Lighting the Imagination in Science

Gas flame used for flame test of copper sulphate. Photo Credit: Søren Wedel Nielsen

Imagination in Science

In my policy work in early childhood education, I get to travel and observe a few child care centers in the NYC area every year as part of our Excellence in Teaching Awards. Well, I should say I did, until the funding for this awards program was cut. Minor point.

In those visits last year, some really stellar (read well-funded) classrooms had water tables, sand boxes, aquariums, terrariums, birds, blocks, paints; tools to inspire and ignite the creativity of young minds as they explore and try to make sense of the world around them. Imagination is the most vivid and active during the early years. It must be cultivated and continued in practice.

Let’s think about the role of imagination in science. The process of imagination is on display everywhere in an early childhood classroom. But by the time they reach middle school, students seem to burn out and tire of science. Tired of memorizing facts and figures they see no point in bothering to retain because they will never use that information again. They see no purpose for being able to regurgitate that Cu is the symbol for the chemical element of copper; that 454 grams equals 1 pound; that kinetic energy is defined as the work needed to accelerate a body of a given mass from rest to its stated velocity. All of this information could be looked up if it were required in the future. Where is the imagination? What is driving the curiosity?

The United States is losing a great majority of future scientists as a result of its education system and the way it teaches science. It’s alarming when you hear the statistics: American students ranked 21st out of 30 in science, and 25th out of 30 in math compared to other students in developed countries (2006 PISA comparison). Or on the 2009 NAEP math test 4th graders showed absolutely no improvement in scores, while 8th graders showed modest progress at best. That’s why this emphasis on STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – is so crucial. If we are to “stem” this brain drain of our youth, we must begin to see and teach science in a new light.

Why We Should Care

Science and math form the basis of our society. Who envisioned and built streets to make transportation easier, or built homes for improved shelter? That couldn’t have been done with basic principles and understanding of either science or math.

Think about who designed your Starbucks cup containing your triple soy latte this morning.* Or the person who envisioned the design of the clothes you are wearing and the manufacturing process that went into producing the items that fit your style. Or the energy and transportation logistics required to get those Levi’s into the stores for you to purchase.

Whether kids are interested in studying particle physics, fashion design, or aeronautical engineering in terms of a future career, doesn’t much matter. Society requires this mix of disciplines to function. And the teaching and promotion of science and technology, and the process we use in the curriculum to increase students’ interest and learning, is how we begin to turn this tide.

We need to show the applications of science to connect with children. Give them the means to see the direction of their studies laid out in front of them so that they can understand the relevant connections between classroom content and career pathways, thus providing learning opportunities for students.

I think we are not seeing the forest for the trees; we are more focused on getting to the endpoint – maintaining a competitive status, being a global leader, creating more jobs – than we are focused on how we get there along the way. Perhaps that is the missing component; something we should be sharing with children as we try and teach them about protons, electrons and neutrons. That if they can understand these concepts, understand the relationships, they may be better able to think about the application of these concepts into nuclear medicine and how it might lead to a career as in the field of molecular medicine, or they may apply this knowledge to working on nuclear-powered submarines.

We start our kids in gymnastics, karate, soccer (football) and rugby when young; why isn’t the same emphasis placed on science education in schools? Science is fun! But I’m wired differently and a bit of a nerd, so you may differ with my opinion (but you probably do not, since you are reading Australian Science). Kids don’t just like winning at sports, they like winning. There’s more to competition than just winning, of course: learning what went right, what went wrong, how to improve, working with others, pulling your own weight, being a leader – these are things important to competition, whether it is athletics or academics. And a healthy balance of the two is important.

Young muscle memory needs to be exercised early and often for excellence to take hold. But conditioning a young mind is different from pushing a young mind. Beginning down the path with the mindset that your young child is going to win the Nobel Prize in physics and anything less is unacceptable, probably isn’t ideal. But if parents and schools can start exposing kids to science at an earlier age – simple building blocks, water tables, modeling clay, activities requiring counting and measuring, nature trips. I’m talking things that are age appropriate of course, those activities that give kids a chance to explore on their own terms the world around them. Encouragement, support, resources – that’s how you grow a future scientist, that’s how you improve a nation, a society. Without science, what chance do we have as a species for survival?

In the U.S., much time and resources are spent on “teaching to the test”. Meaning, teachers are prepping their students for standardized tests. Not munch learning is taking place as little information is retained that way. Would it be better to have a two-week “camp” devoted to science and math – rotating sessions that immerse kids into disciplines of study they find interesting? Maybe they should have to compete to be admitted to these special training camps – based on an essay or science test (not a nationalized standardized test – one that was designed by the district or state, one that is based on getting into the “local” competition. Perhaps this would help encourage students, take some of the stigma and fear of a nationalized test away, while at the same time, giving them courage and a badge of honor for getting into the science camp. Programs could be further built, reduced or ceased altogether based on results. Bottom line is there needs to be a renewed interest and innovative method of teaching reinvigorated in science globally.

How Australia Does Science

I write about the education system in the U.S., because that is where I reside and what I know most about. But in an upcoming post, I’m excited to take a look at how one primary school in Brisbane, Australia is addressing the science gap and responding to the call to science and early childhood education.

*This statement applies only to non-Australians. I appreciate the superiority of the Australian coffee, and the care and craft that goes into producing that caffeinated, liquid gold.