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MSPnet Blog: “Science at home — and first things first”

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posted March 14, 2018 – by Brian Drayton

Valerie Strauss, in her blog The Answer Sheet, has posted a story entitled “Parents want to help kids learn science — but many have no idea how.”  The story is actually written by Shelley Pasnik of EDC, based on a new report by that organization and SRI: “What parents talk about when they talk about learning: A national survey about young children and science”  (you can get the full study here).   It is full of interest, and I’d be curious to know what catches your eye if you have time to read Pasnik’s article, or the executive summary (“Overview”) of the study, or the study as a whole.

A quick tour of the findings (my paraphrasing):

• Most parents think it’s important for their kids to learn — though science wasn’t on the top of the list: “social skills, literacy and math” were. (Interesting, in comparison with studies like this one by Pew which found that the majority included science as a key “skill/knowledge” for students’ success (the range depended on the amount of education the respondents had — for those with less education, the proportion was 50%;  for those with at least some college, the number rose to 63%).

• Most parents say they help their kids with school work — and they are confident about helping with  “social skills, literacy and math.”  While they often do sciencey things around the house, though, at least half say they’re not sure what to do, or are not confident about science. They aren’t sure what kids need to know, and would appreciate some help with that,  and suggestions of things to do.

• Most report “using science media weekly or more” — but are not confident that these have helped their kids learn science.   The authors suggest that “Parents may be missing opportunities to deepen the impacts of these experiences.”

I was intrigued that the researchers did not define science for the survey participants.  They did ask them to talk about what they meant by science, and they summarize the responses thus (page 9):

Parents talked about their children’s curiosity and questioning, particularly during everyday routines such as taking the bus, walking to school, or going to the doctor. Children ask their parents about everything they see—the sky, birds, trees, seasonal changes, the moon, the sun. Some parents’ top-of-mind descriptions involved children doing science in relation to special projects, such as making “volcanoes,” mixing colors, making “slime,” or trying something out to “see what happens,” such as planting a seed and watching what comes up or leaving food out to see if mold grows on it.

Some parents responded that nothing came to mind about science, that they did not like science, that their children were too young to do science, or that they did not know if what their children did would be considered science. In these instances parents talked about science as difficult or confusing.

It comes as no surprise that many parents feel unequal to helping their young children learn science, because of their lack of knowledge, or their worry that they are not able to explain to their kids in a way they can understand.  From the point of view of school success, young children thus move from homes that may be supportive but lack confidence when it comes to science, to elementary schools in which their teachers also lack confidence, and perhaps knowledge, about science as well.  Elementary teachers’ under-preparation for teaching science is widely documented, as in this paper in which the issue is taken for granted as a problem needing to be addressed, both in terms of content, and in terms of an understanding of the nature of science and science pedagogy.

The EDC study suggests that parents understand that science is part of their kids’ world — that is, their everyday lives:

Only 6% of parents reported that their children did not engage in science-related activities, because of age or interest, and only a few parents (4%) did not know what science-related activities their child liked to do.

One source of anxiety, though, is not feeling confident that what they can do with their kids “counts” as science — and here one sees a possible confounding of  science as a human activity, and science as an academic subject.  Parents, when they are thinking about helping their kids with learning, are likely to be wanting to help their kids do well in school.

The study offers “5 essential messages” that address the needs and desires expressed by the parents whose opinions they examined (pg 52).

Parents don’t have to be scientists or know the “right answer” to help their children learn science…Parents are crucial to young children’s science learning and science exploration can start with wondering aloud and be reinforced with materials tailor-made for families….Science is for home, school and all the places in between….Science is watchable, readable, playable and doable…What parents need to engage in everyday science with their young children doesn’t need to be a secret.


For me, the key is that parents and teachers share an understanding of the roots of science as an emotion, as an orientation, as one way that anyone can inquire about their world — and that if you want to be a practitioner, there are things to learn, methods to practice, stories to hear, authorities to consult, lives to emulate or learn from.

One of the commenters on Strauss’s blog posted a quote from E.O. Wilson’s autobiography, Naturalist,which struck home for me — Thank you, Malcolm Kirkpatrick!

“Why do I tell you this little boy’s story of medusas, rays, and sea monsters, nearly sixty years after the fact? Because it illustrates, I believe, how a naturalist is created. A child comes to the edge of deep water with a mind prepared for wonder….Hands-on experience at the critical time, not systematic knowledge, is what counts in the making of a naturalist. Better to be an untutored savage for a while, not to know the names or anatomical detail. Better to spend long stretches of time just searching and dreaming.” (p. 11-12).

“Adults forget the depths of languor into which the adolescent mind descends with ease. They are prone to undervalue the mental growth that occurs during daydreaming and aimless wandering. When I focused on the ponds and stream lying before me, I abandoned all sense of time.”(p. 86-87).

NOTE:  Opinions expressed on this blog are those of the author alone, and not necessarily those of MSPnet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation.