Oct 06 2010

A Parent’s Approach to Science Education

The recent news that US science education is lagging sparked an interesting discussion on the SGU, which in turn inspired a great deal of feedback from listeners. Among the many e-mails we received was one asking what steps I take to improve the science education of my own daughters.

Fixing the education system, while necessary, is difficult and even in the best case scenario will take time. Many parents want to know what they can do in the meantime to increase the odds that their children will grow to be not only scientifically literate, but passionate life-long learners of science.

I don’t have anything to offer except my own personal musings and experience. Much of what I do is fairly obvious, but if nothing else it may inspire some parents to take a more active role. There is compelling evidence that parental involvement is a critical component of a child’s education, science or otherwise. The National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) has a list of some references, along with some practical advice of their own.

I have two daughters, in the 6th and 2nd grade in public school. This is what I have done to help with their science education:

Teach by Example

I think one of the most important things is just to share your love of science. I am always looking for opportunities to show my daughters how cool something is. I share my own interest in science with them – for example by putting on science documentaries and then watching along with them, throwing out some enthusiastic comments and being there to answer their questions.

I try to always reward questions with praise – often their questions are very probing and insightful (even when they may be factually naive) and I make a point to tell them so. I often reflect questions back at them and give them a first crack at answering it, and then we explore the question together rather than just giving them an answer.

I see a risk in my daughters seeing me as an authority figure that should not be questioned. Children tend to do this with all adults, but especially those with specialized knowledge that can seem overwhelming. So above all I try to make the process of asking questions and understanding the natural world seem as accessible as possible, something that we can do together.

Encourage them to develop some expertise

I think it is a great experience for a child to develop an area of knowledge all their own. Find something that interests them and gently encourage them to pursue it. My older daughter became interested in birds at a young age, so I made that a family hobby. We now have multiple feeders and bird houses in our back yard, and at least a dozen volumes of bird reference books.

Prior to this I knew next to nothing myself, so this was an area we could develop together. From early on she understood that she could know as much as I do about the topic – and before long her knowledge exceeded my own. From this she learned the pleasure that comes from knowledge. Her appreciation for birds was enhanced by her ability to observe small details, and understand the basics of categorization. Eventually she started asking why certain birds had certain features, and that led to discussions of evolution and adaptation.

From any narrow science topic, many basic science lessons and skills can be derived. So it doesn’t really matter if your child takes an interest in birds, or dinosaurs, any animal group, shells, minerals, flowers or other plants, the planets, or whatever. The point is, while you want to give them a breadth of knowledge, it is also good to teach them the joys and advantages of having great depth of knowledge in one area – whatever that area is.

Engage with their school work

I have been pretty harsh in my assessment of the quality of science education in the public schools. Much of the feedback I have had from recent discussions affirms my criticism (while there is much disagreement as to cause). I heard from many science teachers who complain that they do not have enough time and resources, and most complained that the new requirements to teach for standardized testing robs teaching time away from science. High School teachers complain that kids are coming to them lacking in some basic math and science skills, so they are hampered by having to make up for these deficits.

My own experience through my children has been hit and miss – some science teachers are better than others. There does seem to be a trend toward better quality in the older grades, where science teachers are more likely to have special training in science.

But regardless, I make it a point to follow closely what my daughters are learning in their science class. What I mostly do is simply ask them what they learned, or have them describe to me what projects or lessons they are engaged in. Of course, whenever they bring a project home I can more directly assess what they are doing.

Then I ask them some basic questions to assess what they learned from the lesson or project. What I frequently find is that they have memorized (to varying degrees) the pat answer they were supposed to learn, but when I probe further to see if they really understood the fundamental lesson, I often get blank stares. What they learned, if anything, was fairly superficial and they of they often were not given an appreciation for the real lesson (as best as I can tell – sometimes it is not obvious to me, or my daughters, what they were supposed to learn).

This way I can help them get the most out of the lessons they do have, reinforcing experimental methods, the nature of hypotheses and theories, why what they are learning is important and how it is useful in the real world, and often adding the “coolness factor” of what they are learning. I may also flesh out the relevant facts as well, but that is probably the least important component.

In short I try to make their school lessons into what they should have been in the first place.  But also I have the luxury of individualizing their teaching in a way that is not practical in a classroom. So I can take them further on a topic if they are interested – to exactly as far as they are currently capable of going.

Home Projects

There is also no reason to wait for a topic or project to come up in school. There are fun things you can do on your own. Science museums, aquariums, zoos, and nature preserves are, of course, great family activities and opportunities to squeeze in some science education. Even a visit to the beach is loaded with opportunities.  But there are also things you can to right at home.

The night sky is nature’s planetarium. Get a telescope (there are cheap but useful ones available). Seeing the moon through a telescope is easy and an experience your kids will remember. Of course, the more ambitious you are, the more there is available.

Naked-eye astronomy is fun also. The constellations can teach them about the seasons, the basic mechanics of the solar system, and the nature of suns and stars. Planets are fun to identify and follow. There are also the occasional lunar eclipses and meteor showers.

If you live near a park or with access to woods or rural areas, there is a ton to explore. It is also easy to make a simple walk through the woods into a fun game that will really engage your kids. Just calling a walk through the woods an “exploration adventure” was enough to get my girls all excited. Then we can see how many different kinds of leaves we can find, or find out what lives under rotting logs, or look for signs that animals have been through.

For these kinds of activities I try to make sure first that they are fun and casual. I am careful not to overwhelm my kids with information or make it seem like school or like work. First and foremost it’s fun and entertaining. I also think that it’s best to think of 1 or 2 take-away lessons you want them to learn from each experience. If you give them too much information they may forget everything.

For example, when viewing the stars I might talk to them about the fact that every star is a sun, similar to our own sun, but they are just really far away. Then reinforce this point several times, asking how far away they think the stars have to be in order to seem like just a point of light. Then I reinforce that point again the next day in casual conversation.

The point is, at this stage I would rather they really learn and own one fundamental concept then give them a bunch of facts they are going to forget.


Science is fun, useful, and empowering, and the universe is a really cool place. If you believe that yourself, all you need do is share that experience with your kids. Hopefully I have provided some ideas and things to think about to maximize their interest in science.

More important than any facts or concepts you may teach them, is making them into lifelong self-learners in science. Then, it really doesn’t matter as much if their grade school science education is lacking.

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