Curriculum for Teaching Science and Scientific Thinking (Essential Skills Series)

See Essential Skills for a Modern World for an overview of this series on science and critical thinking skills.  I discuss science and scientific thinking in the post Follow the Ant. The recommendations below are based on my experience educating my sons and myself over the last decade. In my next post, I’ll explore other resources for fostering scientific thinking and increasing scientific understanding. 


Okay, you’ve followed the ant. Well, perhaps you’ve considered sending your kids out to follow the ant, asking them to return and fill you in, but hopefully you’re thinking about your children’s science education in more practical terms. Here’s a bit of assistance.

Choosing curriculum

Formal curriculum isn’t the most essential part of a child’s or adult’s science education , but I do know it’s what comes to mind when we think about teaching science. For the youngest students, I’d not bother with formal curriculum. Explore the world together. Follow your child’s interests or introduce him to yours. Go to the library and explore the science sections for children and adults. Watch science shows for kids and for adults, but mostly DO science by interacting with the natural world.

When you start selecting formal curriculum, be choosy. Insist on a curriculum that puts science at the center and avoids other agendas. (The scientific process is quite different from theological thinking. Mixing them makes for a poor education in both. Don’t do it.) Look for curriculum that requires the student to ask questions and to think about possibilities. Many texts intended for schools simply don’t do much of that, nor do many of the big-name publishers for homeschoolers. Inquiry science is the formal name for science that puts questions and thought before answers, and, frankly, it’s hard to find. Worry less about tests, as far too many ask for facts rather than concepts applied to new situations, and scientific thinking is a process, not a series of facts. Yes, facts are important, but divorced from doing science, they don’t create scientific thinkers. Look for questions higher up Bloom’s taxonomy, where questions require application of facts, analysis, evaluation, and creation.

Hands-on experiences that do more than show a taught concept are crucial to teaching the observational skills and thought processes necessary for developing strong scientific thinking. After-the-lesson demos may strengthen fact retention but they don’t stimulate the “why” brain as well that the same demo before the lesson. At least some of the labs and hands-on opportunities should require the learner to design the experiment, ideally formulating the question from observations they’ve already made. It’s fine if not all do. There is plenty to learn from cookbook labs, including technique and the range of possibilities of how to answer a question.

Many lab manuals and texts don’t have this focus, either because of the classroom logistical issues when children ask questions and figure out a way to search for answer (for standard curriculum) or parental ease (homeschoolers are often looking for ease of delivery, understandably). If your favorite option doesn’t do this, alter the experiments a bit. Instead of passing the lab worksheet to your child, read it over and think. What’s the question the lab asks? If I give my child that question and the materials in the lab (plus a few — be creative) without the instructions but with plenty of time and some guidance, could my child find a way to answer the question? (In a later post, I’ll give some guidance on altering labs to be more student-driven and aimed at developing scientific thought.)

Even if your curriculum is full of cookbook labs that you’re uncertain of how to alter, don’t despair. Just ask questions not answered by the text directly. Don’t be afraid to ask the ones you don’t know the answers to, and don’t worry about settling on a single answer. You’re better off wondering and wandering to more sources to search for more answers. After all, a good amount of scientific work is research in response to a scientist’s questions. Again, refer to Bloom’s Taxonomy. Model asking questions that apply, evaluate, and analyze rather than simply require remembering and understanding. Your children will soon do the same.

Here’s a short list of options to consider. It’s not exhaustive. All assume parental involvement. (I’ve not looked for early learner science curriculum in many years.)

  • Building Foundations for Scientific Learning (Bernard Nebel, PhD): Written for parents and educators, these books are designed for non-educators with little science background guiding learners in pre-high school science. Suggested materials are inexpensive and easy to find. This is NOT a workbook or text but rather a source for the instructor.
  • Middle School Chemistry (American Chemical Society): While designed for schools, this curriculum is an easy-to-use, sound introduction to the fundamentals of chemistry for young learners. The materials are easily obtained, and the lessons are clear for both learner and teacher. Here’s my review and materials list.
  • Biology Inquiries (Martin Shields): A full complement of inquiry-based biology labs for middle and high schoolers with clear directions for the instructor and plenty of questions for the students. The materials are generally available through Home Science Tools and your local drug store. (I teach out of this book when I teach Quarks and Quirks Biology.)
  • Exploring the Way Life Works (Hoagland, Dodson, Hauck): This is a text, but it’s the friendly type. This is the text for my Quarks and Quirks Biology course, used along side Campbell’s traditional Concepts and Connections to fill in some details. You’ll not find any fill-in-the-blank questions at the end of each chapter of this thematically arranged book that moves, in each chapter, from the very small to the very large.
  • CPO Science: CPO’s labs offer some fine opportunity for inquiry learning, and the texts are clear and easy to use. However, they often require specialized lab materials. The science-comfortable homeschooling parent can often improvise, but this may be a barrier to some. It’s worth a look on their student pages, however, at the student record sheets for examples of how questions about observations can lead to deeper thinking. (Here’s my review of CPO Middle School Earth Science. I’ve used Foundations in Physics and Middle School Physical Science as well, and find them all similar in style and strong in content.)
  • Just about any curriculum you like to use, with some modifications: Inquiry can happen alone but it’s fostered by community, even if that is just parent and child at the kitchen table or in the backyard. Take the curriculum you’re using now and read through it ahead of your child. Before your child reads, ask questions about what your child thinks now, or perhaps ponder together how something might work. Search online for a demonstration that will encourage thinking before the informational part of a lesson. Ask questions that reach beyond remembering and understanding. Yes, this is harder than presenting the book and some paper for answers or simply doing the labs as given, but scientific thinking isn’t fostered by multiple choice and fill-in-the blanks. It takes conversation.

