Amateur Science

Science for children should be amateur science -- science for the love of the game.


Before the age of professional science, the community of "natural philosophers" all across the world who eventually uncovered the principles of electricity, anatomy, force and motion, evolution, astronomy and so on that we recognize as the basis of today's science, did so in the belief that the sensible world (cosmos) was governed by identifiable patterns of predictability (laws) -- contrary to the prevailing belief that the workings of nature were unknowable and firmly within the capricious prerogative of one or other "almighty" power. Most of these scientists were wealthy or had wealthy patrons, and many spent the majority of their adult lives pursuing knowledge simply for the love of the chase itself. The rules and norms of professional science had still not been worked out, so in every sense of the word these philosophers were most certainly amateurs.

Children’s early experiences in science should also be amateur -- about the love of science for its own sake. It should be playful and open ended and free from pressures to get the "right" answer – and remember it. Schools still allow children in the early grades to explore in this way with bugs and block and batteries, but all too soon its all about the tests -- a curriculum that is a mile wide and no time to linger over whatever truly arouses a child's interest or love.

Science through the elementary and middle grades should be grounded in investigations of the same familiar phenomena that occupied the amateurs, and it should employ simple materials – not so different from those used by the early scientists – minus the dangerous stuff. Materials whose usual function is already known, but which still leave space for invention and creativity. Pipes generally carry water; batteries make electricity; soap makes bubbles; frogs jump and eat flies. But finding what else can these things do, and what else we can do with these things, provides ample opportunities for original, amateur, investigation. Children love such challenges (games) because they are interesting in their own right, but also because they allow them to feel mastery of the process and the medium. They are their own reward.

Afterschool science projects should be designed to channel that amateur energy towards enjoyable and appealing ends. Make water flow uphill! Make light bulbs come on. Find out what kind of fly’s frogs like best, or the life span of a mega bubble. The challenges should begin playfully, but gradually demand close observation, testing, planning and reflection. The endpoint is defined but its not the main reason for the game. The reward is the achieving and the doing.

Science skills are life skills. Amateur science -- with all its frustrations and rewards -- is a marvelous forum for practicing skills that will help children meet many of life’s challenges head-on. And maybe too, some kids who never expected to do so, will one day become professional amateur scientists.

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