Saturday, 19 October 2013

School sci-tech fairs: saviours of the future?

It's frequently said that a picture is worth a thousand words, but could it be true that hands-on experiments are worth even more when it comes to engaging children in science? As the current Google / iPad / your-designation-of-choice generation is being bombarded from the egg onwards with immense amounts of audio-visual noise, how will they get the opportunity to learn that science can be both rewarding and comprehensible when textbooks seem so dull by comparison with their otherwise digitally-enhanced lives?

The infant school my daughters attend recently held a science and technology exhibition based on the curriculum studied during the last term. An associated open evening (colloquially labelled a 'Sci-tech fair') showed that parents too could delight in simple hands-on demonstrations as well as gain an appreciation of the science that their five- to eleven-year olds practice.

In addition to the experiments, both the long-term projects undertaken over several months and those carried out on the night, the entries for a science-themed photographic competition gave interesting insights into the mentality of pre-teens today. All the submissions included a brief explanatory statement and ranged from reportage to self-organised experimentation. One entry that I can only assume was entirely the child's own work especially caught my eye: a photograph of their pet dog standing in front of half a dozen identically-sized sheets of paper, on each of which was a same-sized mound of the dog's favourite food. The sheets of paper were each a different colour, the hypothesis being whether the dog's choice of food was influenced by the colour it was placed upon.  I say it was probably the child's work since I assume most adults know that dogs do not see as wide a variety of colours as humans, being largely restricted to the blues and yellows. But what a fantastic piece of work from a circa ten year old, nonetheless!

Apart from highlighting the enormous changes in science education - chiefly for the better, in my opinion - since my UK school days in the 1970s and 80s, the exhibition suggested that there is an innate wealth of enthusiasm at least for the practice of science, if not for the underlying theories.  If only more people could have access to such events, perhaps the notion that science largely consists of dry abstractions and higher mathematics would be dispelled. After all, if children in their first year of school can practice scientific methodology, from hypothesis via experimentation to conclusion, it can't be all that difficult, can it?

Each experiment in the sci-tech exhibition was beautifully described, following the structure of an aim or hypothesis, an experimental procedure, and then the results and conclusions; in effect, the fundamentals of the scientific method. Themes varied widely, from wave action to solar power (miniature cells being used to drive fans in scale model houses), animal husbandry to biological growth and decay. One of my favourite experiments involved the use of Mentos (mints, if you don't know the brand) to produce miniature geysers when added to various soft drinks. Much to the children's surprise the least favoured contender of the half dozen tried, Diet Coke, won outright, producing a rush of foam over five metres high. The reasons behind this result can be found on the Science Kids website, from which several of the term's projects were taken. The site looks to be a fantastic resource for both teachers and enthusiastic parents who want to the entire family pursue out-of-school science. I'll no doubt be exploring it in detail over the coming year...

Having dabbled in the world of commercially-available science-themed toys the description of how to make your own volcanic eruption experiment on the Science Kids site led my daughters and I to spend a happy Sunday afternoon creating red and yellow lava flows in the garden, courtesy of some familiar ingredients such as sodium bicarbonate and citric acid. They may not have learnt the exact nature of volcanism, but certainly understood something about creating chemical reactions.

Make your own volcano kit
Have fun making your own miniature volcano!

Although these hands-on procedures are considerably more interesting than the dull-as-dishwater investigations I undertook at senior school, the idea of children's participation in experiments is nothing new. The Royal Institution in London has been holding its annual Christmas Lecture series since 1825, with audience members frequently invited to aid the speaker. Although I've never attended myself, I remember viewing some of the televised lectures, with excited children aiding and abetting in the - at times - explosive demonstrations. The lecturers over the past few decades have included some of the great names in science popularisation, from Sir David Attenborough to Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan to Marcus du Sautoy. Anyone care to bet how long it will be before Brian Cox does a series (if he can find time in his busy media schedule, that is)?

Getting to grips with the scientific method via experimental procedures is a great start for children: it may give them the confidence to think critically and question givens; after all, how many people - even students at top universities - still think the seasons are caused by solar proximity? If that's a bit of a tall order, perhaps hands-on experimenting might help children to appreciate that many scientific concepts are not divorced from everyday experience but with a little knowledge can be seen all around us.

Of course it's far more difficult to maintain interest in science during adolescence, but New Zealand secondary schools aren't left out thanks to the National School Science and Technology Awards and the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA)-sponsored regional Science and Technology Fairs. It's one thing to give scholarships to scientifically-gifted - or at least keen - children, but quite another to offer a wider audience the opportunities these programmes offer. All in all, it's most encouraging. I even have the sneaky suspicion that had such inspiration been available when I was at school, I might have eschewed the arts for a career in a scientific discipline - at least one with minimal complex mathematics, that is!