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Birth of a Scientist? How to nurture a 'science kid' at home....
Kathy Wingert is a longtime homeschooling mother in Central PA, and she's written several previous articles for our print newsletter Pennsylvania Homeschoolers. I'm proud to have been the family's evaluator throughout their son Daniel's high school years. Daniel is now a graduating senior in the PHAA diploma program, and he has also taken part in a very wide range of our AP Online classes, always showing exceptional interest and involvement and ability. Kathy has also taught a wide range of classes at their area homeschool co-op.
The blanks for “Intended Major” on all of our senior son’s college and scholarship applications are uniformly filled in with the words, “molecular biology.” I didn’t think much about those words until my mother asked me at some point this year what they meant. “Uhhh…,” I stammered. “Er … biology…at the, um, molecular level?” Rest assured I have since figured out that molecular biology is like a traditional biology major except that it includes an extra emphasis on chemistry and physics, but my initial inability to answer my mother’s question glaringly illuminates (like a neon sign in the Antarctic) my personal lack of natural bent towards the sciences and my highly deficient formal educational preparation to teach a kid with such aspirations. I never took high school physics and felt clumsy (and queasy!) when it was time to dissect the earthworm in 10th grade bio. Now, lest you think I am married to a nuclear physicist husband who picked up the slack in our homeschool science studies, think again. He, like me, is a completely right-brained English major.
So, how did we do it? How did we navigate the murky (for us) waters of science--especially the upper level lab ones-- for the 13 years we have homeschooled our son, Daniel, and come out at the end with a kid who has the intellectual passion and necessary academic preparation for rigorous post-high school studies in buildings we never even dared walk through in college? Looking back, here is what I think we, by God’s grace, did right.
1) In the early years, we embraced Daniel’s bent and the chance for a “mulligan” in our own educations. By the time Daniel was two, we knew he was a “science guy.” Each day when my husband came home from work, he would shake his head in bewilderment at the monuments remaining from his preschool-aged son’s endeavors that day. There were catapults made from blocks, elaborate pulley systems co-opted from toy fishing rods, and messes—lots of messes—in the kitchen involving water, paper products, and duct tape. (When asked about the messes, Daniel invariably called them “spearmints.”) At this tender age, Daniel was also an astute observer and appreciator of nature-- especially the night sky-- and we found his interest contagious. Through his eyes, and eventually our own, we began to see the wonder in the natural world and seek it out. If there was a December meteor shower at 1 a.m., we were out in the lawn chairs with winter coats thrown over our pjs watching it. When the first snowflakes of the season fell, we ran outside to catch them on black construction paper so we could see their unique designs. If a hurricane brought rip currents to the beach and made it impossible to swim, we scoured the jetties in the biting wind looking for the unbelievable treasures those currents washed ashore. By the time we began officially homeschooling several years later, the world of science was an adventure for him and, happily, for us too.
2) When the time for “formal” school began in first grade, we scoured the curriculum fairs and opted for the fun and the messy, NOT the tidy textbooks and worksheets. Fortunately, by the time Daniel reached elementary school age, we were firm believers in hands-on, experiential science. At our first curriculum fair, we managed to resist all the tidy textbooks and worksheets produced by the “school” curriculum vendors for early elementary aged kids-- those familiar and BORING tools that no doubt dulled our own childhood curiosity decades ago-- and instead discovered some hidden gems among the display tables. One of our favorite early finds was The Scientist’s Apprentice, a curriculum of four unit studies that utilizes “real” books, including the Magic School Bus series and LOTS of hands-on experiments that kids really like. (Imagine sliming your hand with Crisco and then plunging it into a bag of ice water to experience the insulation qualities of whale blubber!) There were other gems in future years: Soda Pop Science ( a great intro to chemistry); Gizmos and Gadgets (which gave Mom at least a basic understanding of physics); and, quite a few years later, Backyard Ballistics (a resource our son read from cover to cover the minute it came through the kitchen door. I was too chicken to take it on myself and eventually convinced another homeschool dad—a respectable safety-conscious engineer—to work through it as a co-op class.)
Sometimes, our “finds” weren’t a book or curriculum but an unusual piece of equipment. Our hands-down favorite from the early years was a 50 foot long solar bag. Five minutes after we filled the bag with air on a sunny but cool fall day, it began magically rising HUNDREDS of feet in the air, prompting one distant neighbor to phone our backyard neighbor in alarm. Was it a UFO? A terrorist? “Relax,” our dear backyard neighbor replied. “It’s just the Wingerts doing science!” Let me tell you, every kid in the neighborhood wanted to be homeschooled after that!
