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. 

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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.

 

 

 

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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.” 

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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:

 

 

Early Review: CPO Middle School Earth Science

This is our Earth Science year.  I’ve never formally studied Earth Science (the honors sequence in my high school bypassed it in favor of two years of biology), although my older son was intensely interested in astronomy, meteorology, and natural disasters throughout his younger years.  My younger son had no such previous interest, so this year we set to filling that hole in his education.  He and I are using CPO Middle School Earth Science and, five chapters in, enjoying the tour of our planet. (We had Chemistry to finish for the first two months.  Some day I will finish my science and history plans in a school year.)

CPO Science offers secular courses in Earth, Physical, and Life sciences at the middle school level and physical science (with or without some earth science) at the high school level.   Continue reading

Planning Time: What’s Happening for My Older

I have a high schooler.  Academically, I’ve had one in many subjects for several years.  It seems this year, it’s official.  This year, so say those in the know, I should keep track of credits and classes.  I should create a transcript and map out the next four years.  Coming from a state requiring no paperwork from their homeschoolers, this is a bit of a stretch for me.  We’ll see how that goes.

First, however, I need a plan for Fall 2011.  His friend down the street starts school next week, so I’m sure it’s time to get these plans out of my head and onto screen or paper.  Input is welcome, as always.

Study Skills:  This year, study skills, note taking, and organization top the list of goals for him.  His dysgraphia makes note taking a serious challenge, and we’ll more actively explore ways to take effective notes this year, looking for the best answer for him.  He’ll try a few tried and true methods, including Cornell and concept mapping, but nothing’s stuck.  This year, we’ll bring out his Livescribe Pen again and try note taking on the computer as well.  Studying for tests offers challenges, too, so that’s on the list, although I’ve yet to figure out what tests he’ll study for, since the materials we’re using don’t have many.  Time organization, our constant challenge, also needs addressing.  We’re likely starting with the white boardand moving today a notebook.  Too sketchy?  It is for me, too.

The Livescribe pen: Take notes as the pen records the lecture. Later, touch any part of your notes, and listen to what was said when you wrote the notes.

Math:  He’s still finishing ALEKS Precalculus, so that will fill the first several months.  After that, we’ll wander down some math sidetracks, perhaps using some Teaching Co. videos as launch pads.  I’d like to cover a bit of stats and probability this year as well.  I’m open to him taking Calculus (in a classroom), although I don’t think his study skills are ready for that yet.  (see above)

Piano:  Yes, with an hour a day of practice, Piano is a course of study for him.  He’ll change teachers again (his recent and marvelous teacher is moving), and that’s feeling a bit rough to him.  He’s entering fine hands, however, and I’m confident the transfer will be smooth.  He has some specific goals for Achievement Testing and Federation for Fall, and I hope he can make those goals happen this year.  (Insert gush over son’s ability and hard work here.)

Grammar and Vocabulary:  We’re still Michael Clay Thompson fans, so he’ll continue this fall and next spring with Online G3 for Magic Lens II and Word Within the Word II.  I’ll be testing him regularly on the vocabulary as a way to keep him on task and to develop study skills.

Science, History, Composition, and Literature:  These are together this year.  My older adores meteorology, so he’ll using two Teaching Company titles, Meteorology and How The Earth Works.  These serve a dual purpose, first as science material and second as note taking practice opportunities.  We’ll also use a few meteorology and earth science texts for some book study experience (again, some note taking and effective reading of potentially boring material purposes).  Additional reading of literature associated to meteorological events (and a handful of natural disasters) will include Journey to the Center of the Earth, The Good Earth, and  The Snows of Kilimanjaro, among others.  Using Academic Writing I, he’ll start writing about literature, a new experience for him.  And the history?  He wants to study the weather’s influence on history.  Fortunately, others have also found that fascinating, and we’re accumulating a pile of nonfiction reading of that ilk.   I’ve spent a fair amount of time this summer gathering resources, and while I have a rough idea how I’d like this rather massive unit study to work, I still have work to do.  I’ll post our syllabus (or at least resources and some rough plans) on a page at the top of this blog as they take shape.

Spanish:  No formal study, just a year with Rosetta Stone’s Spanish I for all of us.  The goal is to give my older enough confidence to formally study Spanish in the classroom (high school or college) next year.  My younger and I are along for the ride.

Physical Education:  Hopefully, we’ll all be testing for our Black Belt in Tang Soo Do in early 2012.  At this writing, that’s likely just a mark in time, with study continuing, at least for them.  My body could use a less, um, painful sport.

