teaching kids science

Have been meaning to write about this for a couple of weeks – and have definitely been carrying some inspiration from it. 

A couple of weekends back, my youngest daughter and I had an unexpected treat.  We got to attend a class on teaching science, given by our friend Ed Sobey PhD.  We’d heard about the class through a friend of ours, and I skimmed the coiurse description and it sounded really fun.  So i mentioned it to Kris, who signed our daughter up for the class.  I figured one of us would come along and watch.

Well – we arrived a few minutes early to find Ed setting things up.  He asked us whether we were ready to build some boats, and excused himself to continue “filling up the oceans”.  People started to file, and I noticed that there were no other kids present.  One of the attendees was our eldest daughter’s kindergarten teacher.  It occurred to me that we were in a class intended for adult teachers, not for eight and a half year old kids.  Oy!

I sidled up to Ed, and said – “um – I think I misread the class description …”.  Ed responded “Well – you’re here now”.  So I decided to give it a try, and see what happened.  Having attended one of Ed’s talks before, and having read some of his books, I had reasonable hope that it might be just fine for the kids in all of us.

He began the class by running through the ground rules :

  1. work fast (everyone else is)
  2. make mistakes fast (you learn more from these than successes)
  3. steal ideas from those around you (learn from their successes and failures)
  4. make one change at a time (the scientific method)
  5. dare to try something new

The rules sound simple, but my experience is that even experienced professionals forget these things too often.  And there’s a lot of research about how fear of failure stifles creativity in kids.  The key seems to be to set the expectation that effort is the thing that differentiates you from others, and give your kids the confidence to take risks, so they can learn from the inevitable mistakes.

We spent a while building aluminum foil boats which would support the weight of a heap of nails.  The idea was to figure out how to balance surface area on the water, with walls to keep the water out as the boat dipped farther into the water with the increased weight.  it took about fifteen seconds to explain the exercise, and about that long to come up with your first try at a boat.  The other experiments we did were all pretty straightforward in terms of guidelines and assembly.

In all cases, the effect on our kid was immediate.  Our daughter got right each of the experiments, and also seemed to internalize the scientific method (change one variable at time in order to understand what’s working and what isn’t.  She proactively asked questions, and watched others to figure out what was working for them, and then incorporated these ideas with hers for the next boat design.  Amazing, when contrasted with the more traditional classroom lecture approach.  It seems that putting the onus on the students to learn through experience serves to empower them, and fires their interest.

Of course it helped that there were some chemical reactions featured as well – namely Mentos and Diet Coke, as well as Alka Seltzer in a small film canister.  Our daughter was very proud that her film canister cap ended up on the roof of the library.

Initially I was concerned about whether the class would work for my daughter.  By the end, I could see why Ed didn’t object to her sitting in.  She was proof positive that the methods work. 

Since then, she’s started doing more ‘experiments’ at home, or wherever else we might be.  Lots of fun.

Check out some of the fine work Ed does, and see what you think :



He’s also written many books.  Some notable selections are :

Thanks for what you do Ed!


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