Scientists are astrophysicists. They are chemists, and archaeologists – biologists and anthropologists. They also happen to be three- and four-year-old children in my classroom.
Last Fall, I took Science for Teachers (see a prior blogger’s post on his experience in this class here). Thoughts of science and young children are at the forefront of my reflections on teaching the subject in an increasingly technological world. Questions such as, “who is a scientist?” and, “what makes a scientist?” laid the groundwork for some epiphanic discoveries.
The astronomer Carl Sagan once said, “Everybody starts out as a scientist. Every child has the scientist’s sense of wonder and awe.” (The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, 1998).
When children dig a hole in dirt, chase a butterfly to see where it goes, analyze tiny veins on a leaf, or throw a rock in a body of water to watch as ripples reverberate, they are exercising the essential tools for science. Investigating complex ideas fueled by their endless stream of questions is the impetus for rich and intense science learning. Since their own curiosity drives this exploration, their learning of science becomes more meaningful and vivid.
My earliest interaction with science was cooking. Yes, cooking. We seldom think of the process of measuring, mixing, and heating specific ingredients from a formula (or recipe) as scientific but it is. I was told that when I was a toddler, I did not particularly like cartoons. Instead, any cooking show on tv would garner my attention and would elicit my crawling and standing (often on still-shaky baby legs) in front of the tv to watch in awe as chemistry transformed separate ingredients into a unified product.
Later, I remembered a huge silvery globe – what seemed like 15 feet tall of a plastic material undulating slightly inside my 5th grade science classroom (yes, inside a classroom). This monstrous earth of a thing overtook the space of this classroom, and there was attached to it a tunnel-like hose where my classmates and I would crawl through to enter the vacuum of the dark interior. It was terrifying and exhilarating. Our science teacher, Ms. Goldenblatt, would light the way with a flashlight as she crawled ahead. Inside, there would be waiting in the center a desk with a projector. Ms. Goldenblatt sat there as we all settled around the circumference of the circle to await. Soon, the darkness upon the surface of the globe’s insides would become a celestial wonder filled with stars. The stars turned into constellations and the constellations turned into mighty animals or warriors, depending on the name science had attributed it. It was nothing short of amazing. Any time we saw this big globe as we approached our science class at the end of the hall, we became feverishly excited to go inside it and learn.
In an article for Wired by John Lehrer, “according to a […] study in Cognition led by Claire Cook at MIT, every child is a natural scientist. The problem is how to remain a scientist once we grow up.” (2011).
Many of my memories regarding science learning in elementary school are positive. For some reason, entering junior high and high school, my memories get hazier. With my significant aversion to complex computational math concepts, it is quite possible that as science concepts became more pen and paper and less hands-on, I slowly erased some of the science-learning experiences from later grades.
But in early grades, my memories are crystal clear. I remember the experimentation in activities we engaged in and the excitement of trying things myself— putting my hands in fresh soil, sand or water was wonderful. Working with some freshly-made cornstarch putty or creating a machine, a structure, something functional, involved a hundred bits of learning. Much of my science learning in earlier grades was hands-on and highly exploratory. It fed my innate curiosities and propelled a desire to discover more about my environment, our world, and how certain things worked. I attribute my positive feelings about science to my educators along the way, simply because their planning of appropriate, intriguing curriculum drew me to the material and had long-lasting positive effects on my engagement. I firmly believe hands-on, exploratory science learning based on trial and error, along wrestling with concepts and discovery, effectively teaches children science ideas. These are wrought from observation, critical thinking, experimentation and facts facilitated by an educator.
I draw from my personal science learning experiences and apply my ideology on teaching and learning science within my classroom – we ask a million questions, investigate ideas about our world and how things work. We love to carry out experiments and get messy doing hands-on activities. The students’ excitement and awe at experiments and their deep inquiries confirm my thinking every day.
*Some content extracted from personal science autobiography for Bank Street course: Science for Teachers, R. Wallace, Fall 2017. Leher, John. (2011). Every Child is a Scientist. Wired.
The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine. (1998). Every Child a Scientist:
Achieving Scientific Literacy for All. The National Academies Press.