3) When possible, we made science cross-curricular. In addition to providing some great ideas for kid-friendly experiments, The Scientist’s Apprentice also gave us a blueprint for developing our own cross-curricular science unit studies. So, when we exhausted the four unit studies of The Scientist’s Apprentice, we were ready to develop some of our own. Whatever our topic of interest, I began scouring the library for nonfiction science and, if applicable, history books and then went beyond that, looking for biographies, fiction, and occasionally even poetry (if we were doing nature study) that worked with our topic. The reading not only gave Daniel the necessary science background for our experiments. It also gave him practice at reading across all genres and making connections between subject areas, which we have found in hindsight is excellent practice for standardized tests and, even more importantly, real life.
4) When possible, we made science social and collaborative. While an advocate of hands-on science, I am also the first to admit how time-consuming (and expensive) it can be to organize and provide exciting hands-on activities. The effort and expense of preparing all of the necessary experiments for every experiment day for one kid (or even a family of kids) becomes overwhelming, and that’s when the boring textbooks and worksheets start looking more attractive. We dealt with this temptation by seeking out community. First, if we wanted to teach a unit study with experiments that were going to be a drag to supply and organize, I would intentionally offer to teach it at our homeschool co-op. That way, the benefit of my efforts was shared by many, and personal pride kept me from slacking off. Second, we found that many conscientious homeschool parents were willing to return the favor. If I went “all out” for one unit study for our co-op, usually another parent would do the same for another unit study the next semester. Such collaboration provided our son with a year’s worth of experiments, but I had to only prepare for half of them. Third, when essential for reasons of mother sanity or practical necessity (we don’t own a planetarium or a scuba diving boat), we were willing to pay for special enrichment classes offered by a local museum or a trusted teacher from our school district. These special opportunities filled in the gaps and exposed Daniel to people with expertise and passion in particular areas. They also opened the door to later opportunity for him.
For example, in fifth grade, he, along with about 150 invited public school kids, participated in a for-fee astronomy program hosted by a retired high school teacher in our school district’s planetarium over the course of six Saturday mornings. As I recall, he prepared for that class each week with more diligence than I believe he prepared for the SATs last year. At any rate, Daniel and the instructor quickly found that they shared a passion for the subject, and they formed a fun mentor-student relationship that continues to this day. In fact, at the conclusion of the seminar, the instructor was so impressed that he invited Daniel back the next year (and every year since) to be his assistant, a position that has allowed Daniel to independently run two different planetarium units and serve as a science “leader” to younger children.
We found that collaboration was helpful not only for the teaching parent but also for the homeschool student, especially in some of the upper level lab experiences. Last year, Daniel completed a rather rigorous, lab-rich anatomy and physiology course. He worked on the textbook reading and tests at home, but met each week with three other homeschooling friends to complete the complicated labs and, strange as it sounds, the anatomy coloring book assignments. This group had several benefits; it provided courage for the more disgusting dissection assignments (something the girls in the group appreciated), accountability (so lab work didn’t get put off), and real collaborative discovery, especially when comparisons between each of their individual specimens revealed surprising and sometimes significant physiological differences. And yes, I should also mention that another attraction of the group experience was that they had FUN doing the science together, and it’s certainly a bonus when difficult science can still be FUN science.
5) We accepted that, at some point, we would not teach but facilitate. When we began our homeschool journey 13 years ago, the question that frightened me the most from the many skeptics in our life at the time was “How are you going to teach the upper level science and math subjects?” Truthfully, we had no idea; we answered by saying we were taking things one year at a time and would follow where God led.
Fortunately, God knew, rather quickly in the process, that I needed confidence for the years ahead. When Daniel was 8, we were doing a unit on astronomy, already a specific passion of his but something I knew next to nothing about. Unfortunately, the clearest nights for star-gazing are the cold ones. So, after he returned from swimming practice one December evening, we lugged our large telescope --a wonderful gift from Daniel’s supportive and science-minded grandfather—outside into the bitter but star-filled night. At that point, I told myself we were just learning to appreciate the wonders of the equipment, so I didn’t need to muddle through the sky charts to figure out what was actually where that evening. Impatient in the cold, I randomly pointed the scope at a particularly bright object in the southeastern sky. “Here, Daniel,” I said. “Look at this bright star.” He leaned into the eye piece, paused a moment, and then matter-of-factly said, “Mom, that’s not a star. It’s Jupiter.”
