts impact their everyday life. For example –

Why are acids important? Where do we use them in our lives?

One of my pet peeves in science when I was a kid was how the regular science class was taught. Most science curriculum focused (and still does) on drilling concepts. Most kids could simply recite lab results and ‘facts’ from textbooks, follow lab instructions, and keep neat lab books. But, put them in a field situation where they needed to think and develop their own tests and procedures to solve a problem and they could not even start. As for me – I refused to memorize facts, hated performing demonstration labs (watching the teacher do it was enough), struggled with keeping my lab book neat, and thought lab time (and most class time) was wasted time.

On the other hand, for my science research (in junior high, I was in a school program where we had a full class period to do science research of our own choosing in addition to regular science classes), my lab book was organized and meticulously kept up with my notes, I loved being in the lab and trying new ideas, I loved discussing concepts and possibilities with my teacher, and I had the chance to work with leading researchers in the field at a nearby university. I could tell you everything (and more) than you could ever want to know about my topic (Myasthenia Gravis to be precise). Science was fun and interesting. It had a defined purpose: to solve a problem.

I think inquiry based learning is important in the every day application of this concept not just science, but in life. That when given the chance for inquiry, kids must be encouraged to do so (as opposed to “do it this way – it will solve the problem”). And that is what I saw in the situation with the kids solving their “ball in the drain” problem.

Anyone one of the three parents could have stopped the process:

No, the tape idea will not work – the ball is too heavy.
No, the hose will not generate enough pressure or flow to get the ball to where you want it.
No, just forget about the ball – we can buy another one for $ 2.

All of these responses would have been typical, and I admit crossed my mind at least once. You had to see the faces of these three kids though! They were excited. They had a plan. They had a theory. And they were not fazed by not succeeding. That is what science is all about.

It begins when kids want to mix the toothpaste with the shampoo and see what happens (yes – all three of my daughters came up with this experiment on their own – among others). As a parent – do you let them, or not? Do you let them cook and try new combinations of ingredients? Or do you force them to follow a recipe? Do you solve every problem for your children, or answer every question for them? Or do you point them to the books on the shelves or the computer (and internet) and say:

“Why don’t you research that yourself and see what you find!” 

Do you have ‘food for thought’ stuff laying around the house for them to discover on their own? My own interest in medical research came from flipping through my mother’s nursing books and journals that she allowed me to read – even though way over my head by most people’s definition.

Science does not happen in a vacuum (pardon the pun) - it happens all around us - in every day life. The idea should be to capture that - and allow kids to identify problems that concern them by stimulating their interests and pointing out some potential places to start.  What I love about the “ball in the drain” story is that the kids had a problem. They used scientific methods (trial and error) to try to solve it. That is the natural way of science.

Great science teachers lay the foundation of scientific concepts and then say:

“This is what we know today, maybe one of you will prove some of these concepts wrong! And – you have permission to test these theories.”

And most importantly allow them to fail – without recriminations – thereby learning from the results and your reaction to their failure.

Keri told me that the book she was reading goes further to say that teachers need to engage ourselves in science and problem solving.  Wow – now there is a thought! How many times do we do so in our lives? Do we attempt to solve our own problems – or do we turn to someone else to solve them? Are we willing to risk failure in our own attempts to solve a problem? How do we react when and if we fail? Do we beat ourselves up – or remain unfazed and wait for the rain (another potential solution)?

My love for science did not come from science class – it came from my life. We lived in the backyard of NASA (Kennedy Space Flight Center). We saw science in action as we went to the moon, developed the Shuttle and SpaceLab, discovered new celestial bodies and so much more. I listened as my dad talked about the work being done at the Space Center, I read through the newsletters and mission fliers he brought home.

Also being in central Florida, we lived near the swamp (okay, technically it is a wildlife refuge – but to us kids - it was just a swamp). As kids, we spent hours exploring the woods and swamp. We grew to know and love the animal life there, the diversity of plants, and just the joy of exploring. And yes, of course, our parents had to kick us out of the house and say – go play! After all – kids can be lazy too.

Science discovery, in the applied sense of the word, also did not start in my science class – it started because of an advertisement on TV (my “ah-ha!” moment). If you grew up in the 60s maybe you remember this ad. It was a public service announcement to get people to stop littering and pollution. I don’t remember all the scenes in the ad and my memory may be wrong – but as I recall, it begins with an eagle flying over the land – the camera view is such that you see what the eagle sees – garbage and pollution on the land, in the air and in the water. The ad ends as the eagle flies over the head of an Indian Chief, and they look at each other – their eyes meet. Then, as the Indian Chief looks to the camera, a single tear rolls down his face. The memory of this ad still brings tears to my eyes. It was such a powerful ad. And it changed my life.

Before I tell you how – I want to share one last thought. Kids are natural explorers. The best science teacher you can be is to encourage the explorer in them; no matter what their age. Yes, make them safe, but before you say “no”, ask yourself, “why not?” Let them try things, let them mix stuff, let them theorize without you stating the ‘facts’. There will be time enough for facts later. Encourage the explorer to be strong; for today’s facts, can so easily be disproved tomorrow by some new breakthrough.

So – how a single ad and science changed my life. 

As a direct result of seeing that ad - I decided to do a research project for my sixth grade science class (as extra credit, because science projects were not required) to show how laundry detergents, specifically phosphates, pollute the waterways and the impact to animals. I received an A on my project – but – more importantly, and amazingly, I did something else. The results of my research proved to my mom that she needed to find a laundry detergent that did not contain phosphates (and yes, she did)! To this day I am amazed that she did that. Something I did, at age 11, made my mom change something that she did as an adult.

Now there is the power in science.

Linda is a multi-tasking (translation: crazy) mom of three, homeschooling since 1992, world traveler, dreamer, writer (baker, chef and bottlewasher).

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Awesome post, Linda! I, too, love science. I love all the creative things you can do and the awesomeness of the results. My kids love science as well. They don't see science as something you read from a book. Science, to them, is something that you explore hands-on and discover on your own. We approach math in the same way. It's all about discoveries and exciting outcomes (and some not so exciting outcomes).

Great post Linda! Teaching science as a series of facts, ignoring that it's also a method of inquiry, is a major pet peeve of mine too. I believe much of the Intelligent Design controversy could be avoided if there was greater focus on the scientific method in education.
How cool that you were able to convince your mom to change detergent!

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