Learning about science education from the experts: Kids

By far the best panel on science education I’ve seen recently was given by a few of the most important people in the field: kids.

I met them at LogiCon, an Edmonton-based science and critical thinking outreach event held annually at The Telus World of Science. The two-day meeting, April 14-15 this year, was open to all science centre visitors, adults and kids, and featured talks by researchers, writers, educators and more. There were talks on scientific topics, from vaccines to particle physics, and scientific thinking, such as how to evaluate claims in the media. One section of the conference was devoted to sessions for families and kids, and of course that’s the part I couldn’t resist attending.

The first session I attended was “What Is Science, Really?” led by University of Alberta philosopher, John Simpson. Simpson also runs a terrific philosophy for kids program at the university including Eurekamp, a summer philosophy camp, which I am unfathomably jealous didn’t exist when I was young. The room was divided with two large tables, kids at one table (mostly 9-13 years old), parents and other adults at the other. Both groups were given a stack of unlabeled photographs of people and objects and asked to rank them based on how important science is to each. There were pictures that were obviously scientific, including ones of famous historical scientists (e.g., Charles Darwin) and people in lab coats doing bench work, but there were also challenging ones like photos of the Prime Minister and of athletes, fictional characters, and writers. I was fascinated watching the different ways the adults and kids approached the task.

The kids stuck fairly closely to the assignment of creating a continuum but they argued vehemently about specific examples. They went back and forth about whether a picture of Harry Potter represented the character or the actor. They thoughtfully discussed a photo of a visual artist and whether doing art required science, finally settling on the conclusion that anyone who systematically thinks about and analyzes their materials and tasks is doing science (oh yes, these were very cool kids). Standing up to place the photo of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, one boy stated emphatically, “I’m not sure where to put him because he doesn’t use science, but he really really should.”

The adults, on the other hand, fixated on defining the terms. They argued not about the examples but whether science included technology or if they needed to create a second continuum. Simpson in the end gave them a second set of the photos so they could place particular examples in both science and technology. They argued about the definition of science versus social science, and they wanted to sketch a model of the relationships before they started categorizing. They hardly ended up with any of the photos sorted by the end of the hour-long session, but their discussion was fascinating as well. This is probably the only time I’ll ever hear this question posed seriously, “So, is Lance Armstrong more sciency or less sciency than a jet or are they both technology?”

The highlight of the day, though, was a panel session featuring four 10-13 year old science enthusiasts and moderated by the host of Skeptically Speaking, Desiree Schell:

The Petri Dish: Engaging Children in Science

What keeps kids interested in science? How can parents, teachers and other adults encourage and inspire kids to keep digging in to science and learning more? Our panel of science-enthusiastic kids sit down with Desiree Schell and discuss what adults do right – and wrong – to inspire scientific curiosity and interest.

As Desiree opened the panel, she emphasized that the goal was to really listen to the kids, to step back and hear about science education from their perspective and to give them a forum to express these views in the way that they wanted. She then introduced us to the panelists, all public school students from around the city:

  • Alex B., a 10 year old who was inspired to ask questions by toys he had as a toddler: “Puzzles and things often have stars on them and I wanted to know: Wow, what are those things? That really inspired me.”
  • Jadyn, an 11 year old who was drawn into science by books like Into the Universe by Stephen Hawking. To him it was, “simple enough that almost anyone can get it but not so simple that it’s not interesting anymore.”
  • Evin, a 13 year old who finds science everywhere and is fascinated by its never-ending questions: “You can never know everything about science. There’s always more to know. That makes for a never-ending interest in science.”
  • Alex E., an 11 year old who loves robotics and Lego: “I really like making things that can do anything that you want them to. If you can do that yourself you don’t have to wait for someone else to do it.”

The opening discussion focused on their interest in science, what first inspired it and what maintained it. They expressed broad views that focused not only on the products of science but also science for its own sake. Evin, in particular, showed a deep commitment to the importance of communicating widely about science for the good of all people. Science is about “making the world a better place,” he explained, “One thing we’re really facing now is climate change. We need to enlighten the human race that when we’re doing is really destructive, explain to people that this world isn’t an infinite source of resources.”

