As an introductory-level college biology instructor, I'm seeing way too many students coming into my classroom lacking a basic understanding of the scientific method - i.e. how do scientists make the discoveries versus what is established scientific knowledge. For too long, curriculum has focused on what I like to call "biology history" as opposed to "doing biology." Yes, you need to know a good amount of the "history" to get to the bleeding edge, but the scientific process can and should be integrated all along the way. There is hope that things are changing (Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education: A Call to Action).
“Appreciating the scientific process can be even more important than knowing scientific facts. People often encounter claims that something is scientifically known. If they understand how science generates and assesses evidence bearing on these claims, they possess analytical methods and critical thinking skills that are relevant to a wide variety of facts and concepts and can be used in a wide variety of contexts.”
-National Science Foundation, Science and Technology Indicators, 2008.In other words, teach a man to fish instead of giving him a fish. There is just too much new knowledge being generated for any human to keep up. I strongly believe that an understanding of the scientific method begins many, many, MANY years before getting into undergraduate level science courses. It begins in childhood. I have to say, I'm encouraged by what I'm seeing in children's programming - in one of JR's favorite shows, The Dinosaur Train on PBS, one of the characters, Buddy, routinely shouts, "I have a hypothesis!" As a result, JR routinely goes around the house shouting, "I have a hypothesis!" (Hypothesis = educated guess to explain observation). Sweet, beautiful music to this Mom's (and Dad's!) ears. The seeds of scientific understanding are being planted.
|From Dinosaur Train on PBS. The website has many more ideas for easy-to-do experiments, complete with recording data in a chart that even the youngest explorers can do!|
|Snaptricity Kit by Elenco|
My biggest piece of advice is to ask your kids questions about what they think is going to happen before they actually put things together. This is forming a hypothesis. Even if you, the parent, know the correct answer or what the outcome should be, be sure to bite your tongue if you know their hypothesis is wrong. It is all about testing the hypothesis anyway.
Here is a great example from this past weekend. One part of the kit contains an electromagnet (a component that becomes a magnet when an electrical current flows through it) and a compass so that you can see what happens to the direction the compass points when you turn an electromagnet on and off. Granted my 5 year old doesn't truly understand the function and significance of these things yet, but that's ok. It's not about understanding how it works before you even test it, it's about trying to figure out how it works by testing it under different conditions.
He actually came up with a hypothesis that when he snapped the compass into the circuit near a light bulb, the light wouldn't turn on anymore. I bit my tongue and didn't say a word even though I wanted to launch into why his hypothesis was just plain wrong. Nope - I was going to let him test it all on his own. Interesting thing happened, though. The light actually didn't turn on! So, he believed that his hypothesis was indeed correct - that the compass did cause the light to stop working! Of course the real explanation was that when he snapped the compass into the circuit, he accidentally disconnected a different snap, which disconnected the batteries. Thus, snapping the compass into place indirectly caused the light to stop working. It was an artifact. We just had him trace the pathway of the circuit; he saw where the circuit snapped out of place, reconnected it, and low and behold, the light turned on with the compass in place. Hypothesis rejected.
|JR having a snap-tastic time.|
PS - My thoughts and opinions on the Elenco Electricity kit are all my own, and I have in no way been compensated to endorse this product. It really is a fantastic kit, in my opinion! It allows quick, easy, relatively safe hypothesis testing. There are many project ideas to get you started in their clearly illustrated booklet, which often leads to building off your own discoveries.