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How To Teach (and How To Learn) Science

by Robert Alan Paul

[This is the first of in a series of articles about science education at home. My comments will apply both to home schooling and to at-home activities that can be used to supplement "school schooling."]

First, I should mention my background and my biases. I am a scientist -- a physicist --and have studied the philosophy of science and the philosophy of science education for many years. I currently serve as CEO of a company that develops and markets interactive multimedia CDs and Internet resources for science education at home and in school. The company is EOA Scientific (co-founded by my wife, Kathy, and myself twelve years ago), our brand is called ScienceSchoolHouse, and you may find an advertisement for our products on the same page as this article. So you know right away -- I am trying to sell you something! Therefore, please take what I say with several heaps of salt!

However, you may be surprised by what I say. Thatís because I do try to be honest, and so I have some outspoken views on the subject. I have also helped my wife raise our two children (now a 20-year old young woman and a 22-year old young man), and those experiences have informed my understanding of how to teach science.

I will start off by saying that I firmly believe that children under the age of ten should not go anywhere near a computer, and T.V. sets should also be avoided. Passive watching has not been shown to be helpful to the growth of those little minds. Before the age of ten, the most important aspect in childrenís lives is the interaction with other "lives"-- i.e., other warm, living, breathing, interacting, loving, playful people. Now donít feel guilty if you have allowed -- or even encouraged -- your youngsters to use computers. It is the general environmental buzz, and, as I have said, I have outspoken and sometimes unusual views.

My views on computers explain why our company has not developed any resources for children below the fourth grade. In fact, our product line is primarily for young people in grades 5-12. Science education should always be integrated with education in other subjects, especially before a student is in grade six. Science education in elementary school should be about finding out how our world works as a whole: The study of science should not be isolated as a special topic that is separate from other explorations. As a matter of fact, I believe that the best way to teach and learn science is to integrate the study of science with other subjects. It is incredibly enriching for people to learn about different ways to look at the same topic.

Letís take an example. One of my favorites for older students is an internal combustion engine, e.g., a gas-powered lawn mower engine or an automobile engine. One series of exercises that I designed for a private school involved taking an integrated look at such an engine.You may not want to try this at home -- it may take skills that you donít have. However, it does serve as an example of the types of activities that you can try with your children. Put the engine in the middle of the living room (or put it somewhere else, if you must). Then have your child take the engine apart, clean it, try to repair it (if it doesnít work), and then put it back together again. Taking things apart and trying to put them back together is probably one of the most important activities for a budding scientist, or (for that matter) anyone else who is curious or in whom you would like to inspire curiosity. It doesnít have to be an engine -- it could be just about anything. But, whatever it is, take it apart, try to fix it, or just try to put it back together again. (Note: The last part may not work).

This approach may be difficult for parents, especially when they find their previously functioning gadget lying around in pieces on the floor. Therefore, go to your local used-gadget store. You can find amazing things there that may (or may not) work -- and the cost may be less than a buck! It doesnít matter whether the gadget works or not! Just buy it and let your child take it apart. (Obviously, we are talking about children who are old enough to refrain from destructive things like trying to eat the small parts).

I canít emphasize this point enough: Taking things apart is a great way to learn science. Thatís because science is really about trying to figure things out. Alternatively, you could just find things that are lying around and use them as your resource.

As your child is taking things apart, you can talk about what the pieces are, how they were made, how the pieces work together, what industries the gadget is used in, etc. In the case of the internal combustion engine, you could examine the history, politics, economics and geography of oil exploration, as well oil refining, alternative heating technologies, and so on.

In addition to allowing your children to take things apart, I would also encourage them to discover the answers for themselves. For example, if they ask you how far the moon is from the Earth, you could (1) just answer, (2) look it up for them, or (3) suggest to them that they find out for themselves. Thanks to the Internet (again, after age ten, please), itís easy to do. But even when they do find "the answer," thatís just a "fact." A more important activity is to get them to ask a more meaningful question: e.g., "How did people find out how far the moon is from Earth?" This may be frustrating, since it is not always easy to find such things out.

I have a few suggestions for books:

"How Things Work" or "The Way Things Work" series. You can find these on Amazon or in your local used bookstores. Buy one or more of them. You need them for yourself as well as for your children.

Eyewitness Science: My children and I found these books very entertaining and chock-full of information.

Entertainment and "facts" are NOT the last word in science education. Be very careful -- if you or your children are learning facts, you may not be learning science. Science is all about curiosity and the investigation, exploration and discovery that leads to scientific thinking. Satisfying that curiosity with a quick "pat answer" may encourage the process, or it can just squelch the curiosity. You must judge this carefully, not on the basis of your own pride in knowing the answer (that was my issue with my own children), but on the basis of how it will affect the investigator. Perhaps better to throw the question back at your child than to answer immediately, even if you do know the answer.

Science is about learning general ideas that can be applied in many different sets of circumstances. Science is about finding your own answers -- and also to discover new general ideas. And, of course, I do suggest our ScienceSchoolHouse CDs, because in developing our products, we have tried to balance ideas, facts, self-discovery and entertainmentóand to inspire curiosity. I welcome your comments, questions and suggestions. -- R.A.P.