“Why is your ice cream melting?” I asked my students.
“I’m eating it too slowly,” said a kindergartener.
“It’s hot out so it’s melting,” said a 4th grader.
“It’s becoming liquid,” said a middle schooler.
“It’s absorbing heat so the phase is changing,” said a high schooler.
“Given its mass and specific heat, the change in the temperature causes the ice cream to absorb heat, causing an increase of energy at a molecular level and resulting in a reduction in molecular attraction that has the effect of melting,” said a PhD candidate.
When I ask a simple question to students in different grade levels, their responses become more scientific as their grade (age) increases. Their technical vocabulary expands and they associate better with the different environmental or internal factors in a phenomenon.
As we build our children’s STEM foundation upon math, traditional science learning is designed in different phases as the children’s skills develop. It starts with explorative activities, shifts to fact-oriented learning, and advances in applying math.
When do these changes happen? And how can we support our children through different phases of this process so science stays how it’s supposed to be learned?
1. Explorative and Inquisitive Science Learning (K+)
Children start exploring scientific phenomena from an early age. They haven’t been introduced to the term “science”. They observe things but nothing is yet explained in a structured fashion.
Kids see their ice cream melt when it’s hot out. They are basically observing a phase change in the matter when heat is absorbed. But their interest is only to finish up their ice cream before it melts away. Until the language skills matures, young children mainly learn through senses, exploration, and observations.
How you can support: Help your children find science phenomena around them. You can be finding STEM at Your Pencil Tip! Call out the phenomena with them and guide them to ask inquisitive questions. Tell them “this is science!” Or be more specific, “this is physics!“
How your support helps: They will see science as a a collective way to explain their surroundings and natural phenomena, versus being introduced to it as a subject later on.
Even though the explorative way of learning science gradually gets replaced by learning from books, it carries through all levels and all disciplines. Exploration, observation and asking questions should never stop. Even the most prestigious scientists in NASA explore and ask questions as a big part of their job.
2. Learning Facts in Science (Grade 4+)
No matter how much children explore, they can never personally explore what all the scientists have explored for centuries around the world. After a certain point, learning through senses isn’t enough to answer all the questions they have anymore. That’s why a more structured way of learning science, hence the “science” subjection, is introduced to build upon what has already been done.
As science advances with the children’s grade level, more facts and theories are introduced. This way of learning science is new for a lot of children, because now science is imposed on them. It’s become a requirement. It’ll give them a grade. It is no longer proactive learning without consequences. And it’s no longer “fun”.
My students would tell me science is easy and fun when the topic is something they’ve seen before, such as phase changes of water. However, science becomes boring or difficult when it comes to topics that feel unrelated to them, such as why earthquakes happen or how the nervous system works. When they don’t get to see or experience the facts in the topics, science becomes forced memorization.
How you can support: We’ve got help in situations like this to bring back their curiosity. What do we do when we see our children struggle to memorize the layers of earth? Pull them out of the textbook. Pull them out of the requirements. Go to the internet and look for news or interactive learning content about the topic. When they learn that an earthquake can move mountains and break bridges, they might start to ask “why”.
When we start hearing questions about the topic, we’ve turned on their curiosity for the topic. Take this opportunity to encourage further search on tutorial videos and fun ways to explore more about the topic.
How your support helps: When the spirit is up, all the facts forced on them make more sense, and as a result, stick with them better. They will be ready for the next level of science learning.
3. Applications of Math for Scientific Phenomena and Communications in Scientific Terms (Middle School +)
Facts are facts. What supports the scientific facts?
As our children advance in language and math, their comprehension becomes ready to learn science with the support of math. How do we support the stage when our children start asking deeper questions? How hot is hot enough for ice cream to melt? Does it melt faster or slower in a car parked in the sun? How do we quantify the answers to these questions?
We have to get to the bottom of all the observations and facts. Math becomes the tool to help explain all the theories. By then, they’ve also developed the organizational skills to communicate in scientific terms.
How you can support: Invest in building your child’s math foundation. When math is applied in science, it’s no longer just a subject. Math is now a tool solve problems and prove theories. Math is now a language to communicate thought process, along with the proper usage of technical terms.
How your support helps: When science gets explained by math, science becomes more convincing. The whole spectrum of STEM comes together and interdisciplinary thinking sprouts. This experience can lead to a career in STEM or a discipline that appreciates your child’s skills in interpreting phenomena with mathematical, logical explanations.