As it turns out, just that week he had read a biography of Galileo as part of our unit study, and the book, in explaining how Galileo had discovered the moons of Jupiter, included a simple diagram showing Jupiter and three of its moons. Serendipitously, what Daniel saw through the eyepiece of his telescope that evening—a bright object with three orbiting satellites-- corresponded perfectly with that diagram. We went inside, where he showed me the book, and a follow up with our sky charts determined that he was indeed right. That was no star; it was Jupiter.
Ten years later, he looks back at that experience as a “Eureka” moment in his homeschool life—a first and exciting moment of applied science discovery, something we would have robbed him of had we pointed the telescope at the same place and said, “Here’s Jupiter. Can you see the three moons?” I look back at that experience as a sweet and reassuring foretaste of our homeschooling life as it would develop in the years to come. We would not always need to be the “experts in residence” actively teaching each shred of information; we would progress to being co-learners and eventually, at times, just facilitators, setting expectations, providing good materials, and offering much-needed encouragement (and food!) for the work at hand.
6) We found curriculum that made our role as facilitators effective for him and not stressful for us. I’ve already recounted above the importance we placed on finding good, hands-on materials and curriculum for unit studies in the early grades. As sixth grade approached, we sensed a growing intellectual maturity in Daniel and the need for a cohesive, year-long, more formal and organized science program for his harried parents, who had a young daughter, with different passions, that needed some attention too. A veteran homeschooling and science-minded mom suggested I check out Apologia’s introductory text, Exploring Creation with General Science. I did, and, in the words of Robert Frost, “That has made all the difference.”
Within the first two weeks, I knew we had struck the Holy Grail of comprehensive curriculum that would sustain advanced science study in our homeschool. Daniel literally raced through the intro book; it was the subject he chose to complete first each morning, and he always read farther than the pages we assigned. What’s more, we were able to purchase A KIT produced by the company with most of the supplies for each experiment. No more 9 a.m. trips to the pharmacy looking, in vain, for aluminum sulfate! The next year, as we pondered and weighed our curriculum choices for every other subject, science was a no-brainer. We ordered Apologia’s Physical Science in 7th grade, Biology in 8th, Chemistry in 9th, Physics in 10th, and Anatomy and Physiology in 11th. For this final year, knowing Daniel was likely headed off for rigorous science classes in college, we opted to have him do both Apologia’s Advanced Physics and Advanced Chemistry classes. He has survived and thrived.
Sheepishly, I must admit that, since 7th grade, our sole involvement in these science studies has been to purchase the necessary materials, grade the provided tests, and snap photos when there was a really good laboratory moment. In our defense, I don’t think he’s been hindered by our lack of expertise or micromanagement; I actually think he’s been served by it. He now has years of practicing the kind of independent science study and discipline that will be expected of him in the years to come. The right curriculum-- one that was engaging and solid in instruction for the student yet friendly to the teaching parent-- made it possible.
7) Finally, we got out of the house. Actually, if I am being completely honest, I guess I did do a bit more than grade, purchase, and photograph. I drove. Released from burden of having to understand and TEACH quantum mechanics, whatever that is, I had the time to research and plan fun science field trips. Sometimes, they were just opportunities that our family vacation spots offered—ranger programs in National Parks, special nature tours or classes offered at a far-off museum. Sometimes they were trips to nearby (relatively speaking!) science museums with exhibits that provided excellent “capstone” experiences for a unit study or a whole year we had just completed, like the physics exhibits of Harrisburg’s Whitaker Center, a forensics exhibit at the Franklin Institute, or, a personal favorite after last year’s Anatomy studies, the Mutter Museum at the College of Physicians in Philadelphia (home of the world’s largest colon.) And sometimes, when it was a beautiful day, we opted for the most simple of science field trips. We hiked the woods and read poetry about trees or ran through late fall meadows without shoes and then planted our socks, just to see what would grow from the wind-blown seeds they had collected in our romp.
I know that, come this September, it will probably be those simple moments with our “science guy” that I will miss most of all. Yet, I am hopeful that our future molecular biologist will always remember that the tiny molecules he studies so diligently are all still a part of the big, wide, wonderful world that we, with God’s grace and provision, were happily able to discover and experience together.
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