Does the prospect of teaching science have about as much appeal to you as a sinus headache? If that's how you feel, take a deep breath... relax... science is not the mysterious process for eggheads it's cracked up to be. That's what this new Education World feature -- Show-Biz Science -- is all about. My goal with Show-Biz Science is to make teaching science the most fun you've ever had in the classroom! I also want teaching science to pay dividends to your students as it strengthens their reading, writing, and math skills.
I know how busy you are; how many competing demands you face each day. And I know that planning good lessons takes thought, and thought takes time. My job is to sit and think about the best ways to get science across to students. Each week in the year ahead I will pull together a new lesson based on everything I know about teaching science to kids.
In many respects, I see my job as that of a playwright; and Show-Biz Science is my play! No play stands a chance of success on stage if you don't start out with a good script. Creating that script is my challenge. Your job is to bring each week's new play to life. Do that and your students are sure to be intensely involved, never bored, and always motivated to learn more.
SCIENCE IS A WAY OF KNOWING THE REAL WORLD
As young children, we first learned about the real world through our senses. But our senses can be fooled. Illusions can make things seem real when they are not. Our experiences and our prejudices can also fool us into believing things that are not true.
Throughout history, many wise men and women have had their misconceptions proven profoundly wrong. We believed, for example, that the earth was flat -- because it looked flat. We believed that the earth was the center of the universe and that every heavenly body revolved around us. We did not understand what caused disease. (Was it "bad humors"?) We wondered about lightning, the diversity of living things, the composition of the earth, and the relationship between heat and light.
In all those cases and many more, true understanding of natural phenomena came from looking at the world through science. And the power of scientific knowledge has led to technology that even the most brilliant minds of past centuries could never have imagined. Anything the human mind can conjure up can eventually come into being -- from submarines to personal hand-held phones (anyone remember Buck Rogers?), from healing spinal cord injuries to... a fountain of youth?
SCIENCE IS EXPERIMENTING
The heart of what makes science different from all other ways of knowing is the same thing that makes teaching it so much fun -- namely, doing experiments. A scientist must be able to answer the question, "How do you know?" The answer is, "If you do what I did, you'll know what I know." In other words, by repeating an experiment or procedure you can see for yourself what others have told you. You can make discoveries first-hand that you can share with others.
That's what Show-Biz Science is all about. Each week, I will give you new experiments tied to your basic curriculum; new activities that will be so engaging and entertaining that you'll love performing them as demonstrations or having students do them as experiential learning. Students' interest generated by an actual activity -- as opposed to a "virtual activity" on the computer or reading about something -- will carry over into writing and reading activities.
One school I visited was amazed to find that doing science generated more writing from their students than other kinds of writing assignments where the experience was less personal and less specific. Also, once kids have seen something with their own eyes, they willingly write about it and read more about it.
SCIENCE IS QUESTIONS
The prerequisite for any science experiment is a testable question. Science thrives on questions and on not knowing answers. Unfortunately, that is often in conflict with our answer-driven, test-taking school culture. Kids are so interested in answers that teachers become automatic answerers. And what happens when you answer a question? You shut off the inquiry!
To think like a scientist, students must be allowed to not know, to wonder, and to create questions that can be answered by doing something. The actual answer to one testable question is often... another testable question.
In Show-Biz Science, I provide testable questions. I give you procedures to help students discover the answers, I explain your findings, and -- in keeping with the open-endedness of inquiry-driven science and learning -- I conclude by asking additional questions.
If you have any anxiety about teaching science, or if you feel your background in the sciences is weak, the importance of asking questions ought to make you feel more comfortable. It's okay not to know. It's okay to learn along with your students. There is nothing more empowering to a student than to have to research something because the teacher doesn't know about it. The fun of such a mutual, inquiry-driven quest teaches students the value of a lifetime of ongoing learning.
Your students are natural scientists. You know this already. They are always asking questions -- sometimes enough questions to drive you crazy! It's often easier to give a knee-jerk answer than to listen carefully to what they are asking; to ask them why they are asking the question; to ask them if they can think of a way to get the answer. If you can learn to do those things -- to spot the testable question from your students and suggest ways they can discover the answer on their own -- you have learned to tap into their natural curiosity to motivate new learning.
SCIENCE IS LOOKING AT ORDINARY EVENTS WITH FRESH EYES
Let's say you are looking at a ball resting on the ground. A scientist might ask the seemingly dumb questions "Why is it just sitting there? Why isn't it moving?" The answers, of course, are that nothing has happened to make the ball move. Next, a scientist might look at a ball as it rolls along the ground, as Galileo did more than 500 years ago. The rolling ball eventually stopped rolling, but that didn't make sense to Galileo. He asked the following questions:
It was Sir Isaac Newton, not Galileo, who correctly figured out that a rolling ball stops moving for the same reason that a resting ball starts moving -- namely that some force operates on them. Friction between the ball and the ground is the culprit for stopping the roll. That incredible logic that exposes the complexity of an event most people don't think twice about is what blows me away about science!
Of course, the elegance of that kind of thinking isn't everyone's cup of tea. Many people will have a "So what!" response. They will want to know "How does this relate to my life or my world?" I think that is a perfectly legitimate question. Too many science books give no explanations. They do not tie activities to anything of interest to the reader. In Show-Biz Science, I will always try to relate scientific findings to some other aspect of a child's life. That will help build a conceptual framework that integrates big ideas of science with factual information -- and make both more meaningful and easier to remember. (And make it more likely that your students will know the correct answers on achievement tests too!)
SCIENCE IS HANDS-ON LEARNING
Science must be taught through hands-on activities. Too often, facts uncovered by scientists are taught without the hands-on experience. That's like teaching art history without letting students draw.
Aha! Another teaching myth! Many teachers cannot draw, but they have no problem giving kids art materials and providing them an opportunity to discover their own artistic powers. I believe that, in the same way, teachers who don't know science can give their students the opportunity to do science.
Hands-on science is particularly important in elementary school because it builds a foundation for middle and high-school science, which is more abstract. Advanced science is difficult to grasp if there is no underlying basis for ordering and structuring concepts, which should be introduced and developed during the elementary-school years.
Equally important, I believe, is providing students with opportunities to reinforce their hands-on science experience through the language arts. Each simple, fun Show-Biz Science activity can spawn a wealth of shared reading and writing and talking. In each experiment I provide related keywords and topics; you might work with your school librarian to make available books relating to those topics. In addition, have your students write about their observations and discoveries. Putting science into their own words is a great way to measure their concrete learning. Finally, these weekly experiments also create many opportunities for applying math skills. I'll be suggesting math activities in the context of many of my columns.
SCIENCE AND YOU!
Your most important gift to your students is you! Your passion, diligence, caring, and discipline are what make you a powerful influence on them. Those same traits are evident in great actors. A great script and a compelling performance are a formula for "box-office." I believe that you and I can make "box-office science" happen. The curtain's going up. It's show time! Let's go break a leg!