Friday, June 30, 2006
Science for Kids
To illustrate the earth being bombarded by comets and suchlike during the precambrian era, he had a kid come up front and don a helmet. Then, he pummeled the kid’s head with balloons, each balloon representing a meteorite. Everybody laughed. He brought fossils to pass around, which went over okay, but got the biggest reaction with...the parents out there know where I’m going with this...fossilized dinosaur poop. “Eeeww!” all around, and lots of laughter.
The show was very participatory, with plenty of props. He did a bit with a raccoon puppet (don’t ask) that brought down the house, and he must have called a half-dozen volunteers during the 40 minute gig. (TB raised his hand, but didn’t get chosen. The place was packed, so it didn’t come across as rejection.) He also threw in plenty of jokes for the parents, including a clever one about how they don’t believe in dinosaurs in Kansas, just to keep everybody happy.
The climax of the show involved two HUGE inflatable dinosaurs, brought to life quickly with electric pumps. There’s just something about a ten-foot-tall dinosaur staring you in the face that gets your attention.
As he concluded, he asked the kids how many of them want to be scientists when they grow up, and they responded as if he’d asked how many want dessert.
Yes, it was sensationalistic, and funny, and short, and entertaining, and it didn’t ask much of the kids. But they paid attention, and TB thought it was just about the coolest thing going. This wasn’t exactly his first introduction to dinosaurs; he corrects me when I get dinosaurs’ names wrong (“No, Daddy, that’s a diplodocus, not a brontosaurus,”), and doesn’t have any self-consciousness about it. To him, it’s entirely normal and natural that a five-year-old would be fluent in Latin names of prehistoric reptiles.
I know science will get harder as he gets older, but I don’t want him to lose the sense that it’s cool, and exciting, and liking it doesn’t make you a nerd.
Science-y readers: what piqued and kept your interest in science as a kid?
And now I'm becoming an astronomer ;).
I was also lucky enough to have a few friends nearby who were similarly interested in science. I think a child's peer group influences his/her interests (and overall development) a whole lot more than most of us (parents) want to acknowledge.
So why am I not a biochemist now? I found out from working at labs in other places that it's not always this wonderful environment of teamwork and exciting discovery. In Cleveland, I was stuck in an awful pathology lab getting minimum wage to split cells for a bunch of researchers who wouldn't look at me. I know it's a helluva reason to give up a lifelong dream, but I was capricious in those days.
Just remember: Kansas science teachers are very brave and wonderful people. Don't hold them accountable for the Board of Ed's stupidity.
And hooray for good science presentations!
Yet they wound up producing 2 kids both with PhDs in science/engineering/math related topics.
For whatever reason I was always just doing it on my own. I remember sitting on my swingset at age 6 trying to figure out exactly what multiplication was. Even my science projects were done by myself -- in hindsight, I was doing some dangerous things with chemistry and electricity in the 7th grade that my parents SHOULD have been concerned about (note to self: don't let kids bring sulfuric acid home from school).
Second thought - maybe my parents unintentionally created an environment that implicitly supported such activities. My mom did take me to the hospital a lot, where I liked to check out the equipment, and I did like to read my dad's trade magazines (even made collages/posters - bizarre).
As far as I was concerned, if it was science, it had to be cool.
Then, and I can't believe no one has said this - I watched Mr Wizard and Bill Nye the science guy ALL the time. And Nova and every other science show. And National Geographic, we got all of those and I read them like crazy.
I also got a microscope. It was pretty crappy - but I LOVED it.
I'm still a scientist (though moving into the more educational/administrative side of things now) and I credit all of those things (and good teachers in high school) with keeping me interested enough to major in Bio and go to grad school in Bio.
Oh, also, there was a local science museum - and going there, like you did with The Boy, was also influential. They had astronaut ice cream - too cool!
I still get choked up when I hear the brass fanfare that was the old "National Geographic" TV theme.
Oh, and chemistry sets and other toys designed to encourage me to like science as a kid? Bah. I almost universally disliked them.
He might be a little young for it, but if he gets any TV time you might consider letting The Boy watch "Fetch! with Ruff Ruffman" on PBS. It's a new show and I think it's great; gives kids a chance to do experiments and design things. Plus there's a cartoon dog. Good stuff.
Other than that, I remember cool demonstrations in science class all through the years and my parents always encouraged us to do well in school.
1. When I was little, it was still safe to let kids run around outside all day, and that was just what I did. I spent just about every waking moment tromping around in the woods behind our neighborhood, getting muddy. It was fantastic.
2. I distinctly remember taking the toaster apart at 5 to figure out how it worked.
3. My mom's a nurse. Dinner conversations routinely revolved around bodily functions.
4. Bill Nye and Mr. Wizard! Hours of entertainment.
5. I get to ask questions that no one can answer, and figure it out for myself. And I get paid to do this.
My sisters are a nurse and a veterinarian, so it may be partly genetic, but I still think what I do is beyond fascinating and cool.
My father was obsessed with marine biology. We had about six aquariums in our house and used to go to the fish store every other week or so to check out new fish. He also considered Jacques Cousteau to be some kind of god. If Calypso was on TV, we were all commanded to stay home and watch.