There’s more to learning science and scientific thought than curriculum, and even a terrific inquiry-based curriculum only the starts the gears of the young scientific mind. My next post will discuss other tools for teaching scientific thinking that you just might want to include in your science learning at home. While you’re waiting, go outside. Watch the ants or the clouds (and see where the ants go when the clouds come). Ask questions. Look for answers. Science is everywhere.




Follow the Ant (Science and Scientific Thinking)

This is the first of two pieces on skills needed to function well in a complicated world. This time, I’ll explore science and scientific thinking.  I’ll list and discuss some resources for encouraging scientific learning and thought in a short post to follow. After that, I’ll explore critical thinking. As always comments are welcome, especially the good resources kind. For the introductory post, read Essential Skills for a Modern World.

Science. Let’s start with what science is not. Science is not the sum of memorized facts about DNA, Avogadro’s number, Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, electron orbitals, the gravitational constant, and tectonic plate movements. It’s not equation-spouting, not those about projectile motion or glycolysis.  It’s certainly not about memorizing who did what when, taking the worst of some history classes to a subject that already is viewed by some to be hard. Science (and math) are too often feared from an early age and far too often taught to young children by people who learned to fear them when they were young.

Science is asking questions about the natural world, musing about answers, carefully and thoughtfully considering what scientists in the field have found before, experimenting as exploration and/or confirmation, and then asking more questions. Children do much of this naturally, watching the world and acting upon it, our carefully timed commentary providing a factual base with context. We name flowers and the birds as our children wonder at them. We explain the tides, the rain, the stars, and the bruise on the knee.

Unless we don’t know. Then, if we’re not distracted by what’s for dinner tonight or whose socks are on the floor again, we look it up — we do research. Better yet, we include the questioning child in the looking up process, or perhaps we pass the job to them. “Hmm. You could research that,” became my phrase as my children’s questions outpaced my answers and library (and before Google was such a dear friend). It didn’t take long before my prompt was unnecessary. “I’ll look that up,” became a usual child-offered solution to his curiosity.

Often, once their question is answered, the exploration is done. But sometimes the questions keep coming. Then, if we’re brave and unafraid of messes and more unanswered questions that will follow, there are experiments. Kids experiment naturally, often asking the next question after repeating an experiment a number of times. (Water and dirt make mud. What happens with water and sand? What happens if I let the mixture dry overnight?) Many science curricula squash this question-experiment-question cycle by providing only experiments (or, more appropriately, demonstrations done by kids) that have answers provided. These cookbook-style experiments are easy on those teaching and have predictable “correct” answers while teaching children what we don’t want them to learn about science: When you enter an experiment, you should know how it will end.

Scientists don’t do it that way. Scientists overflow with curiosity, the sort that takes them to the internet, the library, their bookshelves, the scientist down the hall, and, eventually, to the laboratory. No one source gives them the question or the route to answering it. Relying upon their own experience and the procedures and findings of those who came before, they formulate both the question and experiments, perhaps expecting a particular outcome but never wed to finding it, lest they see what isn’t there or guide the experiment to give the desired answer. And often, quite often, the results aren’t what they hoped or expected, leading to more questions, more experiments, and more research.

“But my child isn’t going to be a scientist. Why does this sort of science education matter?”

DSC00031It matters because, whatever line of work our children pursue, science permeates their modern world. Climate change. Nuclear reactors and bombs. Gene therapy. Stem cells. Invasive species. Missions to Mars. Ebola, TB, and malaria. Alternative energy sources. Water contaminants. If we are to be responsible citizens in this complex world, lobbying and voting for or against legislation on all those issues and more, we need to understand a good deal of science as well as how science works. We can’t vote on what we don’t understand, and we can’t simply vote against something that scares us or will increase our taxes or personal expenses. We need some understanding of the way our universe works to even read about the risks of radiation leaks from nuclear power plants, and we almost always need to research more before we go out and vote on laws.

If we want our children to be able to make responsible and safe personal (and, eventually, family) health decisions, they must be able to read the latest article on gluten or vaccinations or DNA testing and hold up the latest article to careful scrutiny. Junk science and junk reporting abound, especially in health and medical science. In an era where prescription drugs are advertised on TV and pseudoscience, especially about health, fills the internet, we need more than ever to think like a scientist. How many people were in that study? What was the control? Was it double-blinded? Were the researchers funded by Company X, Y, or Z, who just happen to produce or sell drug A, supplement B, or treatment C? Has the study been replicated by someone else somewhere else? Are the results statistically meaningful and practically meaningful?  What questions does this piece of reporting raise? Where can I find out more?

