Sunday, June 29, 2008

Kids and science

I am quite proud of my 4-year-old daughter. She takes catching bugs to put in her bug box, my somewhat feeble explanations of scientific principles and processes, being taught minerals in stone countertops and my continuous absences for work (with or without her along) in stride.

Yesterday was one of those cases in point. On our way to that horrid bastion of low-cost consumerism originating in the south (aka Wally-world), she asked me very pointed questions about the difference between dry ice and regular ice. For background explanation, when we travel to larger communities with decent food stores (TJs and Whole Paycheck), I bring a large cooler and go gaga. The last time this occurred, she was along for the search for dry ice to keep the frozen things frozen and the rest well-cooled. [Note: In NM and AZ, Smith's almost always has dry ice. Occasionally, Wally-world will have it as well. Albertson's recently dropped selling it.]

It was interesting to see her reaction to the explanation, especially that carbon dioxide comes from air and is separated out and cooled from a gaseous state to a solid (ie., frozen) state.* It's a difficult concept for a small child, first that air that you can't see is actually made up of different gases, and second, that you can actually separate out one of them and cool it to a solid state.

The non-scientific world tends to think of ice in terms of frozen water; most preschool teachers and day care workers don't have a scientific background and have limited ability to present difficult scientific concepts to children of small age. It's one thing to explain to a child what you can see (trees, bugs, plants growing, rivers flowing); it's quite another to explain what you can't (and really don't understand yourself).

I've noted gender-related test score differences for verbal and math/science in the school district to which I will (hopefully) soon be sending my child. Girls lead boys in test scores in every elementary school in the district for both verbal and math/science until 4th grade. At that point, the verbal scores equalize and the girls' math/science scores tank (from about 95th percentile to 75th or less). In discussing this with friends who are both educators and mental health care professionals, we came up with several possible explanations, the most plausible being a combination of non-science background for the teachers and a male-oriented curriculum (scientific ideas and processes being presented in a way easier for boys than girls to grasp). Before you gasp about this statement, anyone with children of both genders will tell you that boys are very different from girls in the way they play and verbalize (certainly with ranges of behavior in each - my ex had his dolly along with his tonka trucks and my girl is not much of a girlie-girl). With the differences in learning abilities and behaviors, it is not a stretch to imagine that an elementary school science curriculum taught by a non-scientist could be easier for one gender to grasp than another.

I'm obviously very concerned about how well my girl learns math and science (and English - see May 15 post) in school. Occasionally, my fears are allayed and today was a case in point. She took the explanation of separate gases forming air and freezing one of those to make dry ice in stride. Her questions made it clear she grasped the basic concepts. Though she may have a bit of a difficult time verbalizing what she understood, I'm quite proud of her ability to understand the concepts, and grateful that she gets the opportunity to do so.

*[1. I left out the discussion of its liquid state existing at higher-than-atmospheric pressures and low temperatures. 2. She easily got that it was colder than regular ice.]

[As another aside, her 13-year-old babysitter can drive a backhoe and dress an elk with the same ease as sending a text message or doing her hair and makeup. I'm quite proud of her, too.]

1 comment:

Geology Happens said...

From my limited experience watching science being taught at the elementary level it appears that many of the teachers feel uncomfortable teaching science or math and they receive little in the way of encouragement from their principals.
I teach teachers field geology in the summers and I basically just get them to play in the geology. We become particles being transported examine grain sizes and