by Jonathan Marin

The Fun Approach to Science Education

Exhortation has its limits. Some children will learn whatever we tell them they ought to know, just because we've told them that they ought to know it. Many won't. Some will make a real effort  to master material, because we've told them that learning it will help get them a credential that will help them in "later life". Many won't. In my experience, people (and kids are people) learn best when what they are learning serves some purpose of their own. They learn best when they are obsessed with finding out something, like a person hooked on a drug in need of a fix. If we want kids to learn easily and permanently, in a way that will build lifelong confidence in their ability to learn anything they want to know,  I think that the place to start is with things they come in wanting to know about, and expand outwards from there.

I'm an adult, well-educated and reasonably bright. When I look at a magazine rack, I seldom reach for some bland consensus of experts. When I do, I do it dutifully, not eagerly. With a quiet sigh, I submit to be lectured to, out a sense of obligation that the subject is something I ought to know. So, what catches my eye? What hooks me?
... Controversy, scandal, and sex,
... Mystery,
... Spectacular natural phenomena,
... Explosions and disasters,
... Pieces that punch holes in stuffed shirts,
...   that challenge common wisdom and prevailing views,
...   that expose official hokum
...   that pierce the film of comforting, simplifying, socially respectable lies,
...   that highlight bureaucratic ineptitude,
...   that document abuse of power and systematic injustice,
...   that promise new insights into how the world really works.

Years of disappointment have taught me not to buy most of what tempts me. Still, since these hooks appear on magazine covers month after month, it must be that month after month they can still part adults who ought to know better from their money.

Neither the writers nor the publishers of school textbooks seem even to try to take advantage of the hook principle so well-known to junior editors at every commercial periodical. Texts are full of pseudo-hooks - what a kid with intellectual pretentions might pretend to get excited about. But they're short on the real thing, as if fearful of what might happen if kids _really_ got turned on, or snobbish toward the things that might do it. If its really fun, how can it be good for you?.

An irresistable science curriculum can be put together centered on "Grabbers" -  topics that kids are interested in without any adult prompting. By addressing kids' real questions, questions that they actually ask and really care about the answers to, we can bring their active attention to topics in many fields of science and applied science. Kids love to have opinions about issues that are alive and controversial in the adult world, and the grabbers connect readily to many of them. Areas where the Grabbers touch and overlap permit them to flow together to make an interconnected network that blankets most of science.

Many students lose their flair for science by the time they reach high school, or even sooner. I think that the flair can be kept alive, and even enhanced. A good place to start is in the early grades, with the number one grabber of them all: Dinosaurs. The material can be always be organized to answer questions. When facts are needed to answer exciting questions, learning them doesn't feel like a chore, and each new fact is a treasure.

QUESTIONS such as:
... How fast could dinosaurs run?
... What did species "x" eat, or species "y" or species "z"?
... Were there north-south seasonal migrations?
... What was their habitat like?
... What about nesting behavior?
... Did they travel in herds?
... How fast did they grow?
And for every proposed answer, the question "How do you know"? hones understanding of evidence and inference, and the ability to construct sound arguments and detect unsound ones.

Studying dinosaurs leads to questions whose answers lead naturally outward to new questions, in topics of many areas of science, including:

... Igneous and sedimentary rock.
... Formation of strata.
... Angular unconformities.
... Plate tectonics.
... Earthquakes and volcanism - another grabber.

... Radiometric dating.
... The structure of atomic nucleii.
... Isotopes and atomic weights.
... Assaying materials' chemical composition (Leads outward to forensic science, a big-time grabber)
... Radioactive elements and their decay products.
... Nuclear power generation and waste disposal - yet another grabber.

... Erosion and deposition.
..."Fossil rainfall", "fossil sunlight", "fossil droughts" and "fossil floods".
... One-hundred-year and one-thousand-year droughts and floods.
... Reading the layers in trenches.
... Annual flooding.
... Ancient Egyptian civilization.
... Sphinxes and pyramids - a big-time grabber.

... The great K-T extinction.
... Asteroids and comets.
... Space exploration (See below).

Space is a natural grabber. Even very young students are fascinated by space and the space program. It can work on its own, or developed from the dinosaur center via the Great Extinction Event.

Comets and asteroids have their own special fascination. So do dangerous objects, and spectacular events. The extinction event segues smoothly in a dozen productive directions:
... Comet Shoemaker-Levy-9 zaps Jupiter.
... The pictures from the Galileo satellite
... Cassini.
... Hubble.
... Magellan and the Voyagers.
... What are stars made of?
...What are we made of?
...SN1987A and supernovae, connecting back to Astronomy.

Life support systems:
... topics in materials science, electronics, and chemistry.
... Monitoring and feedback.
... Blood gases.
... Topics in chemistry, physiology, and medicine.

PALEONTOLOGY: Dinosaur suppression of mammalian development.
... 125 million years of mammals sharing planet with dinosaurs.
... 65 m.y. of mammals on dinosaur-free planet.
...the dinosaur extinction.

...Kids will raise questions about all of these areas that simply cannot be answered coherently except in the context of evolution by natural selection. Their understanding of the compelling evidence for the concept, and of its unifying power, develops organically. There are few more urgent questions for kids than "How did we get here?". Understanding a major unifying concept is empowering, and the empowerment augments evolution's strength as a grabber. Kids love to "feel their oats" by being better informed than adults about a live issue. A kid who simply "believes in" evolution is only marginally better off than one who doesn't believe in it.

... Hormones are a Grabber topic. They're also a powerful teaching device. Make sex an aspect of almost any presentation, and kids will suck it up like a vacuum. Even Latin grammar will spark passionate interest with the right selection of reading materials.

By high school, sex is a Grabber on a par with Dinosaurs and Space:
... Sex lives of dinosaurs, and everyone else.
... Mating displays, calls, and ritual combat.
... Hormones and Pheremones. Precursor proteins. Genetic code.
... Molecular biology. DNA transcription.
... Heritable diseases.
... Venereal diseases. Bacteria and viruses.
... Mammalian reproductive physiology and anatomy.
... Aphrodisiacs, nostrums, and quack medicine.

There's nothing quite like a real, live controversy to get the juices flowing. Let the kids take sides. They will be insisting and demanding for help with material that otherwise commands bland acquiescence,  when they need to know it in order to defend their position.

The ability to withstand boredom is one trait that should never be prerequisite for surviving a textbook or a class.



Copyright(C) 1998, 2000 by Jonathan Marin


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Last modified on February 20, 2000