Posted by: unlikelygrad | February 25, 2009

on science education

Blogging about waiting and waiting and waiting is boring. This leaves me with two options:

  1. Not blogging until anything happens.
  2. Blogging about trivial stuff or things unrelated to grad school.

Because I like to write, I choose the second option.

I am a scientist. My husband is an engineer who loves science. Our kids are very knowledgeable about science. I come from a large family–7 children–which yielded 2 scientists and 2 engineers. (We also have 2 social scientists and one who’s still making up her mind…) We are all highly analytical and definitely not science-phobic.
People assume this way of thinking is genetically acquired.

To this, I say: Bullshit. I know lots of scientists–some of them even scientists married to scientists–who have science-phobic children. If my kids understand science, it is because they are raised in an environment that fosters that thinking. My husband and I have worked hard to create such an environment. So did my parents.

As proof that it can’t be genetic, I offer the book Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, a bunch of anecdotes from a Nobel Prize winning physicist. Dr. Feynman strongly attributes his early interest in science to his father–who was a salesman. Despite his lack of scientific background, the elder Feynman talked to his son in a way that stimulated his curiosity.

So what do you do to help your kid love science?

  1. Get them to observe. My mom taught me this, and she’s about as unscientific as they come. Take your kids outside and let them look at things up close and personal. Look for things which seem out of the ordinary and then hunt for clues about what’s going on.
  2. Teach them to classify. Why are these things alike? How are they different? This sounds like a dumb thing to do, but it’s actually very helpful in stimulating the scientific way of thinking.
  3. Make the scientific method part of your everyday life. Use the scientific mode of problem-solving all the time and talk to your kids as you do it. “The car’s not starting. Maybe the battery’s dead. How could I check? Well, if the problem was the battery, I might have trouble using accessories like the power locks and the radio. Let me try…oh, they work fine. What else could it be? Maybe the starter. How would I check to see if it was the starter?…”
  4. Always answer questions about “why”…and not just with a “because”. One of the presentations I give at homeschooling conferences is on teaching with the Socratic Method. In a nutshell, this is asking focused questions to help someone discover the answer to a question of their own.
  5. Most of all, immerse them in science. We listen to science podcasts, talk about science topics at dinner a couple of times a week, even have family parties sometimes when a NASA probe is being launched. (My husband is a former NASA employee…) Science is part of our everyday life.

I’m not saying, by any means, that your life must revolve around science. My parents, for example, made sure that all of their children played at least one instrument–most of us can play two. They encouraged our interest in theater and forced us to go to art museums. They supported our interests in wacky topics. My own children take apart computers, do puzzles, play board games, draw, sing, dance, play sports, and dabble in theater…among other things.

I don’t care if my children grow up to be scientists. I mean it would be nice, but I’m just saying that from a narcissistic viewpoint because I want at least one of my kids to be like me. Really, as long as they’re in a profession that suits their talents and makes them happy, they can be whatever they want. But I want them to like science, not fear it. I want them to know how to analyze problems in a logical fashion. I think that a love of science is a great gift to give a child, and it’s a gift I hope to give all four of my boys.

In closing, I share with you the following story, which offers the ultimate proof that my kids are geeks:

Will (7 yo): “What’s for dinner?” (He’s too short to see inside the pot when it’s on the stove.)
Nate (14), peering into pot: “Looks like protons, neutrons, and electrons to me.”
Lew (11), also looking in: “Yeah? Well all I see is photons.”

…Well, all the physicists and chemists I know think it’s funny, anyway.

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