One of the most enjoyable aspects of parenting is showing our children the activities we used to do when we were their age. DIY Volcano, anyone? How about making some fake snot? Science was a blast when we were kids. What happened?
So often, by the time we’ve reached adulthood and even by the teenage years, many of us have lost our interest in science, and even in nature itself. In fact, at least one study shows that, although children love science, parents are "meh" about the subject.
But there is a way to turn that around—to keep children engaged in science and to rekindle the spark in adults.
From playing with roly-polys on the sidewalk to watching a butterfly emerge from a chrysalis to finding the “man in the moon,” young children have a near-universal love for all things scientific.
“They’re looking for answers about their world,” says Kim Hunter, director of education and experience at the Kentucky Science Center. “That’s what attracts them to science: they have an insatiable curiosity. They want to know everything.”
“Science can be about making cool things happen that you never thought was possible to make happen, whether it’s an explosion or a cure for a disease,” says Marjorie Bequette, director of lifelong learning at the Science Museum of Minnesota. Children get this: so why don’t adults?
The way science is taught may have something to do with it, Hunter says. While elementary school teaching tends to center on hands-on activities, books often become the focus in later grades—turning science into an abstract series of memorized formulas, concepts, and theories.
“The research shows that interest and motivation in science nosedives the minute kids enter middle school,” Hunter says. “A lot of schools try to pour content into their heads without any relevance. Why are you telling me about linear momentum when I really want to know why the sky is blue?”
By the time students enter high school; education becomes less about learning for its own sake and more about preparing for college or a career, Bequett points out. Unless teens have parents or other influential adults in their lives with an interest in science, they tend to drift away from the subject.
Why does it matter? In an age where the very future of our planet hangs on adults’ understanding and acceptance of science, nurturing young people’s interest in the subject is crucial, Bequett agrees. What’s more, science teaches patience, perseverance, and problem-solving—crucial life skills no matter what our profession.
Girls and children of color are the most vulnerable: they may not feel confident enough to endure the “failures” that science requires on the way to success, she says.
“Failure is obviously a bad word in school,” says Bequett.
This is especially true for girls, low-income children, and children of color, who often have a different experience of the world than white boys in more affluent families, she points out. Boys are more likely to grow up seeing their role models being rewarded for hard work, while children in the other groups may not witness their role models making such gains.
“Boys, affluent kids, and white kids—there’s a whole host of reasons why they might trust the system more that says, ‘If you do this hard work, it will pay off’,” Bequett says. “Girls, low-income kids, or kids of color might not trust the system—frankly, rightly, at times.”
Children whose parents encourage and support their success and interest in school have a better chance of staying engaged and interested in science, Bequett says. Those adults may be more likely to take children and teens to science centers, too—which are designed to keep the science spark alive in kids AND to rekindle it in grownups.
“If you’re doing an experiment at the science museum and you have a failure, there are no long-term consequences for that,” Bequett says. “You can set up and try again.”
“At science centers, we don’t force them to learn anything on our schedule and our time,” adds Hunter. “Learning is in their control. They find out what they want, when they want, why they want, and how long it takes.”
“If they’re not getting that motivation, that interest and that creativity nurtured in school, the science center nurtures it when they come here. We help keep it going.”