MadSci Network: Earth Sciences

Re: importance of research for the elementary student

Date: Mon Oct 30 09:17:13 2006
Posted By: David Smith, Director of Professional Development
Area of science: Earth Sciences
ID: 1162136343.Es

My answer to your question depends on what you mean by research. Instead of trying to guess what your meaning is, I'll write a little bit about what I think research is and what I think elementary science should look like. I also strongly recommend you read the book Science Workshop by Wendy Saul and others. The Elementary Science Integration Project is one of the very few school programs that I know of that actually understands what it means to do science and has figured out how to do it authentically with young kids.

As a scientist (Ph.D. in geology) and veteran of both laboratory research (high pressure/high temperature mineral physics) and field research (crustal kinematics in the US Cordillera and the north-central Appalachians), I have a view of science that diverges quite a bit from what is usually taught in schools. My view aligns quite closely with (and was influenced by) George Hein's view of inquiry (See Figure 1 of The Challenge of Constructivist Teaching, ( Science research in this view is the active creation of new understandings that the community of scientists agrees to accept as valid. This definition has two critical aspects. One is that the process is active on the part of the scientist (scientist as active learner). Others have laid out excellent frameworks for this science process (a very nice summary can be found in the Process Skills workshop guidebook at the Exploratorium's Institute for Inquiry). What it definitely is NOT is the "Scientific Method" laid out in most school textbooks, which is so oversimplified as to be meaningless.

The second critical aspect is the acceptance that scientific knowledge is a social construction of the community of scientists, rather than an arbitrary external truth. This is hard for many scientists to accept, but is widely accepted in the philosophy of science community. This view doesn't mean that anyone can have their own ideas and explanations and call them science - scientific ideas are submitted to public scrutiny and rejected if they do not stand up to that scrutiny - but it does mean that science is a more fundamentally creative endeavor than is often appreciated.

So, what does this mean for young kids? Another great resource for you is the book, The Scientist in the Crib. This book makes the case that kids are born as scientific inquirers. It's how we come programmed to learn about our world and survive our early years. What this means for elementary schools is that science inquiry - the conduct of science investigations motivated by students own questions about the world (teachers can supply questions, but they need to be very sure that those questions are engaging to students) - is a very powerful learning strategy.
A number of districts are now discovering, for example, that implementing science investigations has produced significant gains in literacy. These results suggest that not only should students be conducting science investigations in elementary grades, but that perhaps the entire school curriculum should be built around those investigations. The Reggio Emelia preschools in Italy are one place where this approach has been put into practice in a significant way with very positive results.

Unfortunately, as a result of our society's ideas about science (coming largely from the poor science curricula of the past 20 years) and the poor training of elementary teachers, science "research" is often implemented in elementary schools through the dreadful sorts of "experiments" one finds in books with titles like 101 Never-Fail Science Fair Ideas. I use quotation marks because most such projects are demonstrations rather than investigations and they embody a sterile or even eroneous view of science process and the projects rely heavily on parental input and motivation rather than on the intrinsic curiosity of kids. The Science Workshop book I noted above offers an alternative that is much better and much closer to the way a real scientific meeting runs (the Kids Inquiry Conference).

This is a very long way of saying yes, elementary students can and should do science research, but we need to be very careful about how that research is structured and carried out so that it is engaging and authentic.

Dave Smith
Da Vinci Science Center, Allentown, PA

Current Queue | Current Queue for Earth Sciences | Earth Sciences archives

Try the links in the MadSci Library for more information on Earth Sciences.

MadSci Home | Information | Search | Random Knowledge Generator | MadSci Archives | Mad Library | MAD Labs | MAD FAQs | Ask a ? | Join Us! | Help Support MadSci

MadSci Network,
© 1995-2006. All rights reserved.