By Mairead Leong
When I was a kid, one of my science teacher’s favorite tricks was to mention an interesting chemical reaction or experiment during the last few minutes of class. Somehow, there was never quite enough time to get to the experiment in class, so the teacher would helpfully pass out a handout with the materials and steps before we left. Naturally, the vast majority of the kids in the class would do the experiment upon getting home. Why? Because we had been exposed to the scientific method and had learned that science could be fun.
It’s too bad that the desire to fuel a love of science seems to be going by the wayside. UC Berkeley and SRI International recently released a study on the decreasing emphasis on and funds for elementary science . While the study focuses on California schools, the problem is nationwide.
Namely, the problem is that science classes are expensive and time consuming. Frog dissections are costly; you need frogs, dissection kits, permission from three hundred different school officials to let kids use scalpels, proper safety equipment to ventilate the formaldehyde fumes, not to mention a host of cleaning and disinfecting products. Chemistry and physics labs are equally problematic. With the current budgeting crunch making labs too expensive and the emphasis on reading and math based standardized tests making science “less important,” science labs and elementary science classes are slowly fading from students’ educations.
Why is this such a big deal? It’s just elementary science, right? The kids are just messing around and playing with baking soda volcanoes, right? Actually, elementary school science programs are arguably the most important to a child’s interest in and comfort with science and math.
Elementary school is when kids learn that science is fun. A good elementary science program lays the groundwork for later science classes and lets science classes be interesting, rather than a boring mess of theoretical equations and disjointed facts. The hands on-learning engages children, teaching them that facts in books do have a real-world application. It’s one thing to read about the interaction between an acid and a base; it’s far more exciting to blow up your own baking soda and vinegar volcano. And that excitement is what lets the lesson — and the joy of learning — stick with the child.
The good news is that there are a wealth of outside resources to help you spark your child’s interest in science.
1. Enrichment Classes – We have online enrichment classes, your local community center may have enrichment classes, your school may offer enrichment classes, summer camps have enrichment classes, and sometimes other schools will offer open enrollment after school enrichment classes. The benefit of an enrichment class is that your child will be able to interact with other students, which will increase interest once your student sees that his/her peers are engaged.
2. At-Home Experiments – Okay, we can all do the volcano experiment, but what else is there? There are innumerable books focusing on experiments and figuring out how things work. Go to a library or bookstore with your student and compare a few books. Try generating interest by asking your student to generate questions they want to answer and choosing books that focus on those experiment types. (For example, “When you bake, bread puffs up, but cookies don’t. Why?”)
3. Science Fairs – No, I don’t mean a “construct a model of the solar system” Science Fair project. Encourage your student to enter a proper science project. Find a testable question s/he wants to answer. Follow the scientific method. Use the data collected to determine the answer to your student’s question. Work with your student, but let him/her drive the process.
4. Independent Research – Encourage your child to ask questions and seek answers. If you have an inquisitive student, work with them to look up answers and explanations of his/her questions. If your student tends not to ask, start the process yourself. “Hey, cut onions are white or red, but the onions in this soup are golden-brown. Why might that have happened?” “Whoa, that’s a weird cloud. What makes that rain cloud’s shape so different from the fluffy cloud over there?”
Help jump start your child’s interest in science. Help them learn to understand the joy of making sense of the world around them. Help them learn to ask answerable questions and then figure out the solutions. Most importantly, join your child in his or her experiments — building your own volcano is even more fun in good company.