Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Should You Push Math and Science?

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Media pundits and policymakers have been telling us for years that we need to graduate more STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) students, because our companies just can’t get enough qualified workers. I wrote a little bit about this perceived “Sputnik Moment” last year.

But now there is a new report by the Economic Policy Institute that blasts a hole in that story. After crunching all the numbers, it seems that the U.S. has more than enough STEM graduates. In fact, for every two STEM graduates, only one is able to get a job in his or her field. This seems to match the reports I have been reading over the years in the “American Society of Engineering Educators” newsletters, which suggest that many of our engineering graduates are having trouble finding jobs.

Percent of high school graduates going to college, graduating, and then entering a STEM job.
Source: Economic Policy Institute

This report also challenges the critics who say that U.S. schools are failing because our students don’t score as well as China, Canada, and other rivals on international tests. While it’s true that on average, U.S. students only score in the middle of the pack, some analysts say that this is a very simplistic and misleading summary. It makes a good sound bite, but raging over our seemingly weak performance completely misses other more positive information buried in year-to-year trends, socioeconomic indicators, and test methodology. In fact, the U.S. has a lot of highly qualified students who score in the top tiers of these types of tests.

The emphasis of the report is really on clearing up misconceptions about our STEM labor market as it influences foreign guest-worker and immigration policies, but I’ll let someone else fret over that.

What concerns me is the whole idea of pushing certain career fields on kids, even for reasons that seem noble on the surface. Whose interest does it serve? If kids choose a STEM field because everyone is telling them how desperately our country needs them, which implies job opportunities, and then it turns out not to be true, then those kids just lost out on 4 years of their lives which might have been better spent studying something they really care about.

Policymakers worry  that too many kids drop out of STEM fields while in college, but the EPI report claims that, in reality, more kids transfer in to STEM fields from non-STEM fields while in college, so the net result is usually more STEM majors at the end of 4 years than at the beginning. It seems that we are bemoaning a problem that does not exist.

Why do we give so much attention to engineering a work force that suits the needs of industry? If we only focused on what’s best for each student, I believe there will still be plenty of highly qualified and motivated individuals in every field, because all students quite naturally have different interests. With a student-led curriculum, the only thing we might have a shortage of is mindless submission.

It’s important to expose kids to lots of different things, including math and science, but they need to have the space and freedom to follow their fascinations, even if you can’t imagine how they would ever make a living doing that. If they later decide to pursue a career for monetary or security reasons, that’s up to them. Just make sure their expectations match reality – and not someone else’s agenda.

10 Inspiring Websites for Learning Science

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Science and math don’t just exist in textbooks – in fact, the best part of these fields DON’T exist at all in textbooks. The curiosity, wonder, and magic must come first. Only then are we motivated to find out the details of how it all works. But sometimes it’s hard to show this to kids, especially if we never discovered an interest in these things ourselves.

As I wrote in my last post, it’s great if you can find a passionate, knowledgeable teacher or other mentor to lead a class, workshop, field trip, or other experience for your homeschool group. But if you can’t find teachers like that in your local area, the next best thing is to find the books they have written, or the websites they have put together. When I evaluate websites, I am really interested in the knowledge and interest level of the creator/s, along with the caliber of content provided. Some sites have a lot of commercial backing and glitzy features but they seem too cartoonish or dumbed-down for my taste. I’m also instantly turned off by images of red apples and chalkboards, just so you know. I’m OK with advertising, because I know that it takes effort to put forth great content, as long as the information or activities are provided are truly useful, fun, and/or inspiring.

1. My first pick is the now famous Khan Academy site. The creator of the site, Sal Kahn, is both knowledgeable (with three degrees from MIT and one from Harvard) and passionate about helping people learn. His site is a goldmine of free videos demonstrating every possible math concept you can think of, as well as a generous smattering of economics, science, history and SAT prep.

2. Vi Hart Mathmusian’s Youtube Channel: Fibonacci numbers, spirals, fractals, doodles – all about math combined with art.

