The Benefits Of Embracing Science
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll be aware that we live in a world driven by technology. It touches our lives in a myriad different ways. And so, intuitively, parents know that the STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths – are going to give their children a wide choice of careers in the future.
But there’s so much more to be learnt from science than the science itself. When children study STEM subjects, they also learn explicit lessons in critical thinking, become better problem solvers, and learn principles of logic, hypothesis-testing and other methods of reasoning.
“Being observant about the world around you is an important skill,” says Melanie Blair, the head of department for physical and natural sciences at St Mary’s School, Johannesburg. “It is natural for very young children to be inquisitive and ask questions, and that is something that we need to preserve as children get older.
“Wonderment is very important, and encouraging it into a lifelong skill is something I am very mindful of. Studying science enables you to think in a different way and being taught from an early age what science is, i.e. answering a question by postulating and then testing your theory, gives youngsters the confidence to ask questions and test their theories as they get older.
“In order to solve some of the world’s problems, the next generation has to first be able to imagine what those problems might be. So we need to train young children to be confident enough to imagine and hypothesise and investigate.”
Blair says small children are natural scientists, but when they become teenagers, their focus changes to passing tests and exams. So it’s vital to keep that interest piqued in the early years. She is doing this at her school by working with the school’s preschool, Little Saints, and through the science club she started recently for slightly older children.
With the pre-schoolers, Blair got the four and five-year-olds to test different household items with indicators to see whether they were an acid or a base.
“It was difficult to get this age to comprehend the terms ‘acid’ and ‘base’ and so we classified them as ‘sour’ and ‘soapy’,” she says. “We told them that acids would go yellow when the indicator was added, and bases would go blue. We also told them that the indicator was called bromothymol blue and they enjoyed trying to remember such a big word.
“Then we asked the children to draw the household items and predict whether the items would be an acid or a base by writing and A or a B next to their drawing. They did the test, recorded their results by drawing a circle with the colour in it and concluded whether the item was an acid or a base. Voila! We taught them the basics of what a scientific test is.”
She says she started the science club at St Mary’s because the junior primary girls weren’t exposed to scientific equipment or scientific process.
“I wanted to capture their interest early and I think parents really want to send their daughters to the club so that they can develop a love for what science is and for the discovery aspect,” says Blair. “The reality is that at senior school level it is quite important to be able to do science if you want to get into your preferred course at university, and so exposing girls early to science and its brilliance will hopefully create a spark that can be honed or built upon.”
Blair says the younger girls show great wonder and enthusiasm and love to wear the big girls’ lab coats and goggles and to go up to the big science lab.
“I let the girls ask questions, and one Grade 1 girl asked me why it is that the Earth spins and we do not fall off!” she says.
“In the science club I have done a couple of experiments where they hypothesise and test and then conclude, but I have also asked the girls to perform experiments so that they are able to get their hands ‘dirty’ and use equipment. They love that aspect.
“At an all-girls school girls learn that they can do anything including manipulating equipment and working out why something has not worked. For example, my science club girls spent 40 minutes trying to make a boiled egg squeeze through the neck of a bottle. They had to perform many trials and work out why some groups’ methods worked and theirs did not. It was great trial-and-error learning.
“Hands-on experimenting also helps with fine motor co-ordination and exposes them to the importance of following instructions carefully – like a recipe for a cake.”
In the same way that not every child who studies art becomes an artist, not every child who studies science will become a scientist. But they will learn lifelong skills such as trial and error, experimentation, the understanding that some questions have complex answers or no answers at all, the lessons of failed experimentation, and persistence in the face of difficulty. And those are lessons that are as useful in a laboratory as they are in running a corporation.
Girls and science
A 2016 analysis of more than 10-million research papers in 6 000 journals revealed a persistent dominance of male writers, with men most often snagging the senior author credits in the world’s top scientific journals.
A study in Plos Biology found that the imbalance was most pronounced in some of the world’s wealthiest countries, with strikingly few female authors in Japan, Germany and Switzerland. It was worst in surgery, computer science, mathematics and especially physics, where – at current rates of progress – numbers are predicted to remain skewed for another 258 years.
“Girls are not perceived to have the analytical thinking ability required for science, which is absolutely not true,” says Blair. “I think girls have been quiet to speak up about what they know in the past, and are thus not perceived to be as smart as boys in the science field. This is changing slowly worldwide.
“I hosted two female undergraduates from MIT at my home in early January. MIT has an equal equity enrolment policy of 50% females and 50% males. However, these two MIT students said that the males in their classes would say to them that they only got in because they were female and because of the quota system. So even at MIT, girls have to fight to be recognised.
“The key is to get young girls interested early and let them believe that enquiry and exploration are absolutely normal and expected, and then it will become a norm instead of a leap of faith.”
Do try this at home!
A love of science begins at home. When children grow up in science-friendly homes, they are encouraged to ask questions, think critically, experiment, explain their reasoning, read, write, create models, and watch science programmes on TV.
Melanie Blair has some other ideas for you to try:
“Parents should listen to their children’s questions and ask them: ‘What do you think is happening/has happened here?’ Don’t think that your child is too young to understand concepts. Try your best to explain the world that they live in.
“I love the Usborne Flap Book series (www.usborne.com) that has titles such as Inside Great Cities, Where food comes from, Inside the Earth, Inside the Universe and Inside the Body. They’re hard cover books with great pictures and children have to lift flaps to get access to additional facts. Small children love to quote facts, and this is a great place to start to induce wonderment.
“Baking is a good place to introduce chemical change. One puts things in a bowl, mixes them, heats them up and then they transform into something yummy. And you have to follow a procedure carefully to get it right.
“Getting hold of a dissecting microscope encourages wonderment too in ordinary objects. Also, I would recommend a snap circuit (https://www.amazon.com/Elenco-Snap-Circuits-Jr-SC-100/dp/B00DO9XIF8) or games from the company, ThinkFun, in order to help children with sequencing and to start experiencing cause and effect principles.
“Apps that I have downloaded for my five-year-old that are also good for cause-and-effect principles are FisherPrice Code-a-pillar, Crazy Gears and Thinkrolls.“