Three Ways to Interest Students in Science

Perhaps the fundamental goal of science education should be finding ways to interest students in science.  Stephen Hornstra Landgraaf, (The Netherlands) made this statement as part of his comment in my previous post.  In this era of standards-based education we leave most students outside of science, and do little to bring them in to see a connection between their own lives and the joy of science.

Yet even in these high-stakes testing times, there are some powerful ways in which science educators are interesting students, young and older, alike.  Here are three:

Thinking Big.  This is all about asking “big” questions, much the way that Carl Sagan did.  Of course it is more than that.  Thinking Big in science teaching means we bring students in contact with interesting questions, ones that continue to pique our curiosity, and ones that are sure to interest students.  Where did we come from?  Are we alone in the Universe?  How big is the Universe?  Are we the only planet with living things?

The 12" gold-plated copper disk containing sounds and images portraying the diversity of life and culture on Earth.  It was placed on Voyager 1 & 2, and was designed by a group headed by Carl Sagan.  Follow the link to read more about this.
Thinking Big!: The 12" gold-plated copper disk containing sounds and images portraying the diversity of life and culture on Earth. It was placed on Voyager 1 & 2, and was designed by a group headed by Carl Sagan. Click on the disc to read more about Sagan's thinking, and how you might apply it to your teaching.

A really good example of “thinking big” was NASA’s announcement last Fall of The Carl Sagan Exoplanet Fellowship.  You can view the video of the announcement here, and from contemporary scientists and science educators discuss Carl Sagan’s legacy.   Then follow this link to NASA’s Planet Quest (Exoplanet Exploration) Website, and explore how NASA is trying to answer the question, Are we alone?  It’s fascinating, and would capture student’s imagination.  You might also visit the Carl Sagan portal for other interesting ideas.

Thinking Informally—Science museums. One of my favorite theorists in education is John Dewey. Dewey wrote lots of books on education, and advocated a humanistic approach to teaching, and specifically believed that “non-school learning” could provide the kind of energy that learning in school would require to engage and interest students. Science museums are a kind of informal learning environment that typically engage students of all ages.

T-rex on exhibit at the Tellus Museum, one of a large collection of fossils in this wonderful learning environment.
T-rex on exhibit at the Tellus Museum, one of a large collection of fossils in this wonderful learning environment.

Yesterday I visited the Tellus Museum of Science, located in Northwest Georgia, a new museum full of fascinating science wonders including an extensive mineral gallery, dinosaurs and more than 40 pre-history animals in the Fossil Gallery, a fossil dig, and gem panning, history of flight from the Wright brothers to the American and Russian space programs.

The visit to Tellus reminded me of all of the museums that I’ve visited in Atlanta, Barcelona, Boston, New York, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Prague, San Francisco, Seattle, Washington, Vancouver, London, Moscow and St. Peterburg. In fact, some years ago I was in St. Petersburg, Russia with 100 American and Russian middle and high school students and their teachers as part of the Global Thinking Project, and we were brought to the Zoological Museum of the Zoological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences.  It was there we  viewed the famous display of the Wooly Mammoth.

Mammoth exhibit in a science museum in St. Petersburg, Russia
Mammoth exhibit in the Zoological Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia

Museums play an important role in science education, and have to near the top of list of ways to interest kids and adults in science.  Here informal learning is emphasized over formal, classroom-like instruction.  Visitors are encouraged to “touch” and “play” with exhibits.

Reconnecting with Nature: The National Park Syndrome.  Although Yellowstone Park was established in 1872, the U.S. Congress established the National Park Service in 1916 protecting the 35 national parks that existed at that time.  Now there are 391 units in National Park Service including parks, national monuments, seashore sites, battlefields and other recreational and cultural sites.  If you add to this the number of state parks that there are in the U.S. you have a enormous resource available for another type of informal learning that emphasizes the outdoors, and cultural experiences.  I am not sure if there really is a “National Park Syndrome,” but what I mean is that we should work to reconnect students to nature.  My own National Park Syndrome was created by my many trips to the Rocky Mountain National Park, both personal, and professional (teaching graduate courses on environmental education).

