Can we do a better job teaching science?

Could you understand what ice cream is without ever having a taste? How about a ride on a roller coaster? A crackle of static electricity? What if you simply read about these things in a text book? You memorized some facts, maybe made little flashcards to help the ideas stick for easy recall. Then it’s test day. Imagine how you would do compared to someone who has actually experienced these things.

It makes one wonder why so much of learning is abstract and confined to a textbook. So much of science takes place in the physical world. And it is in this physical world that a child’s natural, effortless curiosity is inspired. Here is the first gateway to learning!

But science education is starting to change in U.S. schools. In 17 states, schools have adopted the Next Generation Science Standards, which feature a grade-by-grade curriculum that offers plenty of hands-on activities in the classroom. In one school, students learned about genes by building models and passing them along to other students for decoding. As a teacher explained it, they are building, analyzing and creating. Children learn science best by doing it, she says.

And in other places, the concept of “deep learning” is flourishing. Knowledge that is simply memorized is lost. Teachers instead ask the students to apply the knowledge to real-world situations. When knowledge is applied to experience, something called knowledge transfer happens — and the learning sticks.

As a parent or caregiver, you, too, can help the kids experience deep learning in very simple ways. The more experiences they have, the easier it will be to connect to the lessons at school.

Visit museums: Many science museums are designed to make scientific concepts real, hands-on and alive to young people, featuring interactive stations of all kinds. Make a return visit to your local science museum, and when you travel, make sure you visit these attractions in other cities.

DIY science projects: There are plenty of resources online and in books to help you and your kids build fun science experiments at home. Set aside a Saturday afternoon for experimentation and exploration. By the way, even though it’s the start of the school year, it’s not too early to start brainstorming ideas for the science fair. Not that the project should be started this week, but if your kid is prepared with a solid idea before the event is announced, getting started will be easy.

After-school activities: Look for activities that combine fun with learning like Bricks 4 Kidz. Building with robotic elements and LEGO Bricks includes an element of play, but it also requires planning, experimenting and problem-solving. Down the line, these spatial skills could very well help these students connect with mathematics and scientific concepts in the classroom.

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