Sunday, 21 April 2013

Science as Science Does--Some Food for Thought

I have a confession to make: I may have gotten it all wrong.

On an email list I belong to, there was recent discussion about the difference between "recipe science" and "actual" (research-driven) science. This, along with observations I made at the regional science fair in my area, has made me reflect on the subject, along with the general state of science education in Canada (and North America).

I have also been thinking about the Lemonade website and it's focus that certainly leans towards recipe science rather than experimentation.

Sound pedagogy seems to once again butt up with my urge to create and share activities. Looking through my various science pages, there is a great deal of material. It is very hands-on, which is a good thing, but it also tends to be quite prescriptive. Where open-ended exploration, questions and experimentation should be, instead there are detailed steps to complete activities that others have already done.

It isn't always a bad thing; learning concepts through doing can be a great starting point, but it isn't the way science is done either, and it isn't the way children learn best.

About a week ago, I added a Science Fair Guide page to the site in order to allay my guilt in the hopes that it would help visitors make the move from more comfortable activities, such as those found on my Edible Science page into more creative and experimental research-driven science. It's a start, but I've been thinking more about the problem and I know there is more to do.

We have a growing tendency as a society to do more and more things "for" our kids than past generations. Safety, while very important, has caused us to reduce the amount of play and open-ended exploration our children experience. Perhaps all the prescriptive activities in school are a symptom of this trend. 

There is another explanation however, and that is that it is easier for teachers who may not be as comfortable with science to create lesson plans based on predictable activities than on serious inquisitive research. Given the increasing demands of standardized testing, this becomes even more of an issue since open-ended learning can be messy and time-consuming. Certainly more is learned through open-ended learning, but there is a marked lack of certainty that the kind of learning students experience will show up on the test. Knowing the concepts and the results ahead of time means a teacher can match up the activities with the test; it is not the way science is done, but it does comply with the demands of test preparation.

Science class traditionally involves a lesson, a lab in which students replicate a prescribed "experiment", and a written lab report. In the elementary years, it is sometimes even more removed as students watch a teacher (or a video of a teacher) perform a demonstration. Some more progressive schools also have science fairs in which students are encouraged to do their own research and experimentation, however, this is often considered an "extra" and is not the way the majority of classes are run.

Having said that, there are fantastic teachers out there who are willing to take risks to ensure their students learn well, such as this teacher whose grade two class studied bee behaviour and even had their research published in Biology Letters. This shows that not only is it possible to teach science in an open-ended manner, but that this can be at a high level with young children.

Consider the fact that children naturally learn in much the same way as scientists perform research:
  • they explore
  • they ask questions
  • they test hypotheses
  • they try different approaches
  • they problem solve
  • they adjust their activities based on their current level of understanding
So much of what we do as parents and teachers instead involves "showing" and "sharing" rather than encouraging children to take a more active approach to their learning. Science, which could be the easiest subject for young children to explore naturally, is often presented as a pre-packaged activity instead.

I am guilty of this, particularly through my website.


The good news is that there are some simple solutions to this problem. It is pretty easy to adapt an activity into an exploration, for instance. Take the very popular silly putty (aka "flubber", "slime" or "gak" etc.) recipe from my site.

By experimenting with different proportions of ingredients, different glue types etc. this can become more of an exploration and discovery-based activity than an end-product focused science craft. 

Another type of activity on my site involves building a model, such as in this rubber-band racer activity. Experimentation can come through varying the body shape and proportions, trying out different lengths and thicknesses of elastics, using different materials for the body, etc. The speed and the distance traveled in different conditions can then be compared.

These are just a couple of examples, but this sort of experimentation can be applied for many of the activities on my site. 

By using examples such as this, it becomes easier to make the transition from prescriptive activities to authentic, original research for teachers and parents who find science to be beyond their comfort level. In fact, this is the way I originally imagined my site would be used, but I see that my presentation has become more prescriptive over time. As I update pages, I will work on this issue. 

Ideally, students will learn how to explore, ask questions and use sound scientific methodology to create and perform experiments to help them learn more about a topic. This is a far cry from following a list of steps to create a replica of a past experiment.

To be clear, there is value in replication, and it forms a vital role in scientific research, but when this is the only aspect of science we encourage in our classrooms, everyone loses.