Post 2: The Purpose of Science Education by Gracelyn Swahn


By Gracelyn Swahn, December 2016

Humans are born programmed for inquiry.

Let’s think about the “why?!” stage that highlights every three-year-old’s expression. “Why did my crayon break? (Well…maybe you were pushing too hard, maybe you were using too much force!) “But why was I using too much force? What is force?” (You explain force, you discuss force, you show examples of force….and then…) “Why?” (You start ignoring.) And then… “Why is the crayon purple? Why is my shirt blue? Why are you drinking water? Why is your hair brown? Why, why, why?”

You can literally give every possible explanation to this child, yet they are still going to ask “why?” Eventually, kiddo’s start figuring things out through trial and error. They start listening and engaging in discussion. They become more outwardly focused, yet are still constantly relating everything to their personal experience. Then they go to school. They learn, they play, they follow routines. Yet, the norm for many years has been purely instructional. We tell them what they need to know, we ask them to read a book or an article, they answer prepared questions, and they follow strictly explained procedures. Yes, we have science fair projects and art class and invention conventions. Regardless, we are still expected to follow guidelines and make sure we are meeting the expected requirements. There is little room for true experimentation and questioning. Have schools squashed our creativity and predisposition for inquiry? I believe schools have hindered these traits, yet I am also seeing a huge shift in the opposite direction.

What is the purpose of science education in elementary school? The purpose is to be curious with a purpose; ask and answer our own questions. Enter productive, phenomena-based inquiry. We need to help children become thoughtful individuals who contribute effectively to the world. We need to allow children to use their imaginations to help explain their reality. Imagine your students filtering into the classroom after a unified arts period. They see an object on their desk. What is it? How does it work? They have learned how to appropriately conduct themselves with new materials, because you, the teacher, have assisted them in developing this skill. They look at it. They feel it. They communicate, discuss, and make plans to “figure it out.” They notice that when they look through the object at a certain angle, everything looks extra colorful, like a rainbow! Through more questioning and online research, they discover that the object is called a prism.

What’s next? You could guide them into learning how prisms affect their lives. They could conduct short research projects to find and explain the use for prisms. They could create infographics or videos to share their knowledge with peers.

As years pass, life is constantly pushing us to figure things out “on our own” and become strong individuals. We cannot always seek answers from our friends, teachers, parents, and mentors. There are times when we need to investigate. There are also times when we integrate various levels of support with personal decisions. There are times when instruction is most effective. In terms of science teaching, a balance is necessary. If we cultivate an atmosphere where students have the tools to seek out information and are challenged in a motivating manner, we are preparing students for a successful future regardless of their personal interests. The three-year-old’s version of inquiry is obviously not fully developed, yet it’s possibly the first time many of us verbalize observational questions. We need to grasp this stage and let it grow, creating an abundance of innovative thinkers. How can we channel these “why’s” into thoughtful, purposeful educational experiences? Integrating phenomena-based inquiry into the science curriculum is one way to guide our students to gaining knowledge that is relevant and challenging, while cultivating individuals who take pride in their educational journey.

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