The Latest in Home Edu-tainment: The Science Lab
by Marissa K. Lingen
When home schooling parents aren’t being criticized for “depriving” their children of “social opportunities,” they’re usually being dismissed for being unable to provide the full range of academic subjects, with labs for science classes being high on the list of “things that are missing.” But really, how well are most public schools doing on science education? If the standardized test scores we get compared to other nations are even close to an indication, American schools are doing a miserable job teaching the sciences to students at any grade level. It’s not hard for parents who are home schooling their kids to do better – and it’s also possible for parents to supplement curricula they use in the public schools.
Edward Teller, one of the great physicists of the twentieth century, recently told a group of educators in Livermore, California, that the single best thing science teachers could do before college was to keep up their students’ interest in the sciences. And yet science is still taught as a list of facts to memorize. I’d like to see a show of hands: how many people like to memorize lists of facts? Isn’t it wonderful? Yeah, I thought not.
So what do we do to keep kids interested in the sciences and teach them better than most public schools are doing it now? Let the kids tell you. Here are some suggestions if you’re looking to make a purchase:
1) Get a telescope. There are usable telescopes available quite cheaply these days, and being able to find Jupiter and pick out its four biggest moons is really cool. The telescope will also help your kid enjoy events like meteor showers (which happen much more often than you’d think) and the rarer passage of comets.
2) Chemistry sets. For younger kids (third grade and up), a chemistry set with a set of guided experiments will be ideal. Older kids can start making up their own experiments (check these over to make sure there are no volatile combinations, or if you don’t have the expertise, ask for an expert around here!), or can do more complex synthesis. Your younger kids will be thrilled with the classic science fair volcano. Your older ones may be more interested in making things like aspirin and nylon.
3) Fiber optics kits. These run a little more and should probably only be purchased for kids who have expressed a strong interest in science already. They demonstrate the workings of logic circuits and many of the underpinnings of today’s electronics and communications technology. The days when a state-of-the-art radio was something you could build in your basement are over, so these will probably never be as popular as something you can do “for real” yourself, but they’re still valuable learning tools.
4) A microscope. The quintessential geek toy. It doesn’t have to be a clear night, you don’t have to check to make sure nothing is blowing up, and what you see is what you get. I got my first microscope when I was six, but I kept pulling it out and messing around with it for a long time after that.
If you’re not in the market for any purchases, try some of the
1) A trip to a local planetarium. They should have shows about the stars and planets, some of which are seasonal and some of which are tied into popular TV shows to make them more appealing to the kids who are reluctant to get into science. The docents and graduate students who work in planetariums usually like dealing with kids and answering questions, or they wouldn’t have that job in the first place!
2) Kitchen science. While “cookbook chemistry” is a pejorative term for experiments that are too simplistic, there are fun science-related activities that only require kitchen supplies. Watch the Lesson Tutor pages for recipes for substances very much like Slime, Silly Putty, and Ooblik. Older kids may try to act as though they’re too old to enjoy these concoctions, but all the college students in my Physics of Science Fiction course had a great time with them.
3) Library books that go above and beyond. By the time your kid is in junior high, if he or she is interested in science, the “age appropriate” science books will be a waste of time unless they have interesting experiments written into them. A twelve-year-old can enjoy Stephen Hawking, and the all-out wackiness of the quantum mechanical world has been the subject of many more popularizations for a general audience. Don’t underestimate your kids. They can handle more than they think they can – and so can you. They’re much better off having to ask a few questions and look up some terms than being talked down to about the world around them.
4) Household electronics. If you and your kid learn to read a circuit diagram, all of a sudden your appliances can make more sense. Many of them will come with schematics telling you what’s going on inside. The basic elements are: a series of loops designates an inductor; two parallel lines of the same length running perpendicular to the rest of the circuit denote a capacitor; two parallel lines of different lengths denote a battery; and a jagged line means a resistor. These are the basic building blocks of beginning electronics. If you’re more adventurous, building a Tesla coil is always fun. Again, look for more detailed instructions yet to come on these pages.
5) Keep an open mind! If your kid has been expressing interest in rocks, maybe geology is the science to explore. Many schools neglect this branch of study. Or if the planetarium trip leaves the kid cold, don’t assume he or she hates science. Perhaps there’s an untapped interest in the life sciences waiting to be explored. Chances are pretty good you were taught science as a series of answers to questions. Your kids will be much better prepared to face the world if they see it as questioning the answers.