In May and June this year I trialled a course I called ‘Young Scientists’. I wanted to cover the whole of the ‘Thinking and Working Scientifically’ syllabus here in NSW, and give the children a real chance to understand experiment design.
In our younger group we spent several weeks exploring liquids, following the instructions in this series of 3 lessons from the Understanding Science website. We started off with a few different liquids in bowls and talked about what they looked like, tasted like, sounded like, felt like (weight). The idea of ‘density’ was introduced. The children had great fun seeing if items floated or sank in the liquid. We briefly looked at what makes different shapes buoyant. We explored miscibility and viscosity and the children mixed bicarbonate of soda, acid (citric acid powder or white vinegar) food colouring, oil, plastic beads and sand to make ‘potions’.
The older group started out investigating what might be in some mystery boxes. These were boxes I had prepared earlier with mystery objects inside them. I had done this activity when training as an Explainer in the Science Museum and I think it is a great hands-on metaphor for scientific investigations. Many children were frustrated to learn that they were never going to know if their guesses were correct or not. It was still a good activity. The children really had to think about how they could investigate the boxes without damaging or destroying them, and how they could at least corroborate their guesses even if they would never know for sure what was in the box.
Then we went on to cover testable questions, dependent and independent variables and galaxy classification.
Early on in the term I gave the children some handouts for them to record what they were interested in and what questions they wanted to investigate. I was hoping to lead them through a process for designing experiments. At the end of the term I wanted the children to have designed, carried out, recorded and communicated about their own experiments.
This didn’t quite happen as planned. Nevertheless, each child had the opportunity to carry out many experiments, which I tried to link to their interests which they told me about earlier on in the term. I’ll probably forget some of them but these are a selection of the experiments we tried out:
Using cabbage juice as a pH indicator
I realised in the middle of the term that this course wasn’t going quite the way I had planned, so I rejigged the sessions (particularly the ones for the older group) to make it more fun. I still hope to repeat this course. Next time I would make sure there is far more of a focus on the children’s own areas of interest.
Children have so much interest in the world around them, and I’d like to tap into this. I might even start off every class with children talking about their questions. Then we can narrow our focus to the questions that can be answered scientifically.
I think the children would need more scaffolding to help them to plan their own experiments. Even with a small group, I find it hard to work with each child individually, so I would probably ask them to get into pairs or groups of three.
I still believe in the importance of children doing science rather than just learning scientific information that has been discovered by someone else. That’s why I wanted to offer this course. It needs a few tweaks but I think I’m on the right track.