All the Rest:  My older also plans to join the theater club at our local public high school, which has a reputation of quality productions and openness to homeschoolers.  He’ll take two classes with six to eight other teenaged homeschoolers this fall:  NIH Science Supplements (Bioethics, Infectious Disease, Sleep, and more) taught by yours truly and a Film as Literature course taught by Not His Mom.

Too much?  I hope not. We’re going easy on the math this year, and I hope by our unit study approach to the other major subjects that the year feels more integrated.  We’re still almost four weeks from our school start, with two vacations between now and then.  I guess I’ll be traveling with curricula and a notebook.

Planning Time: What’s Happening for the Younger (age 10)

After an email request for an update to my “What We Say We’re Doing” page, I decided it was indeed time to figure out what the heck we’re doing come fall.  I have plenty kicking around in my head, but that’s only the start of the real work.  Planning for my 10-year-old is the easier of the two jobs this year, so I’ll start with him.

Math:  Last year, more independent mathematical work was one of my goals.  My younger still has a fair amount of panic about getting problems wrong, so generally he checks in with me after each problem.  This drives me nuts, honestly, and while he’s sometimes willing to forgo that pattern when he’s feeling super-confident, he has a long way to go.  We slowed math down last year when his panic at the word “math” began to mount.  He’s mathematically talented, and I really struggle with his aversion to something he does so well.  We added some of Theoni Pappas‘ work for fun, and Penrose the Cat is a hit.  Anything with a cat is a hit, but I have yet to find the all-cat math curriculum. We’ll continue with Pappas and similar material as we finish up Singapore 6B and Singapore Challenging Word Problems 6, a project that shouldn’t take long.  Upon his request, we’ll work through Pre-Algebra I and II from Life of Fred. (He saw a friend’s copy and thought it looked okay.)I didn’t bother with pre-algebra with my older, heading straight to Jacob’s Algebra after Singapore 6, but this child needs confidence despite his obvious talent, and I hope time and some diversions into other aspects of math provides that.

Science:  We’re all on to Earth Science this year, using CPO Middle School Earth Science for my younger.  It’s an inquiry-based curriculum, which means that questioning comes before vocabulary and scientific thinking trumps rote comprehension questions.  I’m a fan of the inquiry method and excited to try this well-reviewed curriculum.  It’s not designed for homeschoolers, and I’ll try to keep track of changes we make and materials we need so others might benefit later.  We have a bit of Middle School Chemistry to finish still, but hopefully we’ll finish that up this summer.

History:  After a highly successful semester with Online G3‘s History of US 2B (1899 to the present), my younger’s eager to take the rest of her offerings.  First semester, he’ll take the corresponding 1A course, covering the first three books of the History of US series by Joy Hakim.  He’s likely to pick up another in the series come spring.  History is in Headmistress’ Guinevere’s hands. Whew.

Language Arts:  My younger devoured two levels of Michael Clay Thompson’s Grammar and Vocabulary books, so this year he hits the big leagues with Word Within the Word I and Magic Lens I.  As did his brother, he’ll do these with Online G3, but while I left his brother does his own devices and kept my nose (mostly) out of the class, I’ll keep tighter reign on my younger son.  We’ll read the books together, and I plan on more outside work on the vocabulary for him.  I probably should have done the latter with his older brother last year, but it just didn’t happen.  We’re only half-way through Paragraph Town’s 20 lessons, meaning the book has been read but that other activities are left to be done.  At the end of last school year, typing skills sharp from Online G3 classes, he started a blog (Bertram’s Blog).  He’s abandoned it so far this summer, but it’s built his confidence as a writer.  Hopefully, we’ll move into Essay Voyage as the year progresses.  For the fall, he’ll take Lightening Literature 7, again with Online G3.  Can you tell we adore Headmistress Guinevere and her classes?

The Rest:  As a family, we’re trying Rosetta Stone Spanish I in hopes of providing all of us with some exposure to the language before someone takes Spanish in a classroom (likely my older son, who needs two years of it before college).  Karate continues to be our main source of PE, and we may be up for our black belts in March.  Piano study for my younger also continues.  Spelling with Steck-Vaughn materials was a wild success.  Who knew we just needed a traditional old workbook approach for that subject?  He’ll move onto the 5th level this year, and he’s delighted.  Handwriting issues have hit and hit hard. A year and a half of cursive via Handwriting Without Tears has produced many tears and no usable cursive.  His older brother fared no better, so, like his older brother did, we’ll move him back to print and finish out Handwriting Without Tears Can-Do Print.  His printing is far better than his older brother’s who has some serious dysgraphia issues, but it is still a work in progress.  Thankfully, both boys type quite well.

Of course, these plans are all subject to change, but this is one year for one child that I feel I’m looking at plans that could really work. As always, suggestions and “been there, done that” stories are welcome.