“But I don’t know that much science! How can I teach my kids when I don’t know a beta particle from a leukocyte and couldn’t tell you what’s going on when I take a breath anymore than explain why a bowling ball and a marble, when dropped from the same height, hit the ground at the same time.” 


Start the way your children started. Look at the natural world with new eyes, seeing the ant on your deck as a subject of study rather than occasion for a call to a pest management company. Find the moon every evening, noticing where it is at the same time each night. Watch bread rise and eggs cook.

Then, ask questions. Why does the ant follow the path it does? Where does the ant live, and what does it eat? When does the moon vanish from sight, and just where in the sky is it when it does? Why does it change shape, at least to our eyes?  What’s in those bubbles in my bread, and why do egg whites turn white and firm when cooked?

Next, look for answers about what interests you most. Research the phases of the moon. Read a book about the science of cooking for answers about egg whites, rising bread, and more.  Use reputable sources (applying your critical thinking skills, to be discussed in a future next post), eschewing the junk science and poor reporting found in books, internet sources, articles, and, too often, those around us who also aren’t sure about science. (Charlatans and the simply not scientific abound.)  Be persistent, especially about what is new. Science has a working edge, and it’s at this edge that most mistakes (and poor science reporting) seem to occur. But even old ideas can be wrong or in need of tweaking, so follow the years of research and debate as you read and explore. The way our universe works doesn’t change, but our understanding of it certainly does.

And follow the ant. Watch her (and it is almost definitely a ‘her’), seeing where she goes and whom she meets. Even if she joins a throng of fellow ants, watch your ant as best you can. Does she lead, follow, or neither? Why do you think this behavior occurs? How does she interact with the other ants around her, and what happens after interactions?

Then feed the ant. Set out, on a small index card, a smudge of jelly and place it near the ants.  A few inches away, place another card with chicken or a bit of egg yolk, perhaps, something filled with protein and fat rather than sugar. You pick, as it’s your experiment, but pick with reason and logic. Then sit and watch. Watch longer than you think you can, returning at regular intervals if you must look away. See what happens. What do these ants like? What do they do with the food? How do they find it? Do all of them go for it, or only some?

When the sun sets and the ants return to their home, think. Ask more questions. Consider more ways to find answers. Find a fantastic book or reliable website on ants (see below), and read what interests you. There’s no test, no final paper for which to study. There is only a world to watch and explore and research to read and ponder as you explore the natural world through the lens of scientific exploration and thought.

Ant Resources:



Teaching Other People’s Children

Thompson Lab 10.2:  And the color change after

I never planned to teach children. At different points as a kid, I wanted to be an archaeologist,  an astronaut, a brain surgeon, and a social worker (although I didn’t know what they did). So naturally, I spent college as an English major. My inner scientist emerged a few years later, and I found myself as a Physician Assistant with an inkling that writing professionally and teaching in a PA program would come later.

It’s eighteen years later, and I write for free, don’t teach at the Univeristy level, and do teach children, my own and Other People’s Children. Oh, and I still practice as a PA. Of all those, it’s teaching other people’s children that’s stretched me the furthest and taught me the most.

My movement into the education of offspring other than my own (beyond a bit of Sunday School) started four years back, beginning what is now known as MacLeod Biology or Quarks and Quirks Biology.My older son, then 12, was ready for high-school level biology, and I had a history of flaking out on labs and formal science study. His buddy, another gifted kid, needed Biology as well. I knew I’d not flake with two, so after a summer of reviewing biology books, chatting with my biology professor of a father, and making then unmaking plans, I started teaching my two charges.

October 2010 031I’ve not looked back. Teaching someone else’s child increased my follow-through as well as my drive to find supporting materials for classes and labs. I did, after all, have two hours once a week to fill, and being responsible for the education of another’s offspring brought out the more responsible  me. I kept a list of labs, videos, assignments, and readings on a website, thus (ideally) fostering some independence on their part as well as a record of what we’d done.

Delighted with our success, the boys and I moved on to high school level chemistry. I was nervous. Where biology offered the comfort of the familiar, chemistry brought the promise of review. My chemistry over 20 years old, dusted off only in the context of medicine and revisited only lightly as a homeschooling parent of children under the age of 13. I expected a rough time of it and was surprised how quickly the material returned. My son and his friend brought enthusiasm for the subject matter. I brought the discipline that comes with maturity and far better discernment when working with fire and potentially hazardous materials. They distilled spirits, made black powder (not an official lab, but safely done), and regularly reviewed lab safety while learning an impressive amount of Chemistry. As a teacher, I honed my test design skills and learned when to stretch my students. It was a fabulous year.

Last year, without a science to teach (having drawn the line at physics), I taught six weeks of bioethics and team taught six weeks of research paper writing. With a group of ten, classroom management issues appeared. Faced with a spectrum of skills and experience, I was stretched further than previously to make a concept clear in several different ways for the varying learning styles of my students. When teaching them to write a research paper, I learned to discard global expectations and simply work with each student individually, attempting to improve a few skills during our six weeks of writing.

The lessons learned with those students led me to start teaching writing one-on-one this school year. Most of my writing students are profoundly gifted, and some also have a learning disability. Familiarity with my home-grown versions of twice exceptionality gave me only a hint of how to start approaching other people’s children with similar challenges. The first weeks or even months with each student can be littered with my missteps and mid-course corrections, and patient parents, tired from the battle, become my allies as we pick our way through the labyrinth of their children’s complicated minds. Generally, we find a way through, a pace that works for the family, and perhaps even a bit of rhythm.

