Children are natural scientists: they are curious about how the world works; they ask big questions; and, they find great joy in observing the natural world. All students should enter classrooms where this natural proclivity toward science is integrated into the curriculum. Yet often when children go to school, their love of science diminishes. Students are often simply given a science textbook, replete with science labs – step-by-step instructions to create a reaction. What children and adolescents need instead are teachers and schools that build upon these important habits of mind – curiosity, questioning and wonder. Children need support to strengthen their own scientific inquiry – as they learn how to design experiments to answer big, lofty questions.
There are a few key ways parents, teachers, and schools can nurture a child’s natural love of science.
First, children need teachers and classrooms that encourage their big questions. Young children are able to think in complex, thoughtful ways. The wonderful author of A Wrinkle in Time, Madeline L’Engle, when asked why she wrote for children claimed: “It’s often possible to make demands of a child that couldn’t be made of an adult… a child will often understand scientific concepts that would baffle an adult. This is because [children] can understand with a leap of the imagination that is denied the grown-up who has acquired the little knowledge that is a dangerous thing.” Furthermore, these big questions are most relevant when linked to student interests in their surrounding community.
Here are a few questions, Baker Demonstration School teachers have been exploring this year:
- How can we protect birds, especially barn owls, and teach others about them? (1st grade)
- As scientists and activists, how can we help communities (locally, nationally, or globally) impacted by landforms or earth movement-related problems? (4th grade)
- An Exploration of Mars: How can we become a multiplanetary faring species? (7th grade)
Second, children need environments where they can work as scientists. Students need classrooms where they can experiment with their questions. Their earliest experiences as scientists in the formal school setting should continue to encourage this, rather than create the impression that scientists follow a list of lab procedures. Scientific Inquiry is a process that begins with a question, moves forward with investigation, and ends in action. Whether it is the creation of a design solution, a recommendation to a body of policy makers, or the creation of a sustainable plan for food waste in the school, children need to see that science can change their lives, their communities, their world.
Finally, children’s brains need opportunities to consolidate learning. Experience-based learning is the key to developing depth of understanding and memory over time, but reflection is essential to this process. As John Dewey, progressive education pioneer, wrote, “We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience.”
Teachers and schools can help facilitate important reflection through reflective conversations, portfolios or tools such as 3-2-1 practice (What are 3 things you learned, 2 things that were fascinating, and 1 question that you have?).
When our children come of age they will inherit a complex set of global challenges – including challenges affecting their communities as a result of climate change. We need them to be able to think as scientists, designers, and engineers, with flexibility and adaptability, to meet the needs of their generation. And we need their love of science to sustain this important work.