View of the Rockies from Trail Ridge Road, in the Rocky Mountain National Park
View of the Rockies from Trail Ridge Road, in the Rocky Mountain National Park

And indeed the Children & Nature Network is dedicated to this, and supports a movement to reconnect “children and nature.”  The goal here is to give students opportunities to experience nature directly.  C&NN is a great resource for science teachers, and provides a convenient way to connect with other educators who are developing strategies in the service of nature for children and youth.

Connecting our students to nature does not have to involve traveling to a park.  Simply going outside one’s school will bring you and your students in contact with nature.  In my own experience as college teacher, I taught in the center of Atlanta’s urban environment.  The urban environment was rich with experiences for my students.  We were able to study the geology of building stones, that not only included rocks from various parts of the world, but also many of the sedimentary building stones included fossils. We did scavenger hunts looking for change, living things, biodegradeable substances, various types of rocks and minerals, plants, animals, mineral processes, evidence of physical and chemical weathering, and other phenomena.  We even looked for stalagmites and stalagtites that formed when water trickled through cracks and fissures in the underground parking garage.

From the vantage point of central Atlanta, our students were engaged in environmental studies, including the investigation of ground-level ozone (Project Ozone).  We did this every summer, and students not only monitored ozone in central Atlanta, but also from the vantage point of their homes.  This provided us with a rich data base all around the Metro-Atlanta area.  Project Ozone was one of the projects that we developed as part of the Global Thinking Project.  Using very simple monitoring equipment, students from many parts of the world were able to monitor the air outside their school, and use our online data base to share and investigate the problem of ground-level ozone.

A middle school student from Walker County, GA discusses air quality as part of Project Ozone with a student from Puschino, Russia in School #1.
A middle school student from Walker County, GA discusses air quality as part of Project Ozone with a student from Puschino, Russia in School #1.

There are many ways to interest students in science.  These are simply three that I have found to be very effective with students of all ages.  I’ll continue to talk about this and come back to it from time to time.

In the meantime, we’d love to hear what some of your favorite ways are to interest students in science.  Leave a comment for others to read.

Touch the earth: The case for learning outside the box

Many, many years ago I developed a book while being a writer for the Individualized Science Instructional System (ISIS) which was entitled Touch the Earth.  It was a geology mini-course, part of a large collection of earth, life, and physical science mini-courses for middle and high school science.  Although the title was a play on words, I was trying to build a teaching unit that would bring the students in contact with the earth.  We were trying to not only design a strong cognitive oriented mini-course, but we also wanted to create affective experiences for the students that were entwined with the content.  Affective learning was to be just as important as cognitive learning.  Students were to be involved in activities in which they went outside and touched the earth: learning outside the box.

So, At the New Orleans NSTA conference, I read on the NSTA Conference Blog that Dr. Cheryl Charles gave the Brandwein Lecture, and the title of her presentation was: The Ecology of Hope: Building a Movement to Reconnect Children and Nature. Dr. Charles is President and CEO of The Children & Nature Network (C&NN).  She was also director of two of the most significant environmental education curriculum projects: Project Learning Tree and Project Wild.  Cheryl Charles is an educator that has been thinking outside the box for many years.

If you go The C&NN website you will see the case for teaching outside the box of the classroom.  In my own experience visiting and working with thousands of teachers, and visiting tens of classrooms in several countries, most teachers try and create an interesting learning environment within the classroom.  Many have brought living things into the classroom, added interesting displays, and bring lots of hands on materials for students to experience.

But there is nothing like the real thing—the real thing being the world outside the classroom. The Children and Nature Network is committed to reconnecting students to nature.

There is much to learn from the C&NN website.  I think one of the most important is the documentation of research and literature that provides the evidence that students should be involved in learning activities outside of the classroom.  In “research” link you will find three volumes of research which consist summaries and syntheses of studies and reports that we can use to support the implementation of environmental education activities. Some examples of these syntheses include:

  • Direct Experience in Nature Is Critical and Diminishing
  • School Achievement Is Enhanced When Curricula Are Environment Based
  • Schoolyard Habitat Projects Bring Natural Benefits to School and Students

What you will find here is research data to support teachers and parents who are working toward involving students in outdoor learning, moving their students out of the box.