Teaching writing to other people’s children informed my work with my own sons’ writing. As one who loves to write, my older son’s writing challenges and resistance have frustrated me. After teaching other people’s children,  I began to think differently about the process of teaching him to write. I now work with him through Google Docs, making notes in the margin and through the text, just as I do with my distance students. This seems a bit less personal than red marks all over a paper. It provides some distance we both need, which helps both of us.

IMG_0162This year also found me teaching physics and physical science. Both boys needed the material, and both had a friend or two also in need. My one and only physics class was 25 years back, but, alas, several of the topics we’re covering were not in that semester of coursework (electricity seemed to be a second semester offering, for example). It’s work. Hard work at times, explaining what I’ve just only figured out. But teaching as I’m learning drives me to reach deeper understanding faster than if I were learning the material on my own. Additionally, I’ve become more familiar with the workings of the universe. More of the world makes sense, and that delights me.

Teaching other people’s children offers an opportunity to share what you love, to hone a skill that’s been dormant, or to learn new material, even the type that scares you. It broadens your appreciation for the differences between kids and between homeschooling families. It can even help you educate your own children more effectively, if you can bring the patience cultivated from that experience back home. That’s the benefit the whole family can appreciate.

Summer Break?

I’ve moved past the “Whew! It’s over!” stage that began Memorial Day weekend. The first few weeks of summer, I luxuriated in my new freedom from coaxing kids through assignments and planning lessons. Then I started to approach a few of those nagging projects: the doors that needed painting, the mounds of paperwork on my desk, and church committee work. Once the fun of all that wore off (yes, there are still more doors needing a coat of paint), I moved on to start preparations for fall. No, they aren’t complete. No, I don’t know exactly what each subject will look like for my kids (although here’s my guess for my older and my younger). Specifically, I have two new projects (and another hatching project) that keep me occupied and occasionally stressed during these hot and hazy days of summer.

As mentioned in my preliminary plans for my older son, I’m teaching Physics this fall. No one could be more surprised than I. Biology was my first foray into planning and executing a lab science course for more than just my own child, and I had fun. It is my domain, scientifically, and I thoroughly enjoy the exploration of the living science and sharing that exploration with others.

Chemistry was the logical next step, and I felt some trepidation planning that one. My last Chemistry class was two decades earlier, and while I understood the basics of the science, I didn’t have the same passion about it. But my son and his friend had an enormous amount of excitement about the course, which promised dangerous chemicals, controlled explosions, and liberal use of flames. Their excitement was contagious and made planning easier.

But after Chemistry, I swore I was done. No Physics, I told them and myself. And last year, my older took a year off from lab science, instead doing a Meteorology and Earth Science study while I focused my energy on subjects other than science.

But Physics was due. With nine other credits at a local University scheduled for my older son this fall, I knew college-level physics at the same institution would be overwhelming. I also knew we’d both fare better if his Physics study included someone other than just him. Science is collaborative, and bouncing ideas off of lab partners mirrors the intra-lab confabs that occur in professional science. Plus, I’m more consistently prepared when my audience extends beyond my offspring. (Call me a bad mom, but it’s true.)

So mid-August, I’ll begin an Algebra-based Physics course for four high schoolers, ranging from 14 to 17 years old. We’ll meet weekly for three hours or so, spending time on assignment review, lecture, and labs. Once a month, more or less, another dedicated homeschooling parent will make the class sing, encouraging experiment design and implementation with plenty of support and wisdom. With a true love for Physics, he’ll provide the heart for the science that I find a tad intimidating. I’m grateful beyond words.

As the lesson plans unfold, I’ll add them to a page on the top of this blog. This may not happen every week, so if you’re interested, visit Don’t Touch the Photons for the most up-to-date lesson and links. Keeping a webpage for a class keeps crucial information about assignments in the hands of students and forces me to plan ahead, which are both convincing reasons for me to make the effort.

My other summer endeavor falls well within my comfort zone. I’m offering writing coaching/tutoring to a handful of students. A few are local, but most are scattered around the country. While I’ll rely somewhat on Michael Clay Thompson’s Paragraph Town and Essay Voyage, I’ll likely create my own materials based on the needs the kids present. For some students, I’ll be planning a course and carrying it out, available via email and Google Hangout (a Skype-like setting where documents can be shared and marked up together). For others, I’m assisting on a project assigned by someone else. I’m quite excited as I start this journey, anticipating steep learning curve for me while hopefully delighting in the growth of young writers.

My own writing projects often takes a back seat, and this summer proves to be no exception. This is avoidance, of course, and a fear of starting without the whole picture in front of me. I have a few larger projects in mind (read: books that want out of my head), including one that would likely spring in one direction or another from my writing here. I see some holes in the books available for homeschooling families, and I’d like to try to fill one. If that sounds vague, it’s because it is still fuzzy to me. I’m not sure what I’m waiting to have happen — what moment of clarity I await  — but I seem to be in a holding pattern.