I think the important thing, though, is not science per se, but simply enjoying using your brain and learning about the world. Kids should have lots of experiences of that sort and the rest will come-- whether they become biochemists, historians, or some other form of.... academic :)
As an aside I wonder if next generations' blogs will reflect such a predominance of Dad (specifically, as opposed to Mom or the Parental Unit) in the Geek Psyche. I hope not!
Annie - I totally remember SpaceCamp. My siblings and I watched it about a gazillion times.
I loved playing with erector sets and legos - and it was awesome that, being a girl, my parents were cool with that. Because a lot of my friends (who tended to be girls) didn't like those toys. And neither did their parents. I remember when my sister decided she wanted to be a paleontologist. In Kindergarten. Then in first grade, a classmate told her she was going to hell because she believes in the dinosaurs. But my sister still wanted to be a paleontologist. Now she studies linguistics.
I'm all for building things and taking them apart toys - they allow for a lot of creativity!
We visited museums as children - not just the art and history museums, but also planetariums and science centers. Which were totally cool. I definitely recommend the St Louis one, and in particular the part where you have to try to construct the Arch out of padded blocks.
Bill Nye the Science Guy was another good show.
I also appreciated a lot of books about different subjects. Unfortunately, no one in my peer group really liked science... and I definitely had to deal with prejudice from teachers and my classmates about being good at math and science. Especially math. So despite the fact that so many people are focusing on boys lagging behind in education... just because girls like me can ignore such prejudices, they definitely exist. My (female) pre-algebra teacher told me that girls can't do math so I shouldn't even try. No one should ever be told that X group can't do X subject, so they shouldn't try.
That said... I had a horrible science experience in college. It was a horrible environment that everyone appeared to be miserable in. I am a much happier person in languages and literatures - though that doesn't mean I can't do math or science. It just means I prefer my novels.
And I apologize for such a long comment...
We always had lots of books around, and none of them were off limits as long as our hands were clean.
I had chemistry sets etc, but they didn't really help much because even now (as a science teacher) I find chemistry a very non-obvious field. Mix two chemicals, the colour changes, but how exactly do I know that this equation describes what just happened? Physics and ecology are much easier, because you can actually see what's happening...
Most importantly, dad took the time to encourage my curiosity. Nature walks, chats about science, visiting museums, weekly trips to the library... I think kids are naturally curious, until it gets beaten out of them by bad teachers, tired parents, and cynical peers (encouraged by mass media). If you keep the curiosity alive, he _will_ be interested in how the world works, which means science (among other things).
As a teen, I was proud of my ability to make improvised fireworks and that sort of thing. My friends and I were all skilled in this way, and we actively "researched" ways to improve our destructive creations.
Of course, that was only part of the picture. As a high school student in the early 1980's, I was privileged to have an Apple II+ computer at home (and access at school as well), and spent many hours playing with that, learning rudimentary programming, and so forth.
When I became an undergraduate at 17, at first I was basically drifting without a rudder. My part-time jobs helped me to realize that it would be better to make a living using my brain rather than my back, but it took me a while to settle on a math major. One of my math instructors at that time had a great influence on me; I was about to take the same path that he had taken (philosophy major), and he helped me to understand the dismal prospects for employment that awaited philosophy majors. At the same time I was getting interested in my math courses, as they offered things that I found appealing: they were challenging, there was very little bullshit (in contrast, some of my philosophy and other courses seemed to focus exclusively on bullshit), and it didn't matter in math class if I was a conservative and the professor was a rabid Marxist: math was math, politics never entered the picture.
I now have two sons younger than five. I suppose as a parent I will strive to prevent my sons from acquiring the same level of knowledge of improvised explosives-- er, home-made fireworks-- that I had as a teen. I don't know if they will follow my footsteps into the hard sciences or not, but I will do my best to cultivate their interests in the sciences in other ways.
I don't want to err in the same way my parents did-- providing zero guidance in re: choosing an undergraduate major-- but I don't want to make the choices for them, either. I suppose if my sons choose to major in something that I don't approve of (assuming they attend college in the first place), I guess I would at least try to make sure they had good reasons for doing so: a passion for the subject, enough aptitude to find success in that field, etc. Failing that, I could always do what one of my friend's fathers did: at my friend's 18th birthday party, his dad came up to him, looked at his watch, and said "Time to go, son."
We had the Time-Life Nature Library in the house, too. I started with the pictures, and then graduated to the text as I got older. I was also a fan of Zoom!, 3-2-1-Contact, and Big Blue Marble, and Cosmos was a must-watch at our house when it first aired.
My lab works with middle school kids a lot, and many of them are very interested in science...they will spend hours carefully taking measurements or doing experiments. (Many of these kids are from disadvantaged backgrounds, so it's not a "privileged kids only" phenomenon.)
Hey, DD. Was your question about how to get kids interested in science, or about how to keep people interested in science after they hit 16?
I didn't get great grades in college (chemisty and calculus were my waterloo) but I was too in love with biology to quit. And going to UC Davis was perfect as they have about 50 different ways to major in Biology there. Worked in the teaching greenhouse, did research in a vet lab - for me, the hands on was the key. And since I loved the subject so much, I ended up teaching it - my student love my stories of the various ways pathogens are out to get us all (hehehe!) Microbiologist are always the heros in my stories. Very dramatic.