My three children are scientists by nature. They are full of questions, always wondering how things work, and excited to watch a little ant carry a piece of food. When my daughter, Stella, started kindergarten, she was shocked to learn that her class only studied science for one hour a week. When I looked up the stats, I realized it wasn’t like other schools, and I got pretty fed up.
Surveys show that elementary school science instruction averages about two hours per week, and in some areas it is not taught until high school. “The intense focus on math and reading in recent years has led to the significant incorporation of biology, chemistry, and physics into high school curricula,” says Janice Ariel, former director of programs at the National Science Foundation.
Even when these subjects are taught, teachers tend to be untrained and lack the resources to lead the experiments needed to generate interest in science. According to the latest national assessment, it is not surprising that only about a third of fourth graders have a good understanding of science principles.
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If something doesn’t worry you, it should. A report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology shows that we need to increase the number of students receiving a science-related college education by 34 percent over the next decade just to keep up with economic demand. Encourage your child’s teachers and administrators, as well as district leaders, to add more science education to the curriculum. Since budgets are likely to be a hurdle, if you can offer a cheaper or even better solution, your chances of success increase. Perhaps you can find a geologist willing to lead field trips or organize parent volunteers to help set up workshops. If lobbying and organizing isn’t your style, there are still plenty of ways to inspire your child to love science.
Skip the class
According to an analysis published in Education Week, three of the four Nobel Prize winners in science discovered their passion for the school environment. So stay tuned for cool activities with an eye on scientific discovery. Many elementary schools offer after school opportunities for subjects such as robotics and medical science. Check clubs, organizations, or your local recreation center for offers. Coding classes and clubs are also forming around the country to help teachers and parents understand that coding enhances analysis, problem solving, and creativity.
If you can’t find something near you, imagine doing it yourself. This is what Anna Moser did. An environmental engineer, he contacted the extracurricular activities coordinator at his son’s school in Thermopolis, Wyoming, and invited him to start a science club. He said: ‘I want to take the tests online and find the results. The club has become so popular that the local school has made Moser’s workshops a regular part of the curriculum.
Say yes to video games
Angry Birds won’t help your kids win the next science fair, but Minecraft might. That is why this game has contributed greatly to people’s interest in studying science and programming. Minecraft allows them to craft complex worlds using virtual building blocks, while educational additions called “mods” help them learn the basics of coding as they play.
Find out together
Don’t know much about biology? Don’t worry. Science is not so much about answering questions as it is about a journey to find them. “The best thing you can do is share your curiosity with your child,” says Tracy Weiram, who developed the Lawrence Hall Science Program at UC Berkeley. Is there a bird in that tree or why is the light coming out of the water, then spend some time learning about it.”
Subscribe to National Geographic Children’s magazines and Rick Jr.’s Ranger, and watch science-themed TV shows like Design Squad, Sid the Science Kid, and SciGirls. Check out books on topics that spark your child’s curiosity, whether it’s about animals or the weather. And if he screams at the sight of a large spider, bring him big binoculars and take a look, Wicker says. You might ask him, “What pattern do you see in your body?” Or did she trap something in her web? “
Take field trips
When a group of Google Science journalists were asked what influenced them the most about this topic, many said “a trip to the local science museum as a kid.” Follow their lead and plan to visit these places during your vacation. Visits to aquariums, botanical gardens, zoos, and state or national parks can bring science to life. Make sure you use your time wisely. “It’s best to spend half an hour each day deeply engaged with a scientific idea,” Wicker says. Go slow, go at your child’s pace, and talk about what he sees.”
Joining a local science center can help you avoid feeling pressured to do everything right now. Maybe one day all you do is watch the busy bees. During your next visit, you may learn about electricity or sign up for a programming class.
Also, don’t overlook less formal learning opportunities. Many cities have a water treatment plant or a construction site to visit. “See if you can find what’s under the horizontal edge on an ice skating rink or behind the pins at a bowling alley,” says Family Science editor David Hale. Michelle McFradden, a mother of four in East Montpelier, Vermont, says the loss of a local wind turbine has taken a toll on her eldest son, Charlie. The place is filled with huge cars and the guy who led the ride said, “This is like adult games.” “After that, Charlie was really excited to pursue engineering as a career.”
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To combat misconceptions that science is boring or boring for smart people, remind your child that he uses it every day. Baking is a chemistry lesson, and building with blocks involves physics and raises questions—something every child loves, and exactly what leads to scientific breakthroughs. While studies show that girls, like boys, have positive attitudes toward science in elementary school, boys are twice as likely to be interested in technology, science, and math in eighth grade. “If you have a daughter, encourage her to learn about dinosaurs and work with computers,” says Professor Carol Tong, executive director of the Children’s Creativity Museum in San Francisco.
Introduce your child to engineers, doctors and biologists. It may come naturally (“Did you know Olivia’s mom is a vet? She can tell you all about her job”). If not, invite a respected scientist to lead a fun Brownie or Cub Scout activity with your child. My family has a tradition called “Sunday Science”. Each week we do a different experiment, it might be using balloon rockets to explain the concept of push or take off and turning a bottle of Coca-Cola into foam by plunging (carefully and with goggles!) by dropping it into a mint. Each quiz only takes 15 minutes to complete, the kids love it and it has to be accepted: my wife and I had a great time too.
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