Science Delays and Quandarys

Science was supposed to return this week, but after doing all the prepwork and having the kids get ready by doing lots of read alouds…  The other family got sick and canceled on us.  And worse, now they’ve fled to Europe!  I’m not annoyed, just jealous.  They’re even going to Iceland on the way back home in a couple of weeks, which is basically the ultimate in earth science field trips.  Sniffle!  Iceland is so beautiful.  When the Husband and I went years ago, we got to stare into the abyss between the North American and European plates.  Literally.  The Husband and I thought briefly about going to Iceland too, but then we remembered that we’re already going to Africa later this year and that’s going to deplete pretty much penny of extra money for a little while.  Oh well.  I’m sure there will be interesting geology in Africa too.

In the meantime, we’ll keep going with some readings about atoms and molecules and maybe watch a video or two more.  I have even introduced narrations about science, which seems to be a nice thing to add to the science notebooks.

As I got ready for the first week, I found an interesting issue that really summed up some of my problems with teaching science, but also created some problems for me.

The first topic is atoms.  Because you can’t actually see atoms, the way most classrooms approach it for this age group is by making models.  Protons and neutrons stuck together and electrons spinning around, perhaps on pipe cleaners.  I began by thinking surely we would start with models of an atom.  However, I couldn’t get satisfied about it in my mind.  Every time I thought about what the model would be like, I felt unhappy with it, though I couldn’t really say why.

I began poking around on the internet and stumbled on this website, a sort of ask the scientist page about building models of atoms.  It makes a pretty funny read through, to tell the truth.  I’ll sum it up for you.  Various kids wanted to know how to build an atom model, but the scientists (actually, mostly just a single scientist) explained why all the models are basically horrible representations of an atom and they shouldn’t do it.  Then more people chimed in calling the scientists names and suggesting that the students just do what they need to do with various materials like styrofoam and gumdrops to get a good grade.  Also, some people think the scientists used too many big words.  The scientists then got all philosophical about education, which only made their critics more angry.  A few people really appreciated where the scientists were coming from, but for the most part, there was a profound lack of understand displayed in the comments, most of which were from adults.

The thing is, I agree with the scientists about this.  What’s the good of studying something as amazing and, honestly, weird, as atoms if all you’re going to do is glue some styrofoam together and basically say that if we only had a better microscope we could stick it under there and see it looking just like that…  when it’s not true?  If you’re curious about what’s wrong with the models of atoms you typically see, either in classrooms or books, this video from NOVA Science Now is a super quick, useful explanation.  For one thing, unless your model is city block sized or more, the scale is off.  For another thing, new thinking about how electrons move basically shows its nothing like those neat orbits they show you in books.  And that doesn’t even get at all that Heisenberg uncertainty stuff.  Probably the kids are too young for that, though after seeing the Bill Nye episode on atoms, Mushroom included in his narration something along the lines that the electrons are too fast to find at any given time, which I thought was pretty good for this age group.

So, nix on the models.  Except…  young kids need simplified ideas.  Seeing that little drawing or doing something hands on can help kids remember it.  Thinking of other subjects, we have certainly done history projects that are hardly historically accurate.  As cool as our mini-Roman road was, we substituted materials, and I doubt that the Romans would have thought much of an aqueduct made of cardboard that only carried water a foot.  I think the kids were able to make a distinction that what we did was partly for fun, partly to remember the basic concepts, and partly to see how something worked, but only in the most simplified way.  So in that sense, the models seemed like a good idea.  No one (or, no one I know!) goes around complaining about kids making art projects about history, geography or literature if it’s not just right.

I sort of enjoyed being challenged by this.  Not being a trained scientist by trade, I don’t know if I have the right thinking exactly.  In the end, I decided we’d do some drawings for the sake of vocabulary, but also watch the peppy NOVA video and perhaps put a little X over our pictures once we did them.  Of course, we’d have done it…  except science was canceled!

5 thoughts on “Science Delays and Quandarys

  1. I think my solution to this dilemma is to leave that kind of science for later, and let the kids pick things up from TV shows, museums, and casual conversation. I figure there’s so much science kids can grasp more easily, we might as well focus on that right now.

    So I understand the dilemma!

    1. Yeah. Almost everything we did last year was very concrete and everything except these first two topics (and maybe plate tectonics) is pretty hands on as well. But I like doing big ideas of all kinds – science, history, philosophy – with younger kids. So in that sense I want to tackle this sort of thing, at least sometimes.

  2. There are a lot of weird little projects we seem to get sucked into doing because everyone does them because they’re “educational”. Mummifying chickens comes to mind as another example. 🙂

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