As I watch myself procrastinate, I understand my children a bit better. Their stalling and occasional downright opposition to assignments (often the writing sort) stems from a similar place. Both admit to fears about starting when the whole project isn’t clearly in mind. Both suffer the sort of perfectionism that makes task initiation difficult or even impossible. I’m open about my own “stuck” times, sharing what worries me when I can’t start and what, if anything, I find to help me along.  And that, perhaps, is a perpetual fourth project: better understanding my children. The stakes feel high, but the timeline is long.

There’s plenty to do this summer. Along with two definitive projects, one incubating work (with duct tape on the egg as a precautionary action to ward off failure), and a lifelong quest, there are vacations to take, friends to see, gardens to tend, books to read, and clouds to watch. And those other doors? They’re not looking that bad after all.

Review: Middle School Chemistry

Middle School Chemistry from the American Chemical Society is my favorite homeschooling find of the year for the 2010/11 school year.  It’s their free offering to schools and individuals, and it is science education at its best.  After a rather ho-hum run through Real Science 4 Kids Chemistry I (which I reviewed here), my younger and I were looking for more chemistry to learn.  He wanted plenty of hands-on time but without the dangerous chemicals (sulphuric acid, hydrochloric acid, and other nasties) the older boys were using for their high school chemistry class.  I was in agreement and actively searching for the next step when the ACS Middle School Chemistry curriculum appeared on an email list.

Middle School Chemistry is inquiry based science, meaning that rather than starting a lesson with terms and definitions, each lesson starts with questions.  Generally, a demonstration follows that leads to further thinking on the concept, which is followed by an experiment, sometimes requiring the child to make decisions on the design.  In the second lesson, a discussion of variables and controls provides language for experiment design.  Additional experimental design guidance appear throughout the following chapters.   Terms and concepts are discussed after demonstrations and experiments.  Nothing is taught out of context.  For every concept, the student has watched the result of the concept and experimented with the process.  Thus a student has working knowledge of the concept even before it has a name.  This is not, “Oh, look at that!” science.  Rather this is, “So that’s how that works!” science.

That’s the idea of inquiry learning.  What does it look like in practice?  Chapter 2.3 focuses on condensation.  By this point, the student understands that molecules are in motion and that increasing heat increases molecular motion.  They’ve experimented with these principles and watched brief animations of simple diagrams of molecules in motion.  In the lesson on state changes (going from solid, to liquid, to gas and the reverse), the student first watches the state change occurs in an experiment demonstration.  In this lesson, a glass of ice water left on the counter is compared with a glass of ice water enclosed in a plastic bag with much of the air pushed out.  The student can observe the higher level of moisture on the outside of the glass exposed to the air and can surmise that water came from the air.  Simple stuff, right?

But the focus of the unit is molecular movement and energy transfer.  As the water molecules in the gaseous state lose energy to the cold glass (heat transfer/energy transfer), they move to the liquid state.  Often the movement of molecules is left until higher level chemistry.  So while a younger child may memorize the order of the state changes, the idea that the varying speed of the molecules (and more) is what determines a solid, liquid, or gas, is often omitted.  But not in Middle School Chemistry.  In this lesson, condensation examples are elicited from the students and discussed.  The process is observed as well.  After discussing experimental design, the student does an experiment to determine what temperature conditions accelerate condensation.  Online short animations model the molecular motion at each stage, and knowledge can be extended to water purification experiments and exploration of other factors that influence that state change of water. Plenty of questions for the student to answer on paper or aloud as the lesson proceeds gives sufficient opportunity to process and retain the new information.  Since each lesson builds on the one before, older information is continually used and expanded beyond.

This isn’t science as it is usually taught.  It’s certainly not science as I learned it in school.  The National Research Council defines inquiry science this way:

Scientific Inquiry refers to the diverse ways in which scientists study the natural world and propose explanations based on the evidence derived from their work. Inquiry also refers to the activities of students in which they develop knowledge and understanding of scientific ideas, as well as an understanding of how scientists study the natural world. (From Doing Science:  The Processes of Scientific Inquiry — this link takes you to an NIH curriculum supplement on Inquiry Science for grades 6 – 8.  I’ll review those supplements later.)

This isn’t science as recommended as by The Well Trained Mind and other classical education models.  And it’s not the process of teaching science used by any homeschool science programs I’ve found (although Nebel offers a fine elementary curriculum for grade K-5).  Singapore Science does contain some inquiry, but the labs are somewhat challenging for homeschoolers.  ACS’s Middle School Chemistry is chemistry taught from the roots up, with molecular motion and activity at the core.  It’s by far the best accessible chemistry program I’ve seen for elementary or middle schoolers.  And it’s free.

All the materials can be printed or read from their online side or downloaded to any device that reads PDF files.  I print out the student pages (4 to 7 pages per lesson) and teach from the book on my iPad.  Alas, the demos aren’t viewable on the iPad, so we head to the Mac or PC laptop for that.  There are also 6 to 10 pages of printable text for the child for each of the six chapters, which I’ve assigned my son to read at the end of the chapter.  These short, illustrated chapters are fine summaries of the material learned and supplement the lessons nicely, and they are designed to do just that — summarize what has been learned during the inquiry and discovery lesson.  This is a teacher/parent intensive program (meaning you can’t just hand it to your child and let them plug away — discussion is part of the game), but preparation is minimal.  Most importantly, my nine-year-old is learning chemistry in a deep, meaningful way.  He’s learning to design an experiment to answer his own questions, complete with correctly identified variables and controls.  He’s learning a number of lab skills at an early age.

