09 October 2014

Let Them Be Curious: 13 Year Old Shares His Ideas on Science Education

Note: This article originally appeared in Science Connection, a newsletter produced by the Kentucky Department of Education.

Since his toddler years, my oldest son (now age 13) has shown an interest in physical science, especially anything having to do with energy. From his earliest years, science books, gadgets, circuitry, and anything solar powered has fascinated him. He even spends spare time watching YouTube clips about science and Mythbusters. Now, before you get a mental picture of educators’ son (My husband is an educator, too) who’s just a nerd, let me tell you that this child is an average teen interested in video games and computers like most other teens his age. The other trait Ethan has in common with average kids his age is a curious mind interested in exploring and learning. What’s exciting to me about the Next Generation Science Standards is the push for greater exploration of scientific concepts and the opportunity for students to ask more questions. Since the goal will be for students to ask the questions rather than for teachers to create a lab experiment with step-by-step instructions, I recently asked Ethan about NGSS Standard PS3.C. His curious nature took hold as he explained to me how he would teach this standard if he were the teacher. Below is a portion of our conversation.
Ethan: An active teen

RB: Ethan, I’m looking at the Next Generation Science Standards being implemented in schools around the country, including Kentucky, and I’m looking specifically at a standard for middle school that says “when two objects interact, each one exerts a force on the other, and these forces can transfer energy between them.” What do you think?

Ethan: yeah, what about it?

RB: If you had to teach that standard to kids, how would you do it?

Ethan: Well, there are several ways you could do it. You could use magnets, or plastic combs or balloons, but you should really let kids explore and see what might happen before you tell them anything.

RB: What do you mean?

Ethan: So, take the plastic comb idea. I would gather the students around a sink, give them all plastic combs and tell them to make the water bend.

RB: What if they don’t know what to do?

Ethan: That’s okay. They’ll figure it out probably if you give them a chance.

: But how would I give them a chance and still teach them anything? What if they just stand there?

Ethan: Mom, these are middle schoolers standing near a sink, they’re not going to just stand there. They’re curious and they will want to play around.

RB: ok. But what if they don’t figure it out?

Ethan: Well, after you wait a bit, you might have to start giving them hints.

RB: What kind of hints?

Ethan: Well, you could ask them questions or get them to ask you questions.

RB: What kind of questions?

Ethan: More than likely, the students will start asking questions and trying things out. They might ask—what will happen if I put this water under water? What will happen if I run the comb through my hair and then put it in water? If they don’t ask those questions or try out those things you might ask them how they think they could make static electricity with the comb.

RB: So, more than likely they will have some experience with combs and their hair having static electricity, right?

Ethan: yeah, then you could start explaining stuff to them like electrical charge happens when objects are rubbed together, so you will have charge when you run the comb through your hair.

RB: Tell me more.

Ethan: Negatively charged particles move from your hair to the comb. This makes the comb negatively charged. Electrons repel other electrons. If the negatively charged comb (from rubbing it in your hair) is near the water, it repels the electrons in the water. The water near the comb has a positive charge. The attraction between the positive charge and the negative charge bends the water.

RB: So how do you know this? Is this an experiment you did at school?

Ethan: No, I tried it in the bathroom sink one time. Plus I watched a YouTube video about it. It works the same way with strong magnets. But really, mom, you should try it and read about it too.

And, there you have it, a science lesson from my 13 year old son, and I would guess most science teachers already know this experiment, so the purpose of our sharing was not so much to tell you a cool experiment kids might enjoy. Instead, the purpose of our sharing this exchange and idea with you is to help you see just how curious kids are on their own, if we let them be. We don't have to provide step-by-step instructions for doing the experiment, and it seems the NGSS don't want us to do that anyway.

Some sites Ethan suggests for learning about bending water (just make sure you don’t provide kids the step-by-step instructions).