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.

Earthday as a metaphor for a paradigm of informal learning

Informal learning as a paradigm for classroom learning suggests that learning is holistic, and is steeped in inclusiveness and connectedness.  As I suggested yesterday, John Dewey wrote about the importance of an “experiential education” more than 100 years ago, and his words are just as relevant today, as they were then.

For many years I co-taught a university course on environmental science and geology.  However, the course was a three-week “field” trip from Atlanta, Georgia to the Colorado Rocky Mountains.  In addition to fossil hunting in Kansas along our bus route, visiting museums in Denver, exploring the rocks and strata in the Rockies, observing wildlife at 10,000 feet, we spent several days in the backcountry backpacking and camping.  We couldn’t have provided a more informal science experience than three weeks in the Rocky Mountains.  During those trips, incidental learning was in greater supply than formal lessons—in fact, I am hard put to recall any formal lessons during these explorations of the West.  But I do remember returning and teaching courses in the Fall semester at Georgia State University and longing for the informality of learning that ignited the students (all teachers) in their quest for understanding environmental science and geology.

A hummingbird in the Colorado Rockies
A hummingbird in the Colorado Rockies

Although a month away, I want to bring to the attention of readers of this blog that Earthday is an important aspect of informal learning.  Here is how.  Earthday is the result of a grassroots environmental movement that began in 1970, and has grown to become a world event.  Yes, there is the formality of way in which the media “covers” each Earthday, but at its heart is the paradigm of informal learning.  Individuals join with others to create a sense of community to try and solve serious environmental problems.  At first, the movement was to bring environmental awareness to the general population, and bring to the fore the need for government and industry to do something about the environment.  A lot has changed since the first Earthday.  Take a look at who heads the Office of Science & Technology.  His name is John Holdren. I wrote about his work last year on this blog. To get an idea of his thinking, here is one of his talks that you can view: Holdren’s Powerpoint presentation.

Earthday is an informal way that humans have invented to focus on the natural environment.  Some years ago, Fritjof Capra wrote a groundbreaking book entitled The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism.  In Capra’s view, the natural world is one of “infinite varieties and complexities; a multidimensional world which contains no straight lines or completely regular shapes, where things do not happen in sequences, but all together.”  Capra viewed the Eastern philosophy as a new paradigm, one that was holistic and integrated, rather than a dissociated collection of parts.  This paradigm is in essence what environmental educators have based their work on, and is indeed, what informal science learning fosters in the classroom.

Earthday: a metaphor for a paradigm of informal learning.  As the media begin to report on events related to Earthday, reflect on how these impinge on our understanding of learning in informal settings.

Dusk looking west in the Colorado Rockies
Dusk looking west in the Colorado Rockies

Using informal learning to help students cross borders in science class

Non-school learning was a term that John Dewey used for “informal experiences” that he felt helped learners acquire attitudes, values, and knowledge from daily experiences. Many students come to science class from a cultural world-view that makes learning science much like the crossing of a cultural border. As I discussed in the last post, science teachers and researchers have explored the concept of border crossings in science education, and have suggested that there is a need to develop curriculum and instruction with the idea of border crossings in mind.

According to Dewey, learning environments that tend to be more informal in nature than formal use elements of non-school learning that in the end bring the students closer to the [science] curriculum, perhaps making border crossings less hazardous. In this context, learning is tied to “use, to drama of doubt, need and discovery” (see Fishman & McCarthy: John Dewey and the Challenge of Classroom Practice). In formal learning settings, scientific ideas & concepts are presented as if they were bricks, and we are tempted to try and pass out ideas, because like bricks, they are separable. Concepts are taught without a context, without connections, & without relevance to the students. Yes, there are some students who will learn science very well in formal environments. But as I pointed out in last post, there are more students who will not benefit from such formality. They would benefit more from an informal learning environment. Working on topics of their own choice, collaborating in cooperative groups, or discussing the relevance of the content—each of these ideas will contribute to the informality of the classroom.

The National Academies Press has just released a new book, Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits. You can read the book for free on online. The book lends credence to the value and importance of non-school learning, but more importantly offers many theoretical and practical suggestions that could be applied to the formality of schools.

Resources that you might want to explore: an online community for informal learning in science.

The Center for Informal Learning and Schools: An NSF project at the Exploratorium in San Francisco

Center for the Advancement of Informal Science Education: Informal science education supports people of all ages and walks of life in exploring science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.