Apr 22, 2015

Science for Kids

I loved the school science fair when I was a kid.  I also participated in Science Olympiad and Odyssey of the Mind.  I met my husband at science camp in high school, and his version of "me time" is still reading science blogs or listening to science podcasts (The Skeptics Guide to the Universe anybody?)  So it's no wonder that we had hoped our kids would love the science fair themselves, and every year doing their projects would be a massive fun educational family undertaking.

Well our girls hate it.  They're ambivalent about science in general.  They tend to be interested any time we have discussions on new theories or discoveries at home, or lead them through just-for-fun experiments, but often complain about science class at school.  (Sometimes because it's boring and sometimes because it talks about the human reproductive system and OMG how embarrassing!!)

We've tried for years to make it fun and exciting.  BUT we are also adamant they do it right- no baking soda volcanoes here, folks!  Only one variable allowed!  Can this experiment be replicated?  How large is your data set?  We've done our best to keep it reasonable and developmentally appropriate for each of them, but we think it's really important that our {all} children learn a few basic fundamental facts about the scientific method- so they can recognize bad information as they get older.

I think we've made a few mistakes along the way though.  First of all, we never start soon enough.  If we want it to be fun AND done correctly, it can't be rushed.  So we always start talking about it weeks ahead of time, but no one ever actually does anything until the weekend before the projects are due.  Second of all, they need more help coming up with ideas for what to do their projects on.  It's difficult for me to come up with a simple, testable and controllable experiment, and I understand the scientific method.  For someone who doesn't, it's nearly impossible.  It certainly doesn't help that many of the "science for kids" websites out there are packed with demonstrations rather than experiments.  Demonstrations are great ways to get kids excited about science, teach them a lesson, and pass the time during endless summer vacation days.  They are NOT experiments, do not teach the scientific method, and are not what the science fair is all about.

Anyway, our bickering over projects in the past has cemented our daughters' hatred for the whole thing, and every year when it comes up there are a lot of heavy sighs and groaning in anticipation.  This year, however, we totally nailed it.  It helped that our oldest finally seemed to understand the assignment, accomplished most of the prep work at school, and needed very little help at all.  We provided a lot more direct guidance to the younger two, who still seemed very confused.  Our son doesn't have to do one at all until he's in the 4th grade, but he wanted to and we (obviously) think that's great, so we do it with him every year, too.

We don't want to be the parents who do the projects for the kids, but if the goal is for them to learn something, then too much "Well what do you think?" doesn't work either, and ultimately just leads to tears.  It took us 4 years to figure out the balance between the two, but this weekend we arrived!  In case you are looking for an experiment to do with your kids, for a science fair or just for fun, this is what our kids did:

For the 13 year old, How much salt has to be added to water to make an egg float?

For the 12 year old, How much weight can 3 eggs bear before they crack?

For the 8 year old, Which of my toy cars is faster- the blue RC car or the red wind-up car?

Are any of these projects perfect?  Of course not.  There will be no papers published in any scientific journals on these experiments any time soon (or ever).  But my kids had fun!  They learned about the scientific method!  They won't get failing grades at school!  No body cried!  Winner!

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