Haphazard Science Education

Once again, here is the new basic framework that the National Research Council has decided would improve science and engineering education in our country. I’m not going to argue with it, because I’m certainly no scientist. But they did call for state curriculum designers to come up with their own plans based on this framework (i.e. fill in the specifics), so I’m going to look at it from a self-education point of view (please scroll down).

1. Scientific and Engineering Practices
1. Asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for
engineering)
2. Developing and using models
3. Planning and carrying out investigations
4. Analyzing and interpreting data
5. Using mathematics and computational thinking
6. Constructing explanations (for science) and designing
solutions (for engineering)
7. Engaging in argument from evidence
8. Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information

2. Crosscutting Concepts
1. Patterns
2. Cause and effect: Mechanism and explanation
3. Scale, proportion, and quantity
4. Systems and system models
5. Energy and matter: Flows, cycles, and conservation
6. Structure and function
7. Stability and change

3. Disciplinary Core Ideas
Physical Sciences
PS 1: Matter and its interactions
PS 2: Motion and stability: Forces and interactions
PS 3: Energy
PS 4: Waves and their applications in technologies for information
transfer
Life Sciences
LS 1: From molecules to organisms: Structures and processes
LS 2: Ecosystems: Interactions, energy, and dynamics
LS 3: Heredity: Inheritance and variation of traits
LS 4: Biological evolution: Unity and diversity
Earth and Space Sciences
ESS 1: Earth’s place in the universe
ESS 2: Earth’s systems
ESS 3: Earth and human activity
Engineering, Technology, and the Applications of Science
ETS 1: Engineering design
ETS 2: Links among engineering, technology, science, and society

The first thing to realize is that your kids may already be doing/learning the things in this list. Do your kids ask questions? Do they want to know how things work or why things are? That’s how it starts. And the way to make it stop is to make them write a report about it. If they want to explore more and try out those projects in kids’ science books – great! But forcing them to do projects on topics they are not interested in may ultimately backfire. Curiosity and natural inquiry may get lost under the authoritative influence of curriculum.

As children get older though, perhaps pre-teen, it would be really interesting to look at this framework together. Discuss it, and write down all the ways they are already aware of the concepts. For instance, my daughter loves animals and anatomy. She could tell you a lot about the “Crosscutting Concepts” of patterns (animal coloration and behavior), cause and effect (food chain, ecosystem, tracking), scale/proportion/quantity (food chain, anatomy, reading landscape), systems/models (skeletons, circulation, digestive, reproductive), etc…

However, continuing down the list, my daughter has shown relatively little interest in physical science and she is now old enough to know that she doesn’t know. Since the thought of learning about electricity fills her with dread, I can suggest we  learn from our local science museum (and indeed we have learned a lot from the awesome Exploritorium in San Francisco), or from Internet tutorials, documentaries, or old-fashioned textbooks if she wishes.

The key here is to let your kid lead the decision. If he is unimpressed by the NRC’s framework, so be it. Just keep recording the stuff he is doing, because it may fit anyway. And their interests may change in unexpected ways. My two boys ended up teaching themselves a lot about metals, geology and mining because playing Minecraft on the computer sparked their interest. My daughter became fascinated with architecture after designing houses on Sims.  She loves to try to duplicate houses and buildings on her computer games, and pays close attention when we watch videos about famous architects. Watching “The Elegant Universe” motivated my oldest son to read the book it was based on. Reading “Devil in the White City” motivated my second son to read biographies of Edison, Tesla and Westinghouse.

The one thing I never did with my boys was force them to write a traditional lab report, thus reinforcing the steps of the scientific process. It just seemed so phony to me, and they would have hated it. So I waited, and let the teachers at community college handle that aspect of scientific literacy. Both boys took chemistry with labs at CC and had no problems learning to write the necessary reports (each got an “A” for the course). So, it seems that it was OK for them to wait until they were older to learn about such things – although they were already aware of the scientific process from biographies and books we had read about logic.

Overall, I think the NRC’s framework can be very useful for you to think about what your kids are already doing from a science teacher’s perspective. Keep records and write about their activities, maybe even use the listed terms and concepts to help convince yourself and others that your kids really are learning. Then when the kids are older, let them see the framework and evaluate their own learning. They may decide to make adjustments or simply carry on as before. Either way, keep taking notes about their books, movies, activities, interests, field trips, classes, etc. so that you can someday produce a proper transcript.

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