Welcome guest poster, Ali Southerland who runs a messy house, homeschools, and cooks huge meals for an army of tiny faces. She is dedicated to helping everyone understand and teach science better, teaching financial literacy, and helping parents use freezer cooking to take control of their time. Check in with her at www.thisaddictivemess.com and follow her on social media.
Science is my jam, y’all. Little known fact: I went to a high school for gifted kids where we had to “focus” (like a major) on either science or math. I was privileged to learn from as a teen what science really is and got to skip the boring “memorize this” style of teaching methods so many kids have pushed down their throat.
My high school did a much better job of teaching what science is really is than either of the colleges I attended, immersing me in the methods of investigation, reasoning, and debate that is the most important parts of science.
Do you what what I am talking about?
If you don’t, I am here to clear some things about science up so we can raise a generation of kids who can apply science to take our society to bigger and better things.
I am going to start with some information about what science is and is not, then I will tell you how this needs to affect your homeschooling.
What is Science?
Science is a process, not a series of facts.
People see science as memorizing tidbits about momentum, parts of a cell, types of salts, or endless types of cycles (carbon, nitrogen, water, krebs, etc).
They see it as something passive that we read from books or watch demonstrations of.
This couldn’t be further from the truth.
What we have all been taught in school is better described as “observations about the natural world that have stood the test of time”.
What most people call science is actually an (informal) umbrella term for the different fields of study like chemistry, biology, ecology, physics, geology, etc.
As you advance through higher education in the sciences, these narrow and often overlap. Some people are astrophysicists, who are experts in both astronomy and physics and study the physics of space. Some people are biomedical engineers, who design prosthetics, surgical tools and the like, a discipline that merges engineering and medicine.
Science, on the other hand, is active.
Science is a method of asking questions, isolating factors so that one can truly determine cause and effect. The executing of the scientific method to answer a question is science in action.
So to review:
Physics, chemistry, biology, etc, are fields of study.
Science is the process of answering questions through the scientific method.
Science ends with facts (The place of logic)
Science has certainly revealed a lot of facts for us. We know the world is round and travels around the sun. We know beyond a shadow of a doubt that many diseases are caused by infection.
But these conclusions did not come easy. It’s not like a scientist in some brightly lit room performs 1 experiment, gets published, and then publishers rewrite textbooks.
We often look at individual published studies as a light of truth, but in reality science does not actually stop with the study. And there are different types of studies that are not created equal.
First, the experiment (also called a study) is only the first half of real science. After a scientist carries out an experiment, they must write a paper on it and get it published (which is hard).
Once a paper is published, other scientists read and critique it. They may publish reactions letter-to-the-editor style in support or against the original experiment. They may write blogs posts or full articles with the intention of starting a rousing debate about the data and conclusions of everyone who is talking about that article.
Other scientists try to replicate the results of the original paper, and if they can, may try to take the idea a step further.
This process is called peer review, and quite honestly, it is the most important part of science. It separates the good from the bad. It gives other experts a moment to weigh in on the veracity of the research.
To people who aren’t scientists, this seems so boring, but peer review is an important part of science because it allows us to learn from each other, too. Look at this ironic screenshot from Twitter:
I love how this shows the importance of logic and critique in the scientific community, but also how this process is very labor intensive.
I know this seems like it’s irrelevant for the homeschool community.
So what does this have to do with homeschool? If we want to our kids to have the very best science education possible, we need to focus on logic as well.
Teaching logic is possible because of logical fallacies and cognitive biases. The human mind loves patterns, and will look for patterns to make sense of things. However, these patterns often lead us away from the actual truth.
Weak patterns of reasoning are called logical fallacies. Cognitive biases are mental traps we fall into that make us see and comprehend things differently than that actually are! For example, the Denomination Effect negatively impacts many people’s finances. This is when you won’t spend a big bill like a $100 but will spend $100 in $20s without realizing it.
As our kids get older, we need to prepare them for the debate aspect of science by including logic and reason as part of their education.
Here are some free resources to get you started learning:
- 15 Logical Fallacies (parents and older kids)
- Soft Schools (middle and older kids)
- The Fallacy Project (middle and older kids)
Science should be taught in isolation.
You do not need to focus on just science to teach it.
You can teach science through gardening, through nature walks and journals, as parts of other projects like baking cookies, at amusement parks, anywhere and everywhere you are. Kids are natural tinkerers. Embrace it.
I love STEM challenges because these are simple, quick experiments that result in useful information that kids can use that day! STEM challenges are how we embrace our kids’ natural tendency to tinker.
Science should be taught as an opportunity to explore. To try something and fail. As Ms Frizzle says “Take Chances, Get Messy, and Make Mistakes!”
