Wednesday, October 05, 2005

How Kids Learn Science

I'm sure many of us, growing up, thought science was about memorizing facts and dealing with end-of-chapter questions (with the answers, conveniently, located in the back of the textbook).

I had the opportunity to interview Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Research Institute this week for another publication. As I was doing research for the interview, I came across this interview with him:

(bear with me, I'm still learning HTML)

My favorite section describes how he came to learn science was about questions that didn't have ready answers:

>>It was the 10th grade in high school, it was the first day of the chemistry course. Mr. House, this wonderful man who'd dedicated his life to getting high school students excited about science, came in and said, "We're going to do an experiment today. I'm going to give you this box, which is painted black, and it has an object inside it and I want you figure out all the ways that you might investigate this to figure out what the object is." And my initial reaction was, "What a dumb idea!" And then I started to try to come up with a list of the kinds of experiments one could do to determine what's inside this black box. And I got caught up in it. It was the first time I think that somebody had challenged me to come up with the ideas. I had some exposure to science in previous courses, but it was, "Here's the facts, learn them." This was, "Okay, I'm challenging you. Here's a problem, how would you solve it?" And I knew something was different here.<<

Has anyone else had such an "A-ha!" moment, or seen one in your children? - Laura


Jackie said...

What a great idea for a blog site....

It's been my personal experience that above all, kids start out hard-wired to be scientists and somehow, we manage to ruin that quality. All kids start out by emperically learning how their actions cause reactions in the physical world. They try one thing over and over, change a variable and try it again. I don't think it's until the adults intervene and start trying to "speed up" the learning process that kids lose that natural ability. We teach them how to memorize and recite (mistakenly thinking that this is somehow "real" learning) and then their personal responsiblity for forming an idea, testing it and making a conclusion gets thrown out the window!

By 5, my son was feeling very "odd" and different. He had already been labeled a "crazy scientist" by schoolmates and bullied. Being the stubborn soul that he is, he has strongly resisted conforming to the memorized reading/writing/math teaching methods. Thank heavens!

For his recent 6th birthday, our son requested we hold a party at the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Why? Because he had gone there before and read some of the bios of famous inventors. When he heard that there were famous inventors who also felt "crazy" and picked on in school when they were just 5 years old, he said to me "Mom! So there are other people like me?"

You take a room full of young kids gifted or not, and encourage them to play with water, fans, lights, gears, etc. and what you'll find is that they "get" science - but watch what happens as that group gets older. It almost becomes socially unacceptable to behave this way.

Our son just started 1st grade and there is ZERO science. They want to concentrate on reading, writing and math. Gee, so, take that curious soul and put that need to experiment on hold for "more important" things. What do you suppose is going to happen when they try to start science curriculum back up in 2 years and teach it by rote?

Isn't it a shame that Mr. Collins has to wait wait until 10th grade to be encouraged to do what came naturally to him as a young child?


Laura Vanderkam said...

Jackie- I agree. I understand that math and reading are very important for children, but it is too bad that science then becomes a luxury. I guess we will just have to spend more time pointing out all the science lessons in the universe to children outside of school. I just read a fascinating chapter in a book called "Laundry" (by Cheryl Mendolson) about the chemistry of washing. You experiment with acids and bases to remove stains. Washing soda is 11.8 pH... Detergents are usually 9-11. Woolite is a bit over 7.... I hope your son enjoys his birthday reading about the inventors.

Laura's mother said...

I found this article in the South Bend Tribune. A gift to a child can make a big difference! However, chemistry sets these days are probably far safer and not nearly as much fun.

October 7, 2005

Nobel winner in chemistry has roots in Indiana

BERNE, Ind. (AP) -- One of three men awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry Wednesday has roots in northeastern Indiana.

Richard R. Schrock, 60, a professor of chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was born in Berne and raised for part of his life in Decatur, both southeast of Fort Wayne.

Schrock, born Jan. 4, 1945, was the youngest of three boys, The Journal Gazette of Fort Wayne reported. The family soon moved to Decatur, about 10 miles north, where the boys attended Decatur schools until the family moved to San Diego in 1959.

Schrock said at a news conference at MIT that he became interested in chemistry when he was given a chemistry set as an 8-year-old, and at first liked to "blow things up."

His mother, too, remembers that early chemistry set and the flaming experiments in the basement.

"He did everything with it, short of killing the family cat and burning down the house," Martha Schrock of Montana said.

Don said...

I am convinced that the key to success in science education, or perhaps education generally, lies in the enthusiasm and commitment of the teacher, supported by a well-selected range of intellectual abilities among the students.

I had the great fortune of being taught by multiple Junior High and High School teachers who were truely inspired. A physics teacher who rigged up a dart gun, electromagnet, and teddy bear with a metal plate in its forehead to demonstrate Newton's observations of gravity. A biology teacher that established an advanced 2-period class that included a 3-month, in-depth "rat practical" study of anatomy. My list goes on of memorable teachers. And somehow they put together classrooms that, while diverse, had enough advanced thinkers in them to make really learning the material something cool. Sure some might resent you for it, but there was always a critical mass of kids who would admire you for your understanding of a topic, or for doing well on a test.

It seems like this might be a good supporting argument for the boarding school idea that you write about, Laura. In my case though, the school was a public one, with tracking in multiple subject areas.

I personally am trying (with mixed success) to play the role of inspired teacher to a very bright 11-year old who does not at all enjoy the public school classroom. Though I am no home-school advocate, really, this approach has definitely made life and learning a LOT easier on my son. And like those teachers I remember from my own past, I try to take some risks and explore subjects more deeply. Though home schooling has it's disadvantages, at least I don't have to worry about the administration or the state restraining me from focusing on the parts of history, science, literature, and logic that I can get most excited about. I'm coming to believe that being in a class with a teacher who loves what he's teaching is a gift that far surpasses complying with a big list of "standards."

Anonymous said...

Sometimes, these gambles pay off, but there are occasions when they fail miserably,