I’d recommend the American Chemical Society’s Middle School Chemistry to anyone with a later elementary or middle-school aged child who is willing to walk together with their child through chemistry.  I’d guess plenty of parents can learn quite a bit about matter and how the molecular world works, and this program makes it fun.  While it’s written for the 6th though 8th grade crew, it could definitely be used younger with a quick learner interested in science.  It’s suitable for co-op use.  There is a small amount of math involved in the course, but comfort with fractions and decimals (needed when figuring densities) is sufficient.  There is sufficient material to spread the course over a year, as one might in a co-op setting, although we preferred to devour it more quickly (“Can we do Chemistry, Mom? Please!”).

Middle School Chemistry from ACS uses simple, safe, and easily obtainable materials.  While these lists may seem long, you probably have many of the ordinary materials on the second list on hand.  All the materials on the not-so-ordinary list can be used for later chemistry studies.

Not-so-ordinary materials (beyond items found at craft stores and grocery stores)

Ordinary materials:

  • Styrofoam cups
  • Isopropyl alcohol, 70%
  • Clear plastic cups
  • Styrofoam balls, 1″ (4)  and 1.5″ (2)
  • Salt
  • Sugar
  • Epsom salts
  • Mineral oil
  • M&Ms
  • Food coloring
  • Corn Syrup
  • Club Soda
  • Pipe Cleaners
  • Cornstarch
  • Talcum powder
  • Instant hot packs (2)
  • Instant cold packs (2)
  • MSG (Accent flavoring is MSG.  It’s available at Asian groceries under other names.)
  • Baking Soda (sodium bicarbonate)
  • Tea light candles
  • Vinegar
  • Alka-seltzer
  • Household ammonia
  • Hydrogen Peroxide, 3%
  • Glow sticks (2)
  • Cream of Tartar
  • Tincture of Iodine
  • Cornstarch
  • Vinegar
  • Popsicle sticks
  • Citric acid (try the canning section of the grocery store or a natural food store)
  • Balloons
  • Toothpicks
  • Quart-sized ziploc style bags


Chemistry Updates

Note:  The HS Chemistry page is updated through Week 34

Thompson Lab 10.2: Oxidation States of Manganese (before)

Today was our 34th Chemistry class.  I’d like to say it’s our last, but I couldn’t can cram all of an introduction to organic chemistry (alkanes, nomenclature, carbon bonding, etc) into one session.  After we do complete that topic, we’ll have explored 19 chapters in Zumdahl’s Introductory Chemistry: A Foundation and all the labs listed for college prep chemistry in Robert Bruce Thompson’s All Lab, No Lecture:  Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments.  They’ve taken four tests, submitted over 20 lab reports, entered three essays in the American Chemical Society’s International Year of Chemistry (IYC) contest, completed numerous problem sets, and watched an unknown number of Kahn Academy videos and assorted YouTube chemistry demos.

I hope they’ve learned something.

Thompson Lab 10.2: And the color change after

They sound like they’re learning, look like they’re learning, and (generally) test like they’re learning.  I’ve suffered far more self-doubt teaching them Chemistry this year than I did teaching Biology last year, but then the life sciences are my domain.  I’ve stayed at least a half-step in front of them all year for Chemistry, although the instructor’s manual for their text and answer guide for the lab book have made this half-step possible.  I know I’ve learned a bunch, and I’m fairly certain they have, too.

I’m vacillating between final exam options.  Last year, I used a past edition of the New York Regent’s Living Environment exam, which they found easy after the tests I’d been crafting all year.  I may use the Chemistry version of the same, or perhaps a practice SAT subject test instead.  I’d love to give both, but mutiny may occur.  Either way, I’d like THEM to know they’ve learned something that’s testable in the bigger world, the world beyond my kitchen table.   This may not be important to them, but it’s vital to me.

Thompson's 10.1: Reduction of Copper Ore to Copper Metal

While their “book knowledge” growth is impressive, it’s their lab skills that have made the biggest leap.  They’re far more able to trouble-shoot a lab before they start, predicting changes they have to make due to lack of equipment on our end, for example.  They work together far better than they did in the fall (and last year), managing to divide the “fun” tasks fairly and actually work together.  I have no doubt they’d be ready to succeed in any high school or college level laboratory.

Here are a few highlights from our year:

  • Making napalm (Thompson’s lab 18.3).  Gasoline, a styrofoam cup, and matches.  The neighbors asked calmly if they should be seeing smoke.  The calm affirmative from my son was part of an exchange had over that fence many times.  (double displacement reaction)
  • Distillation.  The fancy set-up is part of the fun.  Choosing what to distill is another.  See my previous post on making brandy.  (separating substances)
  • Anything flammable, explosive, or generally dramatic.
  • Impromptu quizzes about the periodic table (I stay out of these, as my memory is a poor match for theirs.)
  • Modifications to labs to speed up those boring wait times.  (Why use a 9-volt battery for electrolysis of water when current from the wall makes for a much faster reaction?)

