Schools are emphasizing science, technology, engineering and math—the STEM subjects. Many people believe science is too technical for kids to understand. We talk to two experts who say children take to science readily if it’s presented in the right way by tapping into the “ick factor” that seems to fascinate them.
- Chris Martine, David Burpee Professor of Plant Genetics and Research, Bucknell University
- Jessica Garrett, science teacher and co-author, Oh, Ick! 114 Science Experiments Guaranteed to Gross You Out
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Teaching Kids Science
Gary Price: Teaching kids to understand and enjoy science is a major focus for schools these days. Stem classes – those in science, technology, engineering and math – are right on top of the agendas in most schools along with reading and writing. Unfortunately, children in the elementary grades and kindergarten often miss out on science classes because of a lack of resources and because schools don’t have enough teachers who are well-versed in science to go around. Even sadder is the idea that small children just starting school can’t understand science or won’t be interested in it. Chris Martine says that just the opposite is true. Martine is the David Burpee Professor of Plant Genetics and Research at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania.
Chris Martine: I think the earlier the better. I think that one trouble with the perception of science is that science is only the most technical and hard to understand stuff. That’s not what science is. Science is just a way of looking at the world and understanding and being able to describe what’s happening in the natural world around us. So there’s no reason you can’t start that the minute a kid is cognizant of their surroundings. So no way do I feel that early elementary is too early for science because as soon as you take a kid outside and teach them the names of the things around them they are already doing some science.
Price: Even the smallest kids – preschool aged – can marvel at nature by just walking outside and taking a close look around them. Martine says that children who lay on the ground watching ants carrying food back to their nest can use the same type of inquiry that scientists in laboratories use.
Martine: Also asking why? What are they carrying? Where are they carrying it to? If you were those ants why would you be doing this? Why would you be doing it in one big group instead of all by yourself? So that is right there – that’s science. We might say, that’s setting a hypothesis and coming up with support for your hypothesis, but really it’s asking questions and trying to find out the answers.
Price: Most kids take very well to science because they revel in the “ick” factor that nature provides. They aren’t afraid of the dirt, ooze, smells and creepy crawlers that older kids and adults learn to shy away from. Why is this?
Martine: There’s something about all the icky stuff that causes this immediate response in people, right? So much of nature is kind of dirty and smelly and what we might perceive as being gross, but I think when we’re young people we see that grossness as being a sign that something is interesting, and maybe even more fun, right? So I think that’s probably why students, young kids in particular, respond to that really well. I think about my own kids when they were toddlers getting into chocolate pudding or spaghetti and being covered in that stuff. There’s a tactile delight in that stuff, and nature provides loads of opportunities for that same kind of stuff.
Price: It’s the interest in that grossness, that “icky-ness” that led science teacher Jessica Garrett and authors Joy Massoff and Ben Ligon to come up with the book, Oh, Ick! 114 Science Experiments Guaranteed to Gross You Out!
Jessica Garrett: In order to get kids excited about science we’ve got to meet them where they are, where their interests are. So their interests are what’s happening in their own body? Everyone giggles when they burp or fart, so they’re wondering why do they do that? I feel like science can become an exercise in memorizing lots of long names and facts, and those are, of course, necessary in order to communicate, but science is all about wondering why — going out and exploring and noticing the world and noticing what’s happening. Being able to investigate things like slim, and snot and bacteria and garbage those are things that are interesting to all of us and kids wonder why? Why do we do things this way?
Price: Garrett has experiments in her book that will satisfy the curiosity of any kid – and many adults. The “earthworm condo” is one that will show kids not only how worms behave, but also how soil becomes rich and fertile.
Garrett: You basically make a little home for them, but you set it up such that there is just a little space for them to wiggle round to the outside of a bottle so you can actually watch them as they work. And you layer in sand and dirt and some food for them, and when you first start out you’ll see these very distinctive layers, but as they get to work, as they wriggle around and eat the food and tunnel up and down, you’ll start to see things getting all mixed up just the way that worms actually mix up our soil. So it teaches you about how worms are really important for the health of the soil in your garden.
Price: Then there’s the “see-through slime slug” that sounds gross, but is really a fascinating way to teach kids about viscosity and non-Newtonian fluids…
Garrett: Where you use some clear Elmer’s glue, which is a polymer, which is basically a molecule that’s hooked altogether, long, long molecule, and when you mix it with borax, which is something often used in laundry, the borax helps make some cross links among the molecules, sort of like it’s joining hands, so it becomes thick and slimily and oozy, and the more you mix it, the more it gels together until you’ve got something that looks like a slug, which can be your own pet.
