Active Science Learning
Professional Development and Support for Hands-on Science
Even after 20 years of science education reform...
.....women, African Americans, Latinos and students from most low income communities are still significantly underrepresented in STEM degree programs and in the STEM professions [Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.] Children from these groups are the least likely to picture themselves as successful STEM learners during the formative years when life goals take shape. And they are the least likely to enroll in the advanced high school science and math courses that are critical to entry into the STEM college degree programs. If nothing changes, these children will be shut out from the important and well paid STEM industries of the 21st Century.
Students from all backgrounds deserve the chance to experience science as an active, engaging and rewarding enterprise -- both in school and in informal learning settings. Nurturing interest and enjoyment is surely the best to draw under resprsented professional advancement in the STEM careers, if that is what they choose.
Some years ago, in preparation for leading a teacher professional development workshop, I re-tested one of my afterschool science projects with a group of 3rd and 4th graders at a South Boston community center. In this project, teams of 2 or 3 students construct “houses” from sturdy cardboard boxes and try to raise the inside temperature to 100F using a single old-fashioned 40W light bulb, a limited supply of aluminum foil and an unlimited amount of cardboard, felt and other heat safe materials.
But before starting on the houses that first day, I handed out simple spirit thermometers of several different designs. I asked them to measure and record the hottest and coldest places in the room, the temperatures of ice water, tea water and hot and cold water in the taps, and any other places in the room that interested them. To my surprise and gratification, they spent almost an hour searching the classroom and adjacent kitchen for hot and cold spots, writing down their findings and then debating the accuracy of their results. We didn’t start cutting cardboard for the houses until the very end of the session.
Over four weekly sessions, the students tested different types and amounts of insulating materials and discovered how important it is to find and stop up all the air leaks. And they discovered, contrary to their expectations, the aluminum foil is not a very effective insulator. They also discovered that you can tell where the "heat" is escaping from the house by feeling for warm spots on the outside of the box. Pretty soon, all the houses reached 100F, so we moved on to the second challenge. This time I gave each team a 100W bulb and challenged them to convert their house into an “oven” hot enough to bake cookies -- a steady inside temperature of 325F! After a lot of "returning to the drawing board" and adding a great deal more insulation, all the teams coaxed their ovens up to, or pretty close to the goal. And on the last day we baked (nearly) perfect and very satisfying chocolate chip cookies!
And mostly under their own radars, the children had also happily measured and recorded dimensions and temperatures and had talked to me and to each other about the design choices they had made, why they chose them and how each one worked out. And from time to time they considered (at my prompting) how the words “heat” and “temperature” differ and why it is important to this experience.
When I came home after that first day in South Boston, I was telling my then 3rd grade son what I had been doing there. By extraordinary coincidence, he had brought home a worksheet that day from his highly regarded suburban school. On it was the large outline of a thermometer with several lines drawn to one side. Over these he had neatly written the boiling and freezing points of water, room temperature and several other temperatures in between. When I asked him what type of thermometers they had used in class, he said: “We didn’t get to use the thermometers, Dad!” And there were no cookies either!
In recent years, policy makers and funding agencies have expressed great hope that afterschool science can encourage more kids from the traditionally under represented populations -- girls, African-Americans, Latinos and children from all low-income groups -- to pursue careers in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math [STEM] professions and trades. This is all to the good – maybe. Afterschool is an excellent place to kindle interest in such futures, but with the increased levels of funding, comes the increased expectation for measurable “learning outcomes.” And that is the point at which afterschool science starts looking a whole lot like school science. My work in over the last 20+ years has convinced me that afterschool science can make the greatest impact on the youth served by not becoming like school science and by not adopting academic learning goals.
The goal of afterschool science -- the outcome that is by far the most significant in terms of long-term engagement with learning -- should be enjoyment, confidence and identity building. Afterschool has the flexibility and culture that allows it to elevate enjoying science and knowing how to ask good questions and how to tolerate the uncertainties of exploration above knowing any particular piece of knowledge (the "answer"). Enjoyment is the surest and best pathway to interest in any field, and interest is surely the best incentive for disciplined learning. Indeed, research shows that interest in becoming a “scientist,” expressed in middle school —not success on science tests —is the best predictor of whether a student will eventually enter a STEM career. Well-run, project-based science programs in afterschool have all the ingredients for changing students’ attitude and steering them toward serious study and future careers in science.
What’s so good about afterschool science is that it can be playful and engaging in ways that school science (alas) seldom is. Afterschool science can steer away from the well-beaten path of measurable academic learning outcomes, into serendipitous realms where “achievement” refers to the desire to know more, rather than merely remembering (and then forgetting) what is on the menu for science in every 3rd or 4th grade class in the land.
© Hutchison 2015