Teaching Science at Home

By Kathleen Julicher; This blog entry was originally published as an article in The Link homeschool magazine.

Teaching science at home is really teaching about the universe God has created and that universe is neither simple nor easy. Can teaching science be anything but complex? Even when we have a handle on science, it is easy to be confused about teaching it because of all the various ideas inventive people have taught about science instruction. Do we load them down with books and data? Do we throw out the texts in favor of random topical studies? And what about all those experiment books? Just how much science do they need anyway? Is there a right way to teach science? No, there is no one right way, but there are many useful techniques to choose from. Since each family is so different, it is understandable that each family approach science a bit differently. No matter what methods you use, you will need these underlying skills to have an excellent course from the elementary to the high school level: some thinking tools, some action tools, a way to communicate your findings, and a focus on the concepts and principles of science.

Thinking Tools
Science, as a complex topic, requires that thinking skills (wisdom and understanding) come before knowledge. Thinking tools taught early can make learning easier in every field, not just science. A questioning mind is the first tool of the scientist. People who study the universe (scientists) do so because they are curious and brave enough to ask questions. We do not need to teach our children to ask questions, we must only encourage and reinforce their asking. Smile when your children ask the “I wonder” questions like “I wonder why the rains come with clouds?” or “I wonder why we eat hamburgers for lunch and not for breakfast?” You can model questioning by asking yourself the “I wonder” questions. Your children will try to answer you and will eventually start asking questions themselves. This is the birth of a scientist. Note to perfectionist moms: Every question does not need an answer!

The tools of creative thinking and critical thinking are very important to science, but they are not exclusively used in science. In fact, creative thinking is necessary to anyone who would invent, create, or enhance anything! One way you can teach this is by doing brainstorming exercises with your children. Brainstorm what’s for lunch, decoration of their bulletin boards, and ways to arrange their bedrooms. Follow the rules of brainstorming: no criticism of ideas and positive reinforcement for having lots of ideas. A cookie per idea! Critical thinking is not being critical, but being analytical. You can teach that by giving your children the freedom to analyze things. For example, they can decide if today’s lunch meets the requirements of the four food groups or which route to grandmother’s house is best. Teach them to recognize propaganda and to tell if something ‘makes sense’. By giving your children practice in these thinking skills, you will be giving them tools which will help them learn science and, oh by the way, almost anything else, too.

Action Tools
The first action tool of the scientist is the ability to observe carefully. Toddlers do this naturally when they notice how we wash our hands or tie our shoes. This tool can be easily used to study nature on hikes, park days, or in the backyard. Observation is also needed to study electricity and radio, how to use the computer (another tool), or how to draw a chair. Artists are great observers and so we see Audubon and DaVinci as scientist-artists. You can teach observation by asking the children to observe. What color is the leaf? Or the sky? How does this fabric feel? What can you see? Other action tools are: measuring accurately and keeping good records.

Communication Tools
Being able to communicate what we learn or think is one of the things that distinguishes humans from animals. Of the many ways to communicate, you want to teach speaking, writing, drawing, and making charts. Unless it is communicated, scientific research or learning serves little purpose except satisfying curiosity.

A good science course has these parts: concepts to teach; the thinking tools of critical thinking, creative thinking, curiosity, and courage to question; action tools such as observation and measurement; and communication tools. These tools are not only scientific tools, but are to be used for the other subjects you teach, too. With the tools of thinking, action, and communication, you can enhance your schooling in all areas, but especially in science!

Concepts of Science
And what about the science concepts you are supposed to be teaching? Classification of things, or taxonomy, is a good place to begin. Your young person will learn basic science easily by observing the world about him and learning the vocabulary that accompanies it. To aid your observations of the natural world, use a good nature guide with color pictures of the common plants and animals of your area. Not all families do journals, but the occasional drawing or photograph is a good idea. One homeschooling family I know is systematically classifying every animal and plant on their land. What about rocks, minerals, and landforms? All of these things can be observed, written about, and drawn. But there is much more to science than the natural world. Health and well-being should be a part of your training at home, especially cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). Let’s not forget technology. Electricity, electrical devices, radios, and phones are all subjects you should discuss. Magnets, airplanes, boats, and energy sources are also good to study at home. Because there are so many areas in science (it is after all, the study of the universe), homeschoolers tend to get overwhelmed by the subject and avoid it. Be encouraged! Take advantage of the benefits of homeschooling. You do not have to cover it all. With whatever method you choose, use this basic plan for teaching the tools of science: thinking, action, communication, and the concepts of science.

Science at the elementary level
At the elementary level, you might concentrate on the tools of science. Then, using good solid science references, whether texts or not, read to your children about the basic principles of science; after all, they will be standing on the shoulders of giants as Newton did many years ago. But doing only reading can get boring, so do a few projects. Since modern science has so much detail, it is impossible for them to ‘discover’ all the data themselves through experimentation. Therefore, it seems best to combine experimentation with conceptual learning so that your science is balanced, organized, and easy to plan. Let your youngsters play with science. Just as Erector sets and Legos are the playthings of future engineers, so are model rockets and airplanes the toys of future pilots and astronauts. Let them have chemistry sets (not for school, but for fun), rock collections, and soldering irons (with supervision!). Let them have photographic darkrooms and experiments in the kitchen with recipes. And let them have messes. A long time ago a good friend told me to let my children make mud pies. I learned that the children need to have the freedom to make messes and mistakes. Just as a mechanic must break a few parts, so must a future electrical engineer burn a few holes in his jeans with the soldering iron. Your elementary students can learn the tools of science and the principles of science, but they can also play with science and experiment independently.

What about the intermediate student of junior high school age?
During this period you can basically do what you or your student wants. You have many options: continue general science and topical studies from elementary level, start high school level biology or chemistry, skip junior high texts or not, spend a year on electronics or even skip a year of science. You will find that some children will naturally gravitate towards technological things like computers or airplanes. Others will enjoy drawing squirrels or growing violets. Fortunately, science is a pretty large field with plenty of room for different interests. Your children should continue their study of the foundations of science, become more skillful in the tools of science, then study further the areas in which they are most interested. Earn merit badges or interest projects in scouting, do a breeding project for 4-H, earn your ham radio license, or take ground school with the Civil Air Patrol. Take advantage of homeschooling in the area of science and enjoy!

What about the older student?
A high school student needs to buckle down to biology and the fundamentals of chemistry and physics. Playing with science is still fun but the time has come to really use those minds. Biological things have always been very important to the everyday life of a human, but the fields of genetics and heredity are becoming extremely important. Your young student will later be voting on issues of genetic engineering research and field studies, so he or she will need understanding and knowledge in order to make informed decisions. Foundational courses in chemistry and physics are also important to an adult. For a future scientist or engineer, more rigorous courses are necessary. Of course, if your student is interested in some particular field of science, he or she will want to go further into that area. And playing with science is still good, because many hobbies and careers are made this way.

Science is important; it is the study of God’s creation and it is foundational to future careers and life. Prepare your child for studying science by teaching him the tools of the scientist: thinking skills, action skills, communication skills and the concepts of science. Learn the principles of science using whatever techniques and materials you prefer, moving from casual science to more rigorous study as your student progresses through the grade levels. In this way, you will be developing your student by giving him or her the skills of science to apply to future studies and to use throughout life.

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