3. Vi Hart’s personal web site: Besides her Youtube channel, Vi has another site showcasing her math, art, and music related projects.

Vi Hart

Paper mobius strip music box by Vi Hart

4. National Geographic is always an intriguing resource, but they have a few educational projects that look really promising, such as “Population 7 Billion” which involves mapping, human migration, population density and climate change issues. Learning science starts with a reason to learn. Projects like this help make science relevant.

Image from National Geographic

5. The Jason Project is a collaborative effort with The Sea Research Foundation, National Geographic and other organizations to connect students with real scientists and researchers out in the field. There are free downloadable curriculum units on forces & motion, energy, geology, ecology and weather.  There are also digital labs and games to play. My kids and I did this years ago with our homeschool group when the Jason Project team was headed to Antarctica. We did science experiments and other activities related to ice, the ocean, hypothermia, animals, weather, and other Antarctic related topics. It was cool to watch video updates of the research team’s travels and work. The format seems to have changed since then, but it still seems like fun.

JASON Science

6. The Exploratorium is an amazing science museum in San Francisco. My family has visited science museums across the country, but this is our favorite by far. If you are ever in the Bay Area with your kids, this is well worth a visit, and you will want to stay ALL DAY (trust me). But if you can’t make it in person, their website is fun to explore too. There are all sorts of videos, games and activities related to building, sound, colors, geometry, other planets, Polynesian navigation, the ocean, human body, patterns, and general science. All kinds of stuff!


Image from

7. Want more games? Try this one:  This site compiles engineering games from around the web, including bridge design, building roller coasters, space walks, solar car racing, MRI Design, destroying castle walls, and others.

Try Engineering

Image from

8. Want more sleuthing? Try Science Mysteries. Here you’ll find a variety of free mysteries with science-based clues to download and solve, such as “Arctica,” “Strange Dead Bird,” “Poison Dart Frog,” “The Blackout Syndrome,” and “Angry Red Planet.”

Science Mystery

Image from

9. Wondering about STEM career fields? The Science Buddies site has a VERY comprehensive listing of possible careers – some you may have never thought of, like photonics engineer or sustainability specialist. This site is also a great resource for possible science fair projects and topic ideas.

STEM Careers

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10. For older kids and teenagers, I have to include TED on this list. TED, which stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design, is an ambitious initiative to spread good ideas around the world. Each year the organizers attract scientists, engineers, designers, entrepreneurs, teachers, and other presenters with great ideas to come speak at two sold-out conferences every year. These short presentations are not designed for children, but that is what’s so great about them. Kids will see that these are real people with real ideas that they are working on right now. It’s not has-been science or lecturing. These little videos on everything from “Animations of Unseeable Biology” to “The Magnificence of Spider Silk” to “Distant Time and the Hint of a Multiverse” are what is happening right now and in the future. They are relevant to any kid (or adult) who wonders about the world.  Check it out!


Bonus: Do you have a child interested in computer programming? Here’s a list of recommended sites by my tech-obsessed son:

Code Year – If you know someone who wants to learn programming, here’s a way to start from ground zero.

Stack Overflow – Already know some programming but need help? This is the place to go.

Tutsplus – Lots of tutorials here for learning web development.

Hacker News – For the seriously addicted, a place to find out about the latest happenings in computer technology, etc.


Also, here’s one last website with a list of good open education resources you may not have heard of. Do you have any other favorite sites to share? Please leave a comment below.


Our New “Sputnik Moment” – More Scientists, Engineers, and Mathematicians

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Maybe it’s just my selective hearing, but it seems like everybody these days is talking about how desperately the United States needs to entice and retain more students in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields, especially in response to our perceived technological race with China.* On Monday, I heard a very interesting talk by Ann Lee, author of What the U.S. Can Learn From China, in which she mentions China’s ability to churn out highly qualified math and science students. In contrast, statistics of U.S. graduates in 2009 show that we graduated roughly 89,000 visual and performing arts majors, but only 69,000 engineering majors, and 22,000 in the physical sciences or science technologies (see source). President Obama even alluded to this as our new “Sputnik Moment” in his State of the Union Address. Technological innovation and research are being hailed again as the answer to our economic, security, and way-of-life problems.

