Teaching Science to Children

Sorry I’ve been missing in action. We’ve been working hard on the business, and it finally launched! I’ll tell you all about it next week. Meanwhile, homeschool planning continues, albeit at a somewhat slower pace. I’m now tackling the harder subjects. Like science. I wouldn’t really consider myself a scientific-type person. I like to write poetry, play the piano, study languages, read Victorian novels, and study philosophy. So when my daughter asks me why countries need rulers, I can initiate a conversation that ranges from current Middle Eastern politics to Plato’s Republic to debates over monarchies and judicial governments in the Bible and Book of Mormon. But when my son asks how eyes see, how airplanes fly, or how towels dry water, sometimes I’m a little stumped about how to explain and bring in the appropriate scientific concepts. I usually resort to the internet, and eventually come up with a reasonable answer. But it certainly doesn’t improve my parenting self-esteem.

I asked a friend of mine who is doing a phD in biology for help with teaching science to my children. He advised me to do things like recreate Galileo’s Leaning Tower experiment. I thought that would be awesome to do at the actual Leaning Tower, but when we got there, we found that they don’t let people climb it anymore. So we just ate gelato instead. It was still a great cultural moment, but not excessively scientific.

He also sent me a cool link to this video of a guy in Mexico jumping into a pool filled with non-Newtonian fluid:

Homeschoolers, you can count this video as science AND foreign language; at least you can if you’re studying Spanish. My friend said to follow it up by making some non-Newtonian fluids out of cornstarch and water for the kids to play around with. I totally remember doing that as a child. Our favorite thing was to tint our non-Newtonian fluid with red food coloring, put it in small bottles, and dispense it to each other as medicine. That’s what comes of having a doctor father. Unfortunately, while I can remember the unique taste and feel of cornstarch paste in my mouth, I have no recollection of why non-Newtonian fluids behave the way they do, or what they teach us about molecular structure.

The “making science fun” experiments are, well, fun. But what I need help with is explaining the stuff I don’t remember and haven’t thought about since college to my children. And even in college, I can’t claim to have been so terribly well-rounded. My study group in astronomy class was made up completely of literary-type people like me. We tried to get together to discuss science, but the conversations would always end in Shakespeare and poetry. So perhaps what I’m looking for is something to help me become more scientifically-minded myself.

Charlotte Mason, my educational guru, advocated the use of Nature Study as a vehicle for teaching children science. Nature Study for her was more than just a walk through the woods. She made a point of teaching children to intently observe and then accurately describe what they had seen in nature, either by a detailed oral narration, or by drawing. My children are incredibly observant of nature. The other day Axa discovered a sandpiper’s perfectly camouflaged nest with three blue speckled eggs in a small indentation on the sand. As she was showing us, the poor little brave mother was trying her best to do the broken-wing trick and lead us away. I went to the beach myself today and thought I would take another look at the nest. I walked all around the small area of the beach where Axa had shown it to me, but I was completely unable to find it again, even though I was evidently close enough for the mother to be hovering around anxiously. So yes, nature study goes well, and if I need lessons I’ll take them from my children.

But what I feel like they need to supplement the nature study is something that will answer Dominique’s questions, which generally relate to physics, chemistry and biology, not just descriptive zoology and botany. Charlotte Mason also lived nearly 100 years ago, so science curricula looked very different in her day. Among non-scientists at the time, scientific knowledge was an eccentric hobby, not a core component of a proper education. Mason loved science, and kept up on the latest scientific advances. I think that if she were here now in our increasingly science-centered world, she would probably have some excellent advice about how to integrate it more fully into a curriculum. Since she’s not, we have to bumble through on our own.

If I were a really awesome homeschooling mom, I would probably make up my own curriculum based around cool youtube videos and dramatic experiments. If I had access to an English-language library, we’d go raid the children’s science section. As it is, though, I decided to browse around and see what science curricula are available for the elementary grades. Ambleside Online recommends Jennie Fulbright’s Exploring Creation series. But a book entitled Swimming Creatures of the Fifth Day is just a little much for me. I believe in God, and I believe that he created the world, but I am just not interested in a Fundamentalist Christian interpretation of the Biblical creation story popping up in my kids’ science book. Maybe there’s something wrong with me, but reading about evolution does not challenge my faith. Reading typical Christian apologetics about evolution vs. creation, though, generally gives me the same feeling as trying to jam puzzle pieces together when half are missing and the ones I have just don’t fit.

Unfortunately, since the teaching of evolution in public schools has traditionally been a major reason that homeschoolers take their children out of schools, I found that most science texts intended for the homeschool market take an oppositely extreme approach, making sure to slip in their anti-evolution arguments at every opportunity. I’m not really interested in traditional textbooks either, since my unschooling background has left me with an allergy to drill-and-kill learning. And anyway, it seems that so many science curricula just flit from topic to topic, doing fun experiments, but not really organizing everything into a coherent whole, or even explaining things very well.

I had read some good things about the Noeo curriculum, which bills itself as taking an approach somewhere between classical and Charlotte Mason. Rather than worksheets or quizzes, it uses narration and notebooking as retention tools. Noeo is fairly pricey, and includes a lot of the types of books that hard-core Charlotte Masonites like me might consider a bit twaddly. The kind with lots of glossy pictures and very little text, like a kiddie magazine. Still, it was sounding like the best option out there. Until I read this review, which ends with the following statement: “If you are looking for a program that explicitly leads the child to understand the relationships between scientific principles from all areas of science and how those principles affect their daily lives, you may benefit from supplementing with a more integrated curriculum like BFSU.”

Bingo! That’s exactly what I was looking for. Now I just needed to know what BFSU was. Fortunately, my helpful reviewer also included the full name of the curriculum and its author. BFSU stands for Building Foundations of Scientific Understanding, a book written by Bernie Nebel, which contains a full science curriculum in 41 lessons for grades K-2. Nebel is a retired botany professor, who decided to write his curriculum when he noticed that the university students in his classes neither understood science nor knew how to think scientifically. His curriculum is all about helping children to observe, think, and reason themselves to logical conclusions, coincidentally the same way that “real” scientists do their work. I read the sample lesson, and it was exactly what I wanted. The icing on the cake is that Dr. Nebel is writing a follow-up book for use in grades 3-5. And as is becoming increasingly popular for developers of curricula, he hosts his own yahoo group in case you have questions or problems while using his book. It looks like my science curriculum problems are solved. I’m still curious though. For those of you who homeschool, or who don’t homeschool but are scientifically minded, what do you do to teach your children science?

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