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A Case for Parents as the Ideal Science Educators

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Editor's Note: This post is part of HuffPost's Girls In STEM Mentorship Program. Join the conversation here or on Twitter (#hpSTEM) as we discuss issues affecting women in science, technology, engineering and math.

We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology. - Carl Sagan

I am an aerospace engineer and I have founded a global science education nonprofit, Iridescent. Our goal is to inspire children to observe the world around them, to ask questions, to try and solve problems and to invent new solutions.

Over the past seven years of working with thousands of children and parents, one truth has emerged - that parents are the ideal science educators. Here is why....

Science - contrary to how it is taught in many schools - is actually a creative pursuit - just like painting, writing and music. The basic steps are as follows:
  • You observe the world carefully around you
  • You learn to observe details and patterns
  • You begin to notice discrepancies
  • You ask questions
  • You try to find an answer by conducting experiments, building models (in real life, on the computer or in your head)
  • You find out that the road you traveled on was a dead end
  • You retrace your path and ask a better question
  • You repeat the process of exploring new paths (often reaching many more dead ends). Although you've hit countless dead ends, you learn more and more about the world around you, about yourself and you become an expert
  • And, finally, one day you find the answer to why the neurons in your brain, like trees, branch.

The skills you develop after so many hours of practice are critical life skills: curiosity, creativity, problem solving, critical thinking, courage and persistence. The combination of these skills is what sets apart leaders in different fields - writing, painting, sports, music, research, hi-tech or engineering.

Science at school
Schools lay a terrific foundation for scientific learning. However, the structure and prioritization means it's very difficult to support this kind of creative pursuit of each child, over many years. One teacher cannot provide ongoing individual feedback to 20+ students with 20+ unique projects, while also ensuring they learn the fundamental material that provides the vocabulary and conceptual knowledge they need to understand the world.

Prioritization is necessary in this system, and science is taught as a collection of known facts and recipes. Many children go through school thinking that almost everything is known about the world around them or that there are a series of definite steps that need to be followed while doing science.

Herein lies the opportunity for parents - to pick-up the baton and carry it on a long journey of true discovery with their kids, bringing to life the foundational concepts that may have sparked their imagination.

Parents as the ideal science educators
"Children spend much more time at home than at school. Their parents know them intimately, interact with them one-to-one, and do not expect to be paid to help their children succeed. The home environment offers 'teachable moments' that teachers can only dream about." -David Peterson

The home environment is a wonderful sandbox for children to nurture creativity, critical thinking and courage. Parents are also very used to playing and being children themselves. Thus they can learn alongside their children, make mistakes, fail, get up and try again - modeling the scientific process authentically.

They can also connect learning fluidly across different mediums and environments - reading, cooking, gardening, playing with toys, hiking, traveling and shopping.

Unanswered questions can become the norm, not the exception, since the emphasis can be on an open-ended process of model building rather than on the elaboration of a mass of "known" facts.

Finally, many parents have the opportunity to provide continuous support for almost 18 years. The routine at home can prove to be a stable anchor for scientific exploration. For instance, families devote significant resources to the practice of sports after school and on Saturday mornings over 5-10 years (1000-2000 hours). A similar number of hours spent on the weekend in pursuit of a problem or engineering project can result in the development of impressive critical thinking abilities that may even lead to the child contributing an original and valuable solution to the world's knowledge base.

Below are some ideas to help you get started at home.

Cooking experiments: Questions to ask while walking in the garden or going on a hike:
  • What type of creature do you see?
  • Where on the body are the legs attached?
  • How many legs does it have?
  • What type of tracks does it make? What type of tracks do you make?
  • How many legs are on the ground at one time?
  • Do the legs overlap when the creature walks?
  • What do you notice about the "gait" of the creature? Gait is the pattern of movement of the limbs of animals. Most animals use different gaits, depending on speed, terrain, the need to maneuver, and energetic efficiency.
  • What do you notice about the speed of the creature? Does it change with the surface it is moving on? How does its speed compare with other creatures you have observed on the walk?
  • What is its range of speed?
  • Can this creature jump? Can you jump? How are the jumps different?
  • How many joints do you see on its legs? How many joints do you have on your leg?
  • What is the range of movement of your leg joints?
  • Why do you think it the creature is moving? Is it chasing something or being chased? Is it looking for food, resting, or playing or finding a friend?
  • What are some body features that help it to stabilize?
  • Can it climb vertical surfaces? What helps it to climb?

What questions can you ask your