We will often perform a demonstration or experiment and then research it and write a short paper on it. We count this exercise as reading, writing, and science.
I am going to take a moment to express an unpopular opinion of my own. I don’t believe that it is necessary to focus on forcing memorization of science facts until kids are of the age and maturity to take it seriously. I don’t care if my 11 year old can recite the entire periodic table.
That information will be useless to him unless he is motivated to not only comprehend the vast amount of data included but also to apply that to problems he is facing everyday.
Without a doubt, a much better exercise for him is to take a chunk of pure sodium and toss it in some water. Then to take a bigger chunk, a smaller one, more water, less water, and to see how those changes affect the reaction, write them down, and do some math magic!
Which brings me to my next point:
Demonstration vs Experiment
So I know everyone loves a great Mentos and diet Coca-Cola explosion, but that’s not science. There is no question, no way for our kids to be active. You know exactly what’s going to happen, and you just do it. I am not denigrating this amazing reaction. Do Mentos/Coke explosions every day if they make your kids thirsty for science! But call them what they are:
If you follow steps for a desired outcome that is by definition a demonstration. And they are very important in science education for their ability to get people interested. Situational interest is a powerful learning tool, use it to your advantage!
This is a great thing, but demonstrations are not experiments.
Experiments require a question and an answer. You can turn any demonstration into an experiment simply by changing something and recording the results in a table or list. (Hint: These make great chances to practice those data handling skills from math!)
Back to the Mentos/Coke thing. If you want to go from demonstration to experiment, change ONE variable (aspect of the experiment) at a time. Use different flavors of Mentos (fruit flavored or ones with a coating), try different sodas (regular instead of diet, diet Pepsi or Coke Zero instead of diet Coca-Cola, store brands), try different ratios of Mentos to Coca-Cola.
Note: When designing an experiment, only alter one thing about it at a time. Do multiple rounds of the experiment if you wish to change multiple variables.
Let me give you an example:
You want to check the reaction of different sodas in the Mentos/Coke reaction.
You would want the original diet Coca-Cola, plus a bottle of each other type you will test. Each bottle should be the same size (like all 2 liter bottles or 20 oz, etc).
You would need to plan how many Mentos you will put into each bottle so the ratio of candy to soda stays the same.
Then you record the results. If you are working with young kids, you could record the results as small, medium, or large. With larger kids, you could record how much soda is left in the bottle or how long the reaction lasted.
Recording your data should be easy and quick. For younger kids, a simple table will do. For older kids, get them drawing graphs, plotting lines, etc. I highly recommend videoing and taking pictures of your experiments to share on social media! This is a fun way to get your kid’s work published!
Just a quick fyi: recording is one of the most important parts of the scientific process for career scientists. These notes are used to replicate the experiments and used by other scientists to judge the merit of the study.
You need a textbook.
For some people, textbooks are very helpful, and the organization reassures them that they aren’t missing anything. It can certainly make the process easier, especially when you are looking up a word or formula. But reading science out of a textbook only makes for a very dry education.
They are not necessary.
First of all, things like STEM challenges are excellent ways to teach concepts with hands-on messages. These, demonstrations, nature activities, and actual experiments are perfect ways of introducing your kids to science. You can pair these with kids’ books, juvenile nonfiction books, and living books on the same subjects and come out with an excellent education without ever opening a textbook.
There are all kinds of games and apps that can help, too. Personally I use Seek by iNaturalist (just a suggestion, there are other apps that do the same) to snap pictures of animals, plants, and fungi while out and about with kids. If the picture is quality and gets a clear image of the subject, it can identify down to genus and sometimes even species.
For older kids, the internet is a goldmine for cutting-edge science. First, you have all kinds of websites like Science Daily and Phsy.org which are excellent sources of news. They can read these articles, look up unknown words, phrases, or whatever.
A note about sources: Not all sources are created equal, even when they seem to be an expert (such as a doctor’s personal website). Stick to sources that have a .edu or .org extension. Scientific journals have a rating called impact factor that reflects how many scientists cite the papers published within it. A higher impact factor is considered desirable when conducting research.
Then you have social media which opens a whole new way of communicating with experts! I have reached out to some rock star paleontologists on Twitter with questions about dinosaurs and get replies! Plus, they share some awesome articles and pictures. (Don’t know how to find an expert? Google the field or subject + professor so “Paleontology professor” and look for an .edu extension. This should lead you to a university’s faculty page).
I know I just threw a lot of information at you. To help you incorporate it into your homeschool, I am offering some printables: a nature journal template, a STEM journal template, a logical fallacy cheat sheet and of course, a scientific method cheat sheet. Please print, copy, and share as much as you like. Get them, here!