Price: Teaching kids about “super-cooled” liquids doesn’t have to involve a lot of fancy equipment or liquid nitrogen. Garrett says you can brew up a batch of “so cold it’s hot” stuff right in your kitchen…
Garrett: You basically mix baking soda and vinegar together and you make something called sodium acetate and as you put it in your refrigerator it will cool below the temperature at which it would normally freeze, but it doesn’t freeze. It doesn’t turn in to a solid until you start pouring it or jostle it with a spoon. Suddenly it freezes all at once. The interesting thing about that [is] when this freezes it actually feels hot to the touch, so it’s a very very strange experience and it’s something that you can make…yes, in your kitchen, from just baking soda and vinegar. That’s something that people use it, you can buy it, those little packs that heat up to keep your hands warm in the winter? Often those will contain that substance. You crack it a little bit — that releases the chemical reaction and causes it to freeze up and release heat.
Price: Martine says that the youngest kids in schools and at home can work science experiments on their windowsills by just by planting a seed and watching it grow.
Martine: The classic go-to that I experience and so many others experience in K through 12 is the lima bean in the soil and growing a plant. I still hope that everybody does that because that is a simple, very inexpensive way of, not only showing the biology of an individual organism, watching it develop, but also providing a sense of stewardship. A student that pants a seed, watches it grow and has to take care of this other organism and keep it alive is getting a better sense for what we as humans can provide through a lot of other things on the planet as way to take care of and help conserve and preserve the other things that are out there that are not human.
Price: He says that kids don’t have to go on big, expensive field trips to learn about nature and enjoy science. He hosted a science camp where he led kids through a wood to observe the plants and learn their names.
Martine: When I was in the early years of being a professor I used to run a camp. I called in Dr. Shrub’s Bio Camp and I would take small groups of students, usual first to fourth graders out in to the woods five days a week as part of this week long camp. Every student would be given, each day, would be given an index card with the name of a plant on it, the common name and the Latin name. Everyday I’d say okay whose plant is this one? I’d say the name and then students would step up and what I found was that there was a sense of excitement among the students because they had been given a species that was their species for the day. It brought home to me the idea that once a person knows the names of stuff around them the world becomes a more welcoming place. I incorporate that into my reaching at the university level, so no matter who I’m talking to about nature that’s one of those things that I try to do is make people more familiar with that world, and then they are intrigued to learn more.
Price: One of the problems educators see in the sciences at the upper levels is that girls’ interest seems to peter out as they get older. Martine says that it’s important to find girls who have an interest in science at a young age and help them continue on as they enter high school and college.
Martine: Right now if you were to look at the data for some areas of science we’re seeing that we’re actually pretty equitable in terms of the number of young women and young men that start out with interest in science. Some of it has to do with whether they’re retained the scientific field. For some fields we’re looking at it as, okay, why don’t we keep more women in science? That’s one of our key issues that we focus on now, but it is still the case that there are certain STEM fields, certain areas – physics, chemistry, engineering, math – these are areas where we still don’t feel like we’re at capacity in terms of women and under-represented groups in those areas. That’s really too bad, because if we don’t have equal representation in the STEM fields then we’re not tapping in to all the possible talent we could have to solve the world’s problems. That’s a real bummer. I think as scientists we’re looking at this and we’re hopeful and working hard to change that.
Price: So much of science education at the elementary school level depends on the teachers and curriculum creators. Martine says that a teacher who is interested in the sciences will find a way to transmit that interest to students, even if budgets are tight and resources are scarce.
Martine: The teachers at the elementary level that are really good at getting their students interested in science are teachers that have an interest themselves, so they’ve chosen to do that work and learn enough about science so that they can bring it to their students. So much of that is driven by the background of the individual teacher. I’ve seen examples of people I know that teach elementary science that are outstanding. They’re curious and they had an interest in it and maybe even took some courses in college. And then there are examples of teachers who never had an interest in science and for them it’s hard, and maybe even an intimidating thing for them to bring to the classroom. So a lot of it, maybe too much is dependent on the individual interest of the teacher. I would love to see more teachers more engaged in teaching science at the elementary level.
Price: Just something as simple as taking students outside and having them observe what’s going on around them or working a few easy and fun experiments can create an interest in the natural world and the sciences that will last a lifetime. You can find a lot of interesting and engaging experiments for children to do in Jessica Garrett’s Book, Oh Ick! available in stores and online at workman.com. To find out more about Chris Martine at Bucknell University, visit their site at bucknell.edu/chrismartine. You can also find him on twitter at @martinebotany. For more information about all of our guests, log onto our site at viewpoints online.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary Price.