I’m not going to argue with this (yet*). It would be great if we could invent a long-lasting solar battery, learn to capture CO2 from the atmosphere, desalinate seawater cheaply and easily, find a cure for AIDS, etc. There are lots of ways that technology could really help us right now. The problem seems to be that not enough U.S. students are interested in or capable of rigorous study in these fields. So, naturally, policy-makers are thinking of every way possible to provide incentives for students, training for teachers, and more rigor in our national curriculum. It’s just ironic that we are paying so much attention to China’s school system in hopes of learning how to boost our kids’ STEM literacy while the Chinese are looking closely at our school system for ideas on how to boost creativity in their own students.

Nicholas D. Kristof noticed this in a recent New York Times article: “But this is the paradox: Chinese themselves are far less impressed by their school system. Almost every time I try to interview a Chinese about the system here, I hear grousing rather than praise. Many Chinese complain scathingly that their system kills independent thought and creativity, and they envy the American system for nurturing self-reliance — and for trying to make learning exciting and not just a chore.”  He wrote: “One friend in Guangdong Province says he will send his children to the United States to study because the local schools are a ‘creativity-killer.’ Another sent his son to an international school to escape what he likens to ‘programs for trained seals.’ Private schools are sprouting everywhere, and many boast of a focus on creativity.”

Isn’t that great? I love that the Chinese want their kids to be more creative, but it’s sad that so many of our kids are not prepared for the academic challenge of STEM fields. Perhaps the best solution is somewhere in the middle. Is it possible to build more rigor into our children’s education without squelching their creative spirit? I think so, and there are two big things that would help: giving kids ownership of their education, and  inspiring them with the best examples we can find.

1. OWNERSHIP – I’ve written before about my thoughts on systematic science vs. haphazard (self-directed) science education. The main point I want to emphasize here is that timing is everything. I disagree strongly with Nicholas Kristof’s opinion that the U.S. should start serious academic training in preschool, as they do in China. It is true that preschoolers are very malleable and easy to teach at this age, but they have far more important things to be doing with this precious time than getting a headstart on high school. Kids are BORN creative. If China (or the U.S.) wants their people to be creative, they don’t have to do anything special, they only have to avoid stopping it. That means letting children play, explore, touch, listen to stories, laugh, help, and be loved. As children mature, they are much better equipped to take on abstract studies of reading, writing, and arithmetic. As teenagers, they are more than able to take on rigorous studies if they are so inclined. The problem with pushing academics too early is that it kills curiosity. Once intrinsic motivation is lost, schools must rely on external motivators (rewards and punishment) to make up the difference. From what I have read about China’s education system, their rewards and punishments are more consequential than ours, and maybe that is why their kids take studying so seriously. But I think the best solution is to let kids direct their own education for their own reasons, because curiosity and ambition are powerful forces all on their own.

2. INSPIRING EXAMPLES – Passionate teachers, mentors, museums, science centers, movies, demonstrations, exhibits, and fairs like the Maker Faire are all wonderful ways to show kids the possibilities of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Reading well-written books by authors who are truly passionate about their subject is another way to spark interest. Textbooks are usually not inspiring because they are written by a committee whose sole purpose is to instruct. Even if you don’t live close to a metro area with museums, science centers, and events to visit, make an effort to find inspiring examples for your kids. Work with your homeschool group to find local mentors or teachers for workshops and field trips. Are there any blacksmiths in your area? Beekeepers? Interesting retirees? We once made friends with an elderly woman who power-walked through our neighborhood every morning. We gave her bags of oranges from our tree and she invited us over for lunch one afternoon so that her retired husband could have someone to talk to. It turns out that her husband was a retired astrophysicist. As we enjoyed the gourmet home-cooked Chinese feast our friend had prepared for us, her husband talked non-stop about his fascinating research on comets. None of us had ever been interested in comets before that day, but his passion was contagious. When we got home, my kids all wanted to look up comets on the Internet so we could see what he had been talking about. If I had tried to introduce comets as part of some science curriculum, there is very little chance it would have made any impression on my kids. But a real person with real enthusiasm is hard to beat.

