|Bridget's nature journal from when she was about nine years old. As neither drawing nor science is her forte, I was fairly content with her journal. Sibil [sic] was our rabbit.|
Only I've never been ready myself at the right time, let alone been ready for you, and I realize I never will.
So here I go to give you my unseasonal, untimely musings on teaching science. Not only that, but I'm lacking in any credentials as well, since science isn't my thing -- let's leave it at that. But when I started blogging I told you I'd tell you all I know, and this is me, trying to do that. Take it for what it's worth!
So here's the thing. Science is about observation. There is not much anyone can sell you in order to furnish your children with this prerequisite for a life of scientific inquiry. To learn observation one must have the habit of... observation! The tools are simple and few.
You need some contact with nature. Science is the study of nature in the sense of the physical world. The outside is free, even for city dwellers. But you have to get out there! And very often you have to bring it inside.
A nature table doesn't cost much. I've posted about keeping a nature table before, and the fall is the perfect time to start.
The habit of observation is greatly nurtured by keeping records, an activity that must be interpreted in the widest way possible. A nature journal is the very best way to keep records until you are actually doing a scientific study, by which time the form of the record-keeping will present itself -- you won't have to worry about it.
The kind of notebook I favor has both a blank portion and a lined portion. Most people, young and old, fall into the one category or the other: word users or picture users. To learn the habit of observation, you also want to cultivate the habit of using all available means of communication: words and pictures!
Start each journal entry with the date and some notes about the temperature, cloud formations, weather in general, and any changes since the last time. Usually things flow from there.
You can paste seed pods in there, take spore prints from fungi, trace leaf patterns, press flowers. Be casual, relaxed, and open to simply filling the notebook with raw information rather than synthesis.
|The dark bar across this page is a shadow, not part of the journal. Didn't know if that was clear to anyone but me.|
You need books, not textbooks, about the things that you are likely to observe. I do recommend looking at all the years on the Ambleside site to get recommendations for books about birds, insects, the stars, and other phenomena. Reading biographies of scientists spurs your young ones to imitation. Older children (say, 7th and 8th graders on up) will learn a lot from reading, with you, two books in particular: The Chemical History of a Candle - a course of lectures delivered by Michael Faraday (the first three chapters, mainly) and On Motion of Heart & Blood in Animals by William Harvey.
Another tool, and this one is a little pricey, is a stereomicroscope. A few years ago I stumbled upon this article by a scientist at Cornell, Thomas Eisner.
"Say you have a child in tow, you're in the toy store and you're thinking,
there has to be something here that provokes wonder, feeds the intellect,
awakens the scientist within.
And there it is, a pint-size version of the classic microscope, a toy for
sure, but sturdy and affordable. "You can see things enlarged upward of
100 times," the clerk says, as if we needed to be persuaded.
Thousands of such microscopes have doubtless been sold over the years. But
where are they, and who is using them? Who among professional scientists
can claim that it was through the toy microscope that they were introduced
to the joys of exploration, that they discovered that science was it, and
that it was for them?
Truth is that the toy version of what scientists call the compound
microscope receives very little use beyond the day of its ceremonial
unwrapping. The instructions with the packaging promise much, but the
instrument does not really suit.
He goes on to emphasize this point I'm making about observation:
How can we make the small loom large in a child's life? After all,He really is making the case for seeing things at the level that retains the connection between ordinary vision and delving into the secrets of things:
progress in science has been, to a great extent, built on the
ever-increasing ability to probe the imperceptible. The problem with the
toy version of the compound microscope, quite aside from its technical
limitations, is that it does not lend itself for scrutinizing reality at
that modest level of magnification where you can see in exquisite detail,
but without losing sight, as it were, of what you really have.
You will not find it in the toy store, or in many schools, but consider
the dissecting microscope. Known to scientists as the stereomicroscope, it
is easy to operate, optically outstanding and designed to provide the
ideal level of enlargement.
True, the stereomicroscope is more expensive than conventional toy
microscopes because it consists essentially of two parallel microscope
tubes, one for each eye. Hence the stereo image and higher cost.
But good models are already available for less than $300. Increased demand
could well bring down the price to that of another great exploratory tool,
Think of it as a telescope for inner space, a tool for the exploration of
the barely visible. Buy it for the children, but be sure to retain rights
of access. The instrument may well bring you to the realization that the
explorer in you is still very much alive.
I sent this article (read the whole thing!) around to some friends who are interested in education. Mark Langley, Academic Dean of The Lyceum in Cleveland, Ohio, responded this way:
I read the article and immediately proceeded up to our newly equipped lab here at The Lyceum (i.e. equipped with a lab straight from 1957 - donated from the Josephinum College/Seminary). I found that we have at least three beautiful stereo microscopes and so I turned one on and started looking at the pencil that I happened to be carrying- then a paper clip- then a small rusty screw.
The article is completely right. These microscopes do in fact unlock the "inner scientist" and anybody can use one. The magnification is just perfect - impressive while keeping things recognizable.
I have two more things to say, about approaches detrimental to fostering a love of science in children:
1.) a premature exposure to explanation on the one hand and
2.) a premature exposure to proselytism on the other.
As to my first point, Arthur Robinson, a top-notch homeschooling scientist (and I don't necessarily subscribe to all his views, but I do think he should be listened to on teaching science), explains this clearly in an article on his curriculum site -- that it's counterproductive to try to stuff a child full of facts about things he can't observe and doesn't have the mathematical tools to handle.
Even if he sees a cell in a microscope, if he hasn't grasped the distinction between living and non-living things through observation and contemplation, and hasn't seen and thought about bodies living and growing as a whole, he simply won't absorb the information and providing it will be futile. He may get good at parroting, but it won't mean anything. This is why it's so wrong-headed to start biology by studying the cell! Which just about every American school, high, middle, and elementary, does!
The second mistake is committed by ideologues on both sides of the philosophical/scientific divide. On the one hand, you have evolutionists and materialists who want to prevent the unformed mind from assuming non-material explanations for how things happen. On the other, you have anti-evolutionists (creationists and intelligent design theorists) and philosophy-minded physicists who want to inoculate the student early on against the theories they think mistake the origins of the material world.
I love a good controversy, but all of it should be kept far away from the young person's encounter with science, which should be about the here and now, seeing how things work, investigating what is observed. Once there is a good grounding in what turns out to be a huge endeavor, namely to accurately see and describe what you see, then, later, you can seek more remote causes and enter into arguments.
So instead of banging your head on the wall of your science curriculum, why not set up a nature table, give the kids beautiful nature journals and a set of high-quality pencils, get some interesting books, and consider buying a stereomicroscope.
Some resources that might help (if you buy through my link, I do get a portion of your purchase price, just so you know -- and you can likely get the books at a library or online, or free for the Kindle):
I'm providing the stereomicroscope link so that you can see it. I found out about it too late to make the investment myself, so I can't speak to this particular one. If I were starting now, I would definitely make buying one a priority.