So far, injuries have been minor (a slight burn here and there), my house is still standing, and our neighbors have habituated to seeing smoke in our driveway and hearing loud pops from the yard.  While the latter causes me to wonder how much smoke it would take for them to call the fire department in the event of a real fire, I’m relieved that they’ve come out of the class with four limbs and two eyes each. (Safety is always a must.  Goggles and lab coats are nonnegotiable. )   I’ve only nixed one lab due to safety concerns:  creating a working cloud chamber and watching the alpha particles (or at least the condensation trail they leave) from Americium 141.  They’re bummed.

Copper sulfate solution aflame

We have amassed a rather embarrassingly complete chemistry laboratory, although the boys are quick to point out it lacks a vacuum filtration device, a good pH meter, silver nitrate, and chloroform.  They’ve survived without.  There were some chemicals we couldn’t obtain, not being a certified school, and a few labs we didn’t complete due to the cost of the materials, but we did remarkably well for a homeschool lab.  Lack of radioactive elements aside, they’ve had the materials to really dive into serious chemistry.

So what’s on the schedule for next year?  Not physics.  Not from me, at least.  I’ll teach a one semester co-op class using the National Institute of Health’s free supplements, including a section on bioethics and one on sleep.  My teen may take a course on Meteorology from a local university, or he may work independently on that subject, which has been his passion since he was nine.  I’d like to see him take the Chemistry SAT Subject Test in the fall, but that’s left to be decided.  Whatever road he takes, I’ll look back fondly on this year of smoke and potential dangers and delight that the house is still standing.

Review: Real Science 4 Kids (Chemistry 1 and Biology 1)

We’ve been through plenty of science curriculum and learning supports.  From living books to documentaries, Bill Nye to NIH free resources, Singapore Science to mom-designed courses, we’ve tried a range of ways to bring science to life while teaching sound scientific thinking. For the evolution-teaching family, the options designed for homeschoolers (simpler labs, generally) are fairly slim.  Even with a disturbingly well-equipped home lab, it’s a stretch to use regular classroom texts at home.

So initially, I welcomed Real Science 4 Kids, by Dr. Rebecca Keller.  It didn’t teach evolution (see more on her and my musings about her approach in Curriculum Choices of Conscience), but it didn’t teach creationism or intelligent design either, and since our introduction to the series was Chemistry Level 1, I wasn’t initially concerned with that omission.

At this writing, Real Science 4 Kids consists of 3 levels, each with a varying number of topics.  I’ll limit my discussion to Level 1 Chemistry and Biology, since these are the only books I’ve used with enough rigor to evaluate them.  My older son did the first chapter of Chemistry Level II some years back, but that’s an insufficient experience by which to gauge that series and is under complete revision.

All the Level I subjects require a textbook, a lab workbook, and a teacher’s guide.  The teacher’s guide contains some notes on running the experiments, answers to all the questions, and some additional information on the subject matter.  The texts are attractive, multi-color hardbacks with large font, which is easy on young and old eyes.  Each text consists of ten chapters that align with ten labs and a few brief questions about the chapter, both of the latter found in the lab book.  At full retail, a year of science (Chemistry, Biology, and Physics) for Level I runs about $216 new (Astronomy is available without a teacher’s guide).  That’s a pretty pricey elementary science curriculum.  Used copies abound, but a new lab book for each student is necessary unless the child uses a separate notebook to do the written work.

Keller has numerous additional books, called Kogs, that extend science into vocabulary, philosophy, art, technology, critical thinking and history.  Samples online didn’t impress me, although I was taken with the idea of extending science across the curriculum, as some programs do with literature or history. My borrowed copy of the Language Kog to accompany Chemistry I didn’t hold my interest enough to introduce it to my son.  It introduced some roots, used them in words, and asked kids to give the definitions.  I expect more from a $27 book (and that’s just for one 10 chapter softcover consumable book)  For a full set of Kogs for Level I Chemistry, language Kogs for Physics and Biology, the tests (available soon), and study folders (available soon), and you’re in another $350.  Whoa.

The books are attractive for kids and parents and hold resale well (good, given their high price).  The experiments are highly homeschooler-friendly, requiring (mostly) basic household items, although a bit of specialty shopping online is needed for a few labs (a voltmeter for Physics and living protists and Red Congo stain in Biology, for example).  Two of the labs for Biology require planning and introduce animal life into your home: raising tadpoles into frogs and observing butterflies develop from caterpillars.  The first results in pets that are likely to live beyond when your children go to college (We did the tadpole thing on our own four years ago.  The frogs are still with us, and, according to a biologist friend, likely to spend up to 30 years with us.  No more experiments that require estate planning.)  The second requires timing your lab to meet shipping regulations of butterfly egg sellers.  These are exceptions, however, and one could omit growing living creatures that need prolonged care with a decent video or book on metamorphosis.

The labs book also contains a few questions about the text material.  Most of these are definitions or classification questions, and only on the most basic parts of the books material. Few if any require any critical thinking about the subject, making connections between topics, or analysis of information.  This is a serious downfall of the series.