Fortunately, we also have access to very interesting people via the Internet. In my next post, I’ll talk about STEM- related websites that might inspire your kids.

*I’ve also heard reports that recent college graduates with engineering degrees can’t get jobs, but I’ll save that for another post.



Learning at the Edge

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A. & E. Exploring the edge of a stream

Any naturalist knows that the most interesting place to look for things is at the edges. Where a field meets a forest or a river flows into the sea or where the reef hangs over deep water – those are the areas that are especially abundant. The edges are where species from two different ecosystems mingle and hide and hunt. There are even plant and animal species that exist only in these edge habitats.

Ecologists call this the “edge effect,” but I think the same phenomenon applies anywhere that two different areas intersect. For instance, physics is interesting, but exploring the edges of physics and art, or physics and psychology, or physics and theology, can be even more interesting. How about the intersection of martial arts and mythology, or architecture and music, or history and dance?

Everything in this world is attached to something else. By exploring the edges of seemingly unrelated fields of study, new ideas are born. In fact, that’s where all the great thinkers are. Buckminster Fuller lamented that our modern educational system concentrated too much on creating specialists when what we really needed were more generalists. By this he meant people who studied a variety of things and could make valuable connections between them. These are the Renaissance thinkers or polymaths like Leonard da Vinci, Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Maria Montessori, Rabindranath Tagore, Isaac Asimov, Steve Jobs, and others who are able to see the large patterns that others may not see.

We will always need specialists in every field, because they are able to study something deeply and make new discoveries based on years of intensive research. But we need generalists too; those who have spent time and effort to learn several subjects very well, and have made something of what they learned. Simply being well-informed isn’t enough. We all tend to dabble in different subjects, but a real polymath will put in some real time and effort on several subjects (not necessarily all at once), and come up with new insights or contributions.

This is one of the wonderful things about homeschooling. Because we have the freedom to customize our curriculum, our children can study the things that most interest them, for as long as they want. For science, my daughter only wanted to study anatomy and health. Every year for six years I would ask her, “Do you want to read this book about rocks? (or electricity, or space, or whatever)” and she would say no. She only wanted more books about muscles, bones, cells, blood, viruses, etc… It could be about animals or humans, sometimes plants, but certainly nothing that hadn’t once been alive.  We read books about Florence Nightingale and medieval medicine, constructed models, did Janice VanCleave experiments, drew pictures, counted heartbeats, looked for golden ratios in the human face, listened to trees with a stethoscope, looked at nematodes with a microscope, played the Somebody game, watched documentaries about the brain, evolution, animals, etc.  When we discovered animal carcasses while hiking, she would squat down to investigate the position of the bones and look for clues as to how the animal died and who had been eating it.

It’s amazing how many different topics you can touch on with a single abiding interest. She was happy for me to find interesting things for her to read and do as long as it was related to anatomy or health. Thinking about it now, I probably could have interested her in electricity if we had researched the body’s electrical field, or space exploration if we had looked at what astronauts did to stay healthy during missions (in fact, this was her favorite exhibit at the local Air and Space Museum).

The wonderful fun thing about learning is making connections – finding out how things are related. And to see that, you must go to the edges and look.

Try this: Bring to mind two or three things that you are very interested in, and find the connections between them.

Should kids keep illustrated journals?

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Illustrated journals seem like such a good idea for kids, right? It’s a good excuse for building writing and drawing skills, not to mention budding scientific observation.  Wouldn’t we all be proud to have a child like Teddy Roosevelt, who kept detailed journals filled with his sketches of birds, mammals, and other creatures, sometimes even labeled with their Latin names?  Charlotte Mason, that wonderful Victorian era champion for homeschooling, was also an enthusiastic advocate for children keeping nature notebooks.

