Science for kids:

An evidence-based guide to fostering scientific thinking and passion for understanding the natural world

© 2009 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

Science for kids?  

Surely it begins at home. When a child grows up in a science-friendly home, he’s encouraged to ask questions, think critically, experiment, explain his reasoning, read, write, create models, and watch science programs on TV.

But what are the best activities and resources to spark your child’s interest and teach him about science?

And what about school? What do studies suggest about the best and worst ways to teach science in the classroom?

Perhaps the most important discovery is that kids benefit from explicit lessons in critical thinking. Studies suggest that students become better problem solvers--and even raise their IQs--when they are taught principles of logic, hypothesis-testing, and other methods of reasoning.

Studies also suggest that kids learn more when they are required to explain their own reasoning.

To read more, see my articles about teaching critical thinking and the educational benefits of self-explanation, as well as evidence-based tips for teaching science to kids (below).

And, if you are looking for specific content to teach, check out these science activities for preschoolers, as well as my articles about teaching biology to older kids. These articles include

• Animal tracking for kids: How tracking activities prepare kids for scientific reasoning.

• Paleontology and dinosaurs for kids. Suggestions about how to use your child’s enthusiasm for dinosaurs as a springboard for teaching kids about ecology, evolution, and the scientific method.

• Reviews of the best educational resources about paleontology and dinosaurs. My favorite books, DVDs, and websites about extinct life.

• Reviews of the best educational resources about Mesozoic sea reptiles Plesiosaurs, ichyosaurs, and mosasaurs.

In addition, I have reviewed advice from cognitive psychologist Rochel Gelman about teaching science to young children, and I discuss the ways that popular media and textbooks may actually thwart the development of critical thinking in children.

What about keeping up with the latest discoveries?

When kids follow breaking news stories, they may feel more personally connected to science. Science news is also an opportunity for kids to consider the process of science--how new data may support or challenge old ideas.

For the latest stories, check out Science News magazine, which has this fun online database of articles about science for kids.

Science for kids in school

Independent study doesn’t work for everyone

Some high schools in the United States have embraced an approach to science for kids known as “self-led inquiry.” With this approach, students are free to direct their own research projects. They design and carry out their own studies.

This sounds fun, and it might be a good approach for a kid who already has a strong background in math and science.

But for other kids, the “self-led inquiry” approach may lead to lower science grades in college. Researchers Robert Tai and Philip Sadler analyzed the performance of over 8000 U.S. high school students. They found that high school students with less advanced math backgrounds learned more science from teacher--structured laboratory experiences--not self-led inquiry (Sadler and Tai 2009).

Different educational systems face different challenges

Approaches to science education vary from country to country. Could any one plan improve them all? Finnish researcher Pasi Reinikainen argues that efforts to enhance science achievement should take local factors into account (Reinikainen 2007).

For instance, in England there is a link between frequent testing and science achievement—the more frequently students are tested, the poorer they perform in science. In Hungary, poor science achievement is linked with too much group work (because only some group members actively participate). In Russia, an emphasis on memorization is correlated with lower science achievement.

Can we make any generalizations? Perhaps a few.

Science for kids: General guidelines for promoting achievement

Depth, not breadth

Young children benefit from depth, not breadth--being immersed in the same subject matter for months, rather than jumping from topic to topic. And new research suggests that this approach helps older students, too.

In a study of American undergraduates, Marc Schwartz and his colleagues found that students whose high school science courses had covered at least one major topic in depth (i.e., for a month or longer) had better college grades than did peers who had learned about more topics during the same stretch of time. Students whose high school coursework covered all the major topics didn’t have better college grades.

These correlations remained significant even after controlling for socioeconomic status, English skills, math achievement, and the rigor of high school science courses (Schwartz et al 2009).

Interactive teaching

Young kids and college students may have something else in common. They don’t like lectures. Rochel Gelman and colleagues advise that preschoolers need lots of “hands-on” experiences to learn about science. Older kids seem to benefit from interactive teaching as well.

For instance, students enrolled in introductory physics benefit when the mode of instruction is interactive—i.e., when students engage in thought experiments or hands-on activities and students receive immediate feedback through discussion with teachers or peers. When Robert Hare compared students enrolled in traditional (lecture only) physics courses with students enrolled in interactive courses, he found that the students in interactive courses made dramatically better improvements (Hake 1998).

Emphasizing effort, not innate talent

An international study of science achievement amongst 4th and 8th graders confirmed that Asian countries (e.g., Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Japan) are producing the best-prepared students (Bybee and Kennedy 2005).

While there may be several reasons for this, one might boil down to attitude: Asian cultures are more likely to endorse a flexible, effort-based theory of intelligence. And people who believe that intelligence is influenced by effort learn better and achieve more in school.

Counteracting stereotypes

Experiments indicate that people do more poorly on tests when they believe that “people like them” are less proficient in the subject matter. This phenomenon is called stereotype threat.

Do stereotypes influence how we present science for kids? It seems possible.

For example, a study of European-Americans found that parents were more likely to believe that science is less interesting and more difficult for daughters, not sons. Moreover, when researchers analyzed parent-child conversations, they found that fathers used more cognitively demanding language when working on a science project with their sons than with their daughters (Tenenbaum and Leaper 2003).

If parents do this, we can imagine that kids might buy into stereotypes themselves. And that could create a self-fulfilling prophesy of lower achievement in the sciences. But don’t despair! We can counteract the effects of stereotype threat. To learn more, click here.



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References: Science for kids

Bybee RW and Kennedy D. 2005. Math and Science Achievement. Science 307 (5709): 481.

Hake RR 1998. Interactive engagement versus traditional methods: A six thousand student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics course. Am. J. Phys. 66, 64- 74.

Reinikainen P. 2007. Sequential Explanatory Study of Factors Connected with Science Achievement in Six Countries: Finland, England, Hungary, Japan, Latvia and Russia. Study based on TIMSS 1999. Finnish institute for educational research.

Sadler P and Tai R. 2009. Same Science for All? Interactive Association of Structure in Learning Activities and Academic Attainment Background on College Science Performance in the U.S.A. International Journal of Science Education 31(5): 675 – 696.

Schwartz MS, Sadler PM, Sonnert G, and Tai RH. 2008. Depth versus breadth: How content coverage in high school science courses relates to later success in college science coursework. Science Education 93(5): 798-826.

Tenenbaum HR and Leaper C. 2003. Parent-child conversations about science: the socialization of gender inequities? Dev Psychol. 39(1):34-47.

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