Everyone a Scientist
Have you ever listened to an eight year-old ponder the clouds? Her questions are dreamy, imaginative, big.
Could I pull them apart?
Why do they change so fast?
What if we froze one?
Do different types of clouds appear during different seasons?
What is so interesting about this line of questioning is that it is the purest example of scientific inquiry. Children, by their nature, approach the world with scientific habits of mind. They ask huge, often counterintuitive questions with an open mind and tend not to attach themselves to a specific outcome. They are poised to evaluate the data they uncover by building their understanding of the world around them.
And the way we teach science in most schools currently omits this from science and focuses on established knowledge and reenacting past experiments.
No one believes that one can learn to write without writing. But for too long, we have believed that science can be taught without doing science. Learning established knowledge is certainly an important part of the curriculum, but if children are not doing science, we are not teaching them science.
Data and research results now underpin daily life and certainly dominate many critical issues of government policy today and in the future. Being able to engage in decision making depends on having scientific habits of mind – the understanding of the research approach and the ability to evaluate data and ask critical questions. In this light, it can hardly be surprising that there is so much confusion regarding climate change and other important issues. The fact is, neither politicians, nor the media, nor the general public has been taught to reason with data and to ask key questions. So, it is no wonder we cannot come to a consensus about the most basic issues that we face regarding the welfare of our planet. Democracy requires citizens who have had a chance to do science as part of their education.
The good news is that the means to solve this problem are readily available.
Backyards and school yards make terrific laboratories and they’re free and available. The means to take many environmental measurements are inexpensive or free. Questions about these data are within the intellectual reach of even young students. We must encourage children to be the innate observers of the world around them that they already are. This is the starting point of doing science. One goes from observations to ideas about what is seen and questions to answer. Choosing answerable questions, doing careful, consistent measurements, assembling and analyzing data, reasoning to conclusions, and presenting results take a child from mere curiosity to actually doing science.
Today in education, assessment is required. There are many complaints about teaching to the test. What is needed is to teach through the test rather than to it. To judge how well a student has learned to write, the student needs to write something that can be evaluated. To evaluate science learning, the student needs to do a research project and present it for evaluation. Today there is an extensive network of science fairs that provide just this type of evaluation. Instead of using them to look for prodigies and those destined to be professional scientists, fairs should evaluate student work using rubrics aimed at determining how well scientific habits of mind have been developed.
Helping to address environmental questions and challenges, whether local, regional or global in scope, motivates youth. Doing environmental citizen science affords them a chance to contribute to their world and community.
Then and only then can we have a populace that isn’t intimidated by science, hostile to it, or naively deferential to it. We will have a nation of scientific thinkers and problem solvers.