It seemed like a reasonable idea to me, especially since I enjoyed keeping illustrated journals myself. The problem was, when I introduced the idea to my oldest son Jesse, he had absolutely no interest in drawing anything from real life. He liked to draw, and would often sit for an hour with a piece of paper, illustrating a space battle while narrating the scene aloud (with plenty of explosions and sound effects):


Robot Battle by Jesse, age 10

This kid was obsessed with monsters, aliens, space villains, and ray guns. Running around outside was fun, but he wasn’t admiring the flora and fauna for what it was, because in his mind, trees were fortresses and rocks were spaceships. There were monsters hiding behind every bush and he carried his homemade stick saber wherever he went. Occasionally, he would stop short to admire a spider spinning her web or tadpoles swimming near the edge of the pond, but drawing those scenes would have ruined the enjoyment. No, as soon as he was back inside, this is what he would draw:

Space Battle by Jesse, age 8


I was happy that he was so imaginative, but sometimes I worried a bit that he didn’t want to do anything “academic.” Write a paragraph on tadpoles or “What I did today?” Forget it. Writing thank you notes was required, and he saw that it was important, so that was OK with him. Otherwise, the only type of writing he might do involved dire peril or good vs. evil, and that was only to keep Mom happy. Interestingly, it wasn’t until Jesse was around 13 and saw a friend’s sarcastic birthday letter, that he really started writing on his own. His friend’s letter opened the possibility of humorous writing, and Jesse has never looked back. He’s actually a wonderful writer, and now, at the age of 19, he’s working on a degree in communications, with the dream of writing for television.

Looking back on all of Jesse’s drawings now, I can see that he was essentially keeping a journal. But it was a journal of his imagination. It satisfied something deep inside of him that I did not need to interfere with. He enjoys nature, but does not want to be a scientist or naturalist. He enjoys drawing and art, but does not want to become an artist. What he really wants to be is what he already is – a story teller. His early drawings were just stories that he told himself. Later, when he was ready to put the stories in words to share with others, he started writing. Now, it makes him happy, and he can spend hours working on one of his fantasy novels or screenplays.

Illustrated journaling or nature notebooks can be a fine idea if kids like it, but if they don’t, then it’s just another artificial school thing that must be done to please an adult. I suspect that the kids who enjoy nature notebooks, like Teddy Roosevelt, are naturally inclined to be naturalists, or at least observers.

My daughter is an observer. She could draw amazing pictures at a very young age because she actually looked at what she was drawing, but she still preferred imaginative drawings. She was not at all interested in her nature notebook, but drew countless fairies, babies, animals and story scenes in her large sketchpads (she didn’t like being cramped). One time she was inspired to tell a story, comic book style:

The Day I Saw a Garter Snake by Emma, age 7


She wasn’t using her best drawing skills in this example, because she was more interested in telling the story. She first drew the major plot elements, then told me the words to write in each frame. This was a very satisfying project for her because the event (seeing the snake) was so important and thrilling that she really needed to express it. Just like her brother, her drawings reflected what she was thinking about. They reflected what was important to her. My kids didn’t need me to tell them what to draw, or even to give suggestions. Even as she got older, Emma didn’t like art project books because she preferred to create her own projects. Now, at age 15, she is attending a charter school for the arts and must work on the assignments that the drawing/painting teacher gives her. But most of the assignments are about technique and the students are free to choose their own subjects as long as they practice the right technique. Plus, it was Emma’s choice to attend this school, and she gives it 110%.

My instincts and experience tell me that forcing kids to do a particular kind of journaling is not necessary and may even be counterproductive. It is fine for us to do our own journaling or nature notebooks; maybe our kids will wish to do something similar. But don’t require it. Just pay attention to what it is they really want to do. You might learn something interesting.

