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  What Does Your Government Want Your Child to Learn About Science?

Schools all over the country are gearing up for science fair.  Parents and young students will be scurrying about looking for just the right project and how to do them and possibly win an award.  But what is science fair really all about?  Why is it in the curriculum? Just what does the educational system expect to achieve by mandating that students do science fair projects

It has been argued pro and con for lo these many years.  Just what should the schools teach our children about science.  They teach biology, chemistry, physics, environmental and computer sciences, and many other disciplines.  But is there some consistent background framework that all of these scientific teaching should fit into? Elementary schools should teach nine scientific concepts according to the National Center for Improving Scientific Education.

 First.  ORGANIZATION.  For any discipline to be properly taught and learned we need Organization. Scientists have made the study of science manageable by organizing and classifying natural phenomena. Natural objects can be assembled in hierarchies such as atoms, molecules, mineral grains, rocks, strata, hills, mountains, and planets. Objects can be arranged according to their complexity such a single-celled amoeba, sponges, and  mammals.  We must be Organized. Youngsters can be taught to sort objects like leaves, shells, or rocks according to their characteristics. Intermediate grade children can classify vegetables or fruits.  Start with the simpler and easier categories and move on to the more difficult concepts.

Second.  CAUSE AND EFFECT. Nature behaves in predictable ways. Searching for explanations is the major activity of science; effects cannot occur without causes. Primary children can learn about cause and effect by observing the effect that light, water, and warmth have on seeds and plants. Intermediate grade children can discover that good lubrication and streamlining the body of a roller derby car can make it run faster.

Third.  SYSTEMS. A system is a whole that is composed of parts arranged in an orderly manner according to some scheme or plan. In science, systems involve matter, energy, and information that move through defined pathways. The amount of matter, energy, and information, and the rate at which they are transferred through the pathways, varies over time. Children begin to understand systems by tracking changes among the individual parts. Primary children learn about systems by studying the notion of balance—for example, by observing the movements and interactions in an aquarium. Older children might gain an understanding of systems by studying the plumbing or heating systems in their homes.

Fourth.  SCALE.  Scale refers to quantity, both relative and absolute. Thermometers, rulers, and weighing devices help children see that objects and energy vary in quantity. It's hard for children to understand that certain phenomena can exist only within fixed limits of size. Yet primary grade children can begin to understand scale if they are asked what is your pet cat were the size of a lion, or your dog as big as a horse.
Fifth.  MODELS.  We create or design objects that represent other things. This is a hard concept for very young children. But primary grade children can gain experience with it by drawing a picture of a cell as they observe it through a microscope. Intermediate grade children can use a model of the earth's crust to demonstrate the cause of earthquakes.

Sixth. CHANGE. The natural world continually changes, although some changes may be too slow to observe. Rates of change vary. Children can be asked to observe changes in the position and apparent shape of the moon. Parents and children can track the position of the moon at the same time each night and draw pictures of the moon's changing shape to learn that change takes place during the lunar cycle. Children can also observe and describe changes in the properties of water when it boils, melts, evaporates, freezes, or condenses.

Seventh.  STRUCTURE AND FUNCTIONS. A relationship exists between the way organisms and objects look, feel, smell, sound, and taste and the things they do. Children can learn that skunks let off a bad odor to protect themselves. Children also can learn to infer what a mammal eats by studying its teeth, or what a bird eats by studying the structure of its beak.

Eighth.  VARIATION. To understand the concept of organic evolution and the statistical nature of the world, students first need to understand that all organisms and objects have distinctive properties. Some of these properties are so distinctive that no continuum connects them. For example, living and nonliving things, or sugar and salt. In most of the natural world, however, the properties of organisms and objects vary continuously. Young children can learn about this concept by observing and arranging color tones. Older children can investigate the properties of a butterfly during its life cycle to discover qualities that stay the same as well as those that change.

Ninth. DIVERSITY. This is the most obvious characteristic of the natural world. Even preschoolers know that there are many types of objects and organisms. In elementary school, youngsters need to begin understanding that diversity in nature is essential for natural systems to survive. Children can explore and investigate a pond, for instance, to learn that different organisms feed on different things.

The above may seem like a Herculean task for such young children to digest and understand, but taken slowly, one step at a time, with good examples and explanation, the young minds will begin to grasp just what science is all about.  The science fair project is one step on the road to a broader understanding of the world we live in, much of which may be changed by the very students that we teach today.




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