All four showed a sophisticated appreciation for science and its relationship to society. I was very impressed by the different views they held, from science as the underlying mechanisms of all of the natural world, to a description of science as a set of methods for understanding that world. They had all clearly has a lot of opportunities to engage with science in different ways. The topic soon turned, of course, to school science and what adults can and should do to encourage kids. It was here that this really turned into a most insightful panel, as they presented a nuanced critique of school science.

Evin began by calling out the emphasis on facts and not the reasoning behind them. He argued that it makes science both intimidating and also less interesting. “The tell us these things, but they don’t tell us why these things happen. Like the lines left by glaciers. They told us the information we should know and not why we should know the information or why and how that happened.”

They also argued that lots of kids are interested in science, even if their teachers don’t know it. Alex B. described how interested he and his peers were, even as very young students, in space and flight but that keeping those topics out of the curriculum until age 10 or 11 meant that students had gotten bored and given up on science long before they got there. “As early as kindergarten lots of us shared common interests in space and aerodynamics but then we don’t get those until Grade 5 and 6. We could have been catapulted forward if we’d done that earlier.” Desiree smiled and said that surely they were exceptional students and lots of their peers might not feel the same way. Alex, though, shook his head and emphatically stated no, he meant most of the students in his class. Almost all of them thought science was interesting in kindergarten and would have eagerly learned about topics they were drawn to, like space and flight or other individual interests they had. he said that most kids just don’t seem interested later on because they had already lost the spark.

This isn’t an uncommon idea, that young children have a curiosity about the world that we could do a much better job of encouraging. It was very striking, though, to hear it from an articulate 10 year old and backed up with specific statements about the kids in his class sharing an interest as youngsters and then losing that interest.

Alex E. added, however, that when students aren’t interested teachers shouldn’t force them. “You shouldn’t force people to do science because then they’ll end up hating it,” he said. Instead, show them the cool products of science or help them learn science that will be useful for them and try to help them develop a real interest. “Show them how they can make the world a better place,” added Evin.

Alex B. and Evin also wanted teachers to give students, especially young ones, more time to explore and experiment. Alex felt that many of the theoretical concepts of science might be hard for young students but that experimental procedures are a much better way to enter into science and build your interest. “When you’re at a young age just getting into science, it’s experimental science that you really want to get into. You won’t get very far with theoretical science, but experimental science can really get you in and then you can go further.” Evin emphasized that this doesn’t happen enough in schools. “That’s one problem that our school teachers have,” he said thoughtfully, “they don’t let us explore, they just give us what the curriculum says.”

This theme of not giving students what they need was carried over into a discussion of role models. A physicist in the audience asked the students what people like him could do to be better role models for young people in science. It’s a common solution proposed for encouraging and maintaining student interest: provide more and better role models. All four panelists, though talkative and eloquent, were silent. They looked at each other, raised their eyebrows, and shrugged their shoulders. Desiree rephrased the question asking them who their role models are and why they are good role models. Not surprisingly the ones they listed where people in their lives, mostly family members and teachers. The justifications, though, were a little more surprising and explained their confused silence. The students didn’t focus at all on the what the role models were like, other than they should be generally nice people. It wasn’t about the role models; it was about what the role models did for the kids. Good role models challenged them just enough. They asked good questions, and most importantly, let the kids find out the answers. Each student repeated essentially the same answer. Role models should encourage and inspire questions and exploration, that’s all. The kids themselves need to do everything else. There were no comments about having role models that were like the students or role models who broke stereotypes or role models who had overcome challenges and no indication that they really wanted to learn from someone else’s experiences. There was instead a lot of reinforcement that the process of role modelling isn’t modelling at all, it’s all about what the kids get to do and it’s really easy to forget that. Alex said it clearly, “You just want to prepare many many paths for students and let them take them.”

We spend a lot of time in science education talking about role models, the importance of the right kind of role models and providing a diversity of role models. Surprisingly we talk very little about what those role models actually do – and that’s the part that matters.

See what I mean? This was definitely one of the most insightful and thoughtful panels on science education I’ve been to (and I’ve attended and sat on many). From the reactions I saw and conversations I heard, the student panelists succeeded completely in making every adult in the room think a little bit differently about science education. Taking time to really listen to what kids have to say is something we need to do more often: there’s a lot to learn.

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1 Comment

  1. What do Kids Want in Science Education? Why not ask them? | Molecular Matters

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