Thursday, December 8, 2011

Second-Grade Science at Home: Experiments and Stories

For N.'s kindergarten and first-grade years, we took a very unschool approach to science, alert to all the ways small children build scientific knowledge through everyday experience and elaborating on concepts as they arose (for example, volume and displacement in bathtub play) while eschewing formal science lessons or experiments.  N. learned science through play outdoors and in, gardening, long walks, butterfly and cloud study, plant- and animal-kingdom classification.  Self-directed reading has been an important means of his science learning, from the concepts of physics and construction in David Macauley's Cathedral, Mill, and Castle, to the principles of engine mechanics in the many books we own about trains, to random topics such as simple machines that are explained so effectively in Macauley's The Way Things Work, to picture encyclopedias of insects, animals, and the planets.

Last year (first grade), Tim supplemented these unschool science experiences by reading aloud to N. the compelling narratives of scientific discovery in Uncle Tungsten and Madame CurieThese stories articulate the thrill as well as the grind of scientific pursuits, and together they offer a rich account of the history of chemistry from Humphry Davy onward.

Following their general trend toward more formal learning activities this year (though we continue to see science learning in all the ongoing unschool activities listed above), Tim and N. have been doing experiments from two workbooks several times a week.  The books are Hands-On Earth Science and Hands-On Physical Science.  We don't recommend these books: the experiments are not always clearly written, sometimes flawed in design, and occasionally even wrong (for example, suggesting that a cup full to the brim with water and ice cubes will overflow when the ice melts).  The explanations of the concepts that the experiments demonstrate are extremely brief and unsatisfying.  I'm sure there are much better books out there, but we happened to have these (bought cheap at a homeschool fair), so they've been using them as a first foray into home experiments.  These experiments introduce or reinforce concepts that Tim and N. will want to (in some cases have already begun to) pursue in the future in greater depth as well as simply giving them practice in conducting experiments.  Even when they don't produce the expected result, N. talks with Tim about experiment design and tries to puzzle out why they failed.  Tim and N. choose experiments to try at random, so their exploration of scientific concepts through experimentation is fairly haphazard.  They do an experiment when it appeals to them, which I think maximizes its learning potential.  Rather than approach N.'s science learning more systematically (i.e. learning about foundational concepts and then building on them), we try through conversation to reinforce and make connections among the concepts they have explored because they seemed interesting.  I hope that their next phase of at-home science experiments will move beyond simply reproducing experiments in a book to designing and executing their own experiments to explore scientific questions generated by N. 

In addition to experiments, since Uncle Tungsten and Madame Curie were so effective as narrative science "textbooks," Tim has been reading to N. several days a week this semester from Joy Hakim's The Story of Science, beginning with the Greeks in the first volume.  These books are written for children and N is really enjoying them.  He has absorbed both history of science and abstract concepts from this reading. 

So far then, our science curriculum has been made up of play & life + experiments & stories.  Do you have any favorite books of science experiments or stories to recommend to us?


Jessica said...

Thank you for the Joy Hakim link~I'm definitely going to look into it.

Despite our unschooly approach, I just ordered Basic Foundations of Scientific Understanding (BFSU)after much deliberation both online and off.

I've even joined the Yahoo! group led by its author, Dr. Bernard Nebel.

I've discussed its approach w/ Ben and I'm planning to use a variety of resources with it--I especially intend to use the VanCleave titles.

We'll see how it goes! :)

Fanny Harville said...

I ordered Basic Foundations of Scientific Understanding this fall but we found it too rigid and sent it back. The VanCleave experiment books look fun!

Anonymous said...

Joy Hakim is wonderful (she offered to speak to a group of teachers for a program I was running). Her books are incredibly engaging and fun. She has published both history and science texts that have been adopted widely.