How Studying Nature is Like Appreciating Football

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Years ago, when my husband still watched football, he wanted me to enjoy watching with him. I didn’t mind as long as I was cleaning up or working on a craft project or something, because the sound of the game was enjoyable. Listening to the cheering crowds and announcers is just part of everything that is “Autumn” to me, along with changing leaves, crisp sunny days, apples, and the smell of woodsmoke. But I couldn’t focus on football games at all because all of the running, tackling, yards and penalties didn’t mean much to me. I would watch the screen, only to discover that I hadn’t really been watching, and was only daydreaming. My husband patiently explained the fundamentals and I watched the replays with some interest, but it wasn’t until he started telling me about the players that I really paid attention. It wasn’t until I felt like I knew the people wearing those uniforms that their play really became interesting. This isn’t just a male/female difference either, because obviously my husband already knew the stories about the players. He knew about the coaches, the rivalries, and the histories of his favorite teams.

Learning begins with attention, and attention begins with connection. When we make connections with people, they become more interesting. The same goes for anything really – cars, buildings, gardens, animals – you name it. That’s one of the reasons that reading a great book can launch an interest that you never had before. I was never interested in slime mold until I read The Way Life Works by Mahlon Hoagland and Bert Dodsen, but now I can hardly wait to see a slime mold.

Little kids seem capable of forming personal connections with anything. They will watch, touch, smell, and play with everything they can get their hands on. This of course is why they are such excellent learners. Turn them loose in a field and they will find all kinds of things. “Nature study” comes naturally to them. Nature girl

The problem is when kids get a little older, and maybe they have lost their genius for connections. Point them to a field and they might say,”Why? There’s nothing out there.” It may be pretty to look at or a good place to play a game, but other than that, why bother? It’s like me watching a football game. We need to know who is playing. What’s at stake? Where are the rivalries? What amazing skills and quirks are there to see? Once we’ve made those connections, interest tends to follow.

So if we want kids to get outside and appreciate nature, it really helps to have someone who is knowledgeable and enthusiastic tell us stories about the players. Every tree, spider, salamander, and stinging nettle has a story to tell. Volunteers and guides from Nature Centers can be wonderful resources. My daughter took a weekly class last year that met every Monday at a mountain lake. The guides took them on nice slow walks looking for animal tracks, identifying plants, and learning about wilderness orientation and survival. My daughter LOVED it, as did most of the other kids.

In the absence of real live guides, there are always books to captivate interest. Some of our favorites are the books by Jim Arnosky, especially his “Crinkleroot’s Guides.”

Unfortunately, I think these guides are out-of-print but you might be able to find them used or at the library. You will probably find A LOT of books at the library though about various nature topics. Just let your kids pick out whatever appeals to them.

If you would like to brush up on activities and background stories yourself before heading out on nature walks with the kids, try the classic “Handbook of Nature Study” by Anna Comstock. Hold out for an original version though – don’t get a cheap reprint. I found mine at a wonderful used book store. This delightful (and heavy) book is not necessarily meant to read to kids, but for YOU to read so you will have some understanding of what hidden stories lurk under rocks and forest pools.

I also used a neat series of books by Michael J. Caduto and Joseph Bruchac that used Native American stories to help kids find connections with plants, animals, rocks, and water.

Another great resource these days is videos. Have you ever seen “The Secret Life of Plants” or “Life in the Undergrowth?” Seriously, those movies will pull the rug out from everything you thought you knew about plants and insects. Check out what is available in your library and online.

Whatever resources you use to find the stories behind nature, be sure to get outside with your kids to make discoveries on your own. Take your time. If your kids want to race around and climb trees, that’s fine. Wait until they are tired out before settling in to really look at things. Let them do the discovering, but be prepared to look at everything they will want to show you, and perhaps answer a few questions. But don’t turn it into a science lesson. Think of it as storytelling, and getting to know our wild neighbors. Even your most jaded, non-nature loving kids will find it hard to resist a hermit crab after reading “Pagoo” by Holling C. Holling; just like I found it hard to resist watching football after hearing all about Brett Favre, Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and the rest.

It’s all about making personal connections, and feeling some empathy or kinship with whatever it is we are trying to learn.