Young Scientists: Working and Thinking Scientifically

I have an new course in the pipeline.

In the past year or so, my classes have covered most of the subject matter in the NSW syllabus and the Australian Curriculum for primary students – the part which they designate as ‘knowledge and understanding’.

I have indicated already that I believe science is far more than a collection of currently accepted facts. I also believe that teaching is far more than inserting these facts into the students’ brains.

Much as I have enjoyed covering the subject matter, I do feel my classes have veered towards ‘demonstrations’ rather than experiments. I seem to spend a significant amount of the class talking, and being the expert. There are definite ‘right’ answers. This isn’t really fitting with my ideal for science education.

What is more important than learning the subject matter? Letting children do the science themselves. I really hope my new course will give my students a better idea of what we really mean when we are talking about ‘science’.

Science is not just the facts, the ‘knowledge’ part. Science, as with any other specialist subject, has a specialist vocabulary which must be learned, skills to be developed, specialist materials and technology, and a community to communicate and collaborate with.

I can’t imagine a successful musician who had studied theory, and listened to recordings of famous pieces being played by famous musicians, but spent a tiny amount of time learning how to play an instrument themselves. Similarly I can’t imagine a swimmer who spends more time studying physiology than actually training their body to swim. It’s really important for our brains and bodies to have time to repeat actions and develop skills.

More than this, and I believe more than any other specialist subject, science has its own approach: the scientific method. Children who understand the scientific method, whether or not they go on to become scientists, can be skeptical about the way that science is presented in the media, and can be well-informed citizens and patients. They will know how to read around a subject, work out the pros and cons of an intervention or a drug, for example, and make up their own mind as to what is the best course of action.

Over the course of a term, I will focus on different aspects of how scientists work and how they design scientific investigations. We will use examples from varied disciplines and learn how to spot a good experimental design from a flawed one. It would be good to also show how some conclusions go far beyond the initial intent of the scientists.

I am still planning the classes, but I would like both the younger group and the older group to cover

  • choosing a topic of interest,
  • narrowing down their questions to get something that can be investigated
  • identifying if they need specialist equipment
  • recording, presenting and interpreting data
  • drawing conclusions
  • collaborating and communicating with other scientists.

During the term, the children will all have the opportunity to design their own experiments. They can choose the subject matter themselves, and I will guide them towards questions that we can investigate in a limited time frame. I will try to make the experiments practical and manageable. The final results and conclusions might not appear mind-blowing, but it’s only a first step. Nevertheless, I’m really looking forward to see the ideas and questions the children come up with. I am sure they will take the group in directions I could not anticipate.

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