I think Real Science 4 Kids continues to grow in the homeschooling community because it introduces high-level vocabulary to young children.    Sure, throughout Chemistry, you’ll see atoms and molecules introduced, however there’s no discussion of states of matter, a basic of any chemistry education.  Instead, this text includes titration, polymers, starches, cellulose, kinesin, along with dozens of other chemistry topics.  They’re interesting, but without a better grounding in chemistry basics, they’re like building a house on a sand — it’s just not going to stand.

On the whole, I found the chapters to be little more than 4 to 5 page introductions to a large subject with little focus on the hows and the whys.  Science is far more that what.  Science requires an understanding of how the world works and a grounding in scientific thinking.  I’d rather see far less terminology and far more grounding in the basics of the way the world works along with the tools to think like a scientist.  I’d like to see more inquiry based learning, where the learner asks a question and, with a good amount of guidance initially, figures out how to design an experiment to answer the question.  I’d like to see discussion of controls and variables as well.  Singapore Science does these well, teaching  scientific thinking grounded in the basics of matter and energy.  (That’s another review for another day.)

In short, Real Science 4 Kids is an attractive product with labs geared toward the homeschool lab.  It’s expensive and won’t span too many years of science education, and it tends to focus on vocabulary acquisition rather than deep understanding.  It’s free of any references to evolution or the origin of life, which sells books but also, in my opinion, leads to an incomplete education if used as the only biology or astronomy text.

I’d like to say I’ve found something equally easy to use at home with greater depth and an undercurrent of evolution, but I haven’t.  Singapore Science, with modifications to many labs, is a better bet, in my opinion, but that’s a fairly large task.  A recent find from the American Chemical Society, Middle School Science, is a far superior chemistry offer, and is online for free.  It’s inquiry-driven, the supplies for labs are easy to obtain, and it is the most sound chemistry program I’ve ever seen.  More on that when we’re farther along.

Disclosure:  I’ve received no compensation in money or materials for this review.

Chemistry (HS Level) Updates

I’ve updated the Chemistry page to reflect our most recent work.  Increasingly, I’m incorporating Khan Academy videos, since they’ve been popular and useful.  It’s about time to create a third test.  I’m sure the boys will be thrilled.

Chemistry (High School level)

I’ve added a page for our Chemistry curriculum I’m teaching to my 13-year-old and his 14-year-old buddy (my biology boys from 2009/2010).  See the top of the page for what we’ve already accomplished, or, for more up-to-the-week info, check out the website:  Let’s Not Burn the House Down.

Brandy and Innovation

Distillation apparatus in action


We’re four weeks into chemistry, and at least the labs are a hit.  Oh, I’m sure they secretly enjoy scientific notation, significant figures, heat capacity equations, and dimensional analysis, but they hide their passion for those nuts and bolts well.  Who’s fooling who?  They’re in it for the labs. 

As I’ve posted on my website for the course (and every course with two non-related students needs its own website), we’re using the Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments:  All Lab No Lecture as our lab guide.  Robert Bruce Thompson’s comprehensive labs serve basic to AP chemistry learners, and, with legally obtainable chemicals and equipment, are quite doable at home.  It’s also utterly real chemistry.  No baking soda and red cabbage indicators here.  Nope.  This is the real deal, including they boys’ favorite lab to date:  distillation.  The assignment was to purify ethanol (70% solution) using distillation, taking advantage of the lower boiling point of the ethanol.   They were successful (new solution was about 80%), after a bit of a false start that involved a bit of mess but no fire or explosions.  But they weren’t satisfied. 

They wanted to distill something else, and, given we’d acquired the equipment and knew they had some kinks to work out, I agreed.  Hydrogen peroxide is feasible but not terribly safe.  Water is certainly safe but rather boring.  After much discussion and even more dissent, they agreed to distill the alcohol from some red wine that was aging not-so-gracefully in my fridge.  Yeah, I let the boys make brandy  (directions here).  My older son regaled me and the other child’s mother with questions about the legality of the venture.  We assured him that if we didn’t drink or sell it, we were fine.  Somewhat comforted, he and his partner in this  parent-sanctified federal offence began the process. 

The windshield wiper fluid pump moves ice water through the condenser, increasing the cooling of the distillate. And it's cool.


Distillation is boring.  Well, boring unless you heat your original liquid too much, causing it to run into your condenser tubing (They did.  Twice.).  So, to make it more interesting, one should make it more technical.  And my son’s buddy did just that.  On the ethanol distillation, they filled the condenser with cold water, periodically draining it as the distillate warmed it and refilling it with a syringe.  It was messy, slow, and totally not high-tech enough.  So on the second run, they employed a windshield wiper pump hooked up to a 12V battery to do the periodic water exchange for them.  It worked beautifully, saving much labor that could have, I felt, gone into attending to the ever-rising temperature of the original liquid, avoiding the aforementioned overheating.  But I’m not 13. 

And the brandy?  Absolutely vile.  A drop to the tongue was enough to make us decide that moonshine-making wasn’t a career option.  And no worries about legalities:  the distillate is all slated for using in an alcohol burner.  The distillation itch is scratched for now, but I’m sure that down the line, the boys would be open to other (legal and safe, preferably) labs utilizing that distillation equipment and handy pump.  Or perhaps they’d rather practice some more dimensional analysis.  Dream on, Mom!