Having taught science to my own four children, to co-op classes, and more recently for Apologia Academy, I have noticed among my students certain attitudes and apprehensions that seem to be fairly common. Many children (and their parents) are intimidated, even filled with dread, at the very thought of doing science. I’ve seen this trepidation expressed in a variety of ways, but I think the factors behind these fearful attitudes can be boiled down to one or more of the following: making the jump from elementary to middle school science; tackling the dreaded lab report; attempting a science course that is beyond the student’s current level of math; trying to memorize words versus learning the concepts; and missing the fact that science is about so much more than learning laws, theories, and formulas. Science can and should be an adventure through which we learn more about—and be drawn closer to—the Great Designer and Creator of all things!
Allow me to address these “fear factors” one at a time. First of all, making the transition from elementary to middle school can be intimidating for students and parents no matter what the subject! I have spoken to many parents about how their children used to love science until they hit seventh grade. As soon as they opened a middle school textbook, their love for science vanished! Excitement and interest were quickly replaced with dread and tears. Much of this anxiety is due to the fact that students are often plunged head first into the deep, icy waters of “junior high” rather than wading in a bit at a time. A few very practical steps can be taken to help alleviate this shock for your students:
• Take a week or two to introduce students to the new requirements that will be expected of them.
• Teach your students how to answer end-of-chapter study questions by walking through the text with them and looking for key words. These will likely be underlined, highlighted, or mentioned in the title of each new section.
• Help students understand what will be expected of them on middle school science tests. Consider allowing them to take the first few tests with an open book.
• Work with your students to develop a schedule for completing their reading and assignments within each module. It can be so helpful for students to see the work broken down into doable chunks so that they’re not overwhelmed.
• Help your students learn to organize and plan their study time. A student planner is a wonderful tool for doing this. One of my favorites is Debra Bell’s Ultimate Planner for Students.
“It was fun until I had to write a lab report!” How many times have I heard this? Beginning about the eighth grade, students need to learn how to form a hypothesis, perform an experiment to test that hypothesis, document what they observe during the experiment, and arrive at conclusions about whether or not their original hypothesis was valid. This is your basic lab report. By the time they graduate high school, students should be able to write a strong lab report using this basic format:
1. Title of the experiment and the date it was performed
2. Purpose statement—why they are performing the experiment and what they think the outcome will be (the hypothesis)
3. List of equipment used (usually found in the text)
4. Procedure—a step–by–process of what was done
5. Data and observations—a detailed walk-through of the experiment, noting every detail that was observed along the way
6. Conclusion. This is the most important part of the lab report and therefore should be the most detailed. Here, important terms are defined, followed by discussion of the science behind the experiment and how the experiment clearly supported or did not support the original hypothesis. NOTE: Errors can always happen in an experiment. If the experiment did not turn out as expected, no problem! The student should simply write an error analysis and explain what should have happened and identify errors they believe could have caused the outcome.
7. Bibliography. Students should always reference any sources that were used in order to complete the experiment.
Your students’ lab reports should begin simply—one to two pages during the middle school years—and gradually become more detailed as they move into high school, when lab reports should be two to six pages in length, depending on the scope of the experiment.
Where there is science, there is math! When deciding on your student’s next science course, the student’s current knowledge of math should always be a primary consideration. Many students have jumped into a science course only to be confounded and frustrated because they simply are not ready for the math involved. So much of a student’s dislike for science can be alleviated by planning their science courses according to the following schedule:
• 7th grade, General Science. No math, but student should begin Pre-Algebra to prepare for Physical Science.
• 8th grade, Physical Science. Students must have a working knowledge of Pre-Algebra to be successful in this course.
• 9th grade, Biology. There’s no math required for this course.
• 10th grade, Chemistry. Students must have a working knowledge of Algebra 1 for this course.
• 11th grade, Physics. Student must have a working knowledge of Algebra 1, Geometry, and basic Trigonometry functions to be successful in this course.
• 12th grade, Advanced Science Courses
Advanced Biology: No math required.
Advanced Chemistry: Algebra II required.
Advanced Physics: Pre-Calculus required.
Marine Biology: No math required.
Of course, if a student is not science-minded and does not plan to pursue a career in a scientific field, then it’s no problem to wait until the eighth grade to begin General Science. You might even choose to spread General Science across seventh and eighth grades until the student is comfortable with the math skills required for Physical Science.
When my son Benjamin was eight years old, he explained heat transfer to me one morning. I had mentioned that I needed to warm up my coffee. My thirteen-year-old volunteered to heat it up for me but noticed that the cup itself was still hot. I casually said, “Yes, but the liquid inside has gotten cold.” Benjamin exclaimed, “I know why, Mommy! The hot coffee gave its ‘hot’ to the cup. Your cup took the hot and left the coffee cold.” He got it! He had no idea that he was describing heat transfer, but he sure did understand the concept. Why? Because he thought to himself, I wonder why . . . One of the most common errors students and parents make when approaching science is that they feel compelled to memorize vocabulary rather than learning concepts. Some memorizing is necessary. However, if this is the main focus of your course, science will quickly become tedious and boring.
Besides, students who memorize for the test will forget what they have “learned” as soon as the last question has been answered. Our goal as teachers of our children must be that they get it! I would much rather my students forget the actual vocabulary but still be able to explain a scientific concept in their own words. Encourage your children to think about what is going on. How does this work? Why does this happen? And do NOT skip experiments for the sake of time, as they are vitally important in cementing concepts in students’ minds! When we free our children to experience, explain, and expound on scientific concepts in their own words, amazing learning can take place—learning that will stick.
Finally, the main difficulty, in my opinion, that both students and parents have with science is the way they look at it merely as a subject required for graduation which therefore must be endured. Science is the study of God’s creation, and may I suggest that if we change our thinking we will be amazed, awed, and even excited about science. The more I teach science, the more I am blown away by how every aspect of God’s creation screams “design”! The forces that hold the planets in space; the fact that the earth is exactly where it must be in the solar system, with the exact percentages of each gas within the atmosphere in order for life to exist; the intricacies of the human eye that cannot be replicated by scientists no matter how hard they try; the amazing interrelationships between organisms, without which neither could ever have existed. I could go on and on! Our Father in heaven has been pleased to reveal bits and pieces of His astounding creativity throughout the centuries, and He has given us the privilege of looking into some of how and why He made the earth this way. What an extraordinary opportunity we have to use science to better know Him who set it all into motion!
Many great and godly scientists of the past knew this and pursued the study of the universe relentlessly because of their desire to know more about God. In the words of James Clerk Maxwell, who proved that the electrical forces and the magnetic forces in creation were virtually one in the same, “Almighty God, who hast created man in Thine own image and made him a living soul that he might seek after Thee and have dominion over Thy creatures, teach us to study the works of Thy hands, that we may subdue the earth to our use and strengthen our reason for Thy service; and so to receive Thy blessed Word, that we may believe on Him whom Thou hast sent to give us the knowledge of salvation and the remission of our sins. All which we ask in the name of the same Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Becky Edmonson is a science instructor with Apologia Academy. While homeschooling her four children, she tutored high school and college students in algebra and biology. When her own children were old enough to begin their science studies, she founded the Danville School of Arts and Sciences, a community-wide homeschool organization where she taught Apologia science. Through Apologia Academy she has the wonderful opportunity of assisting families in teaching quality, Christ-centered science to their children. Becky’s prayer is that her students will not only enjoy science but will also walk away with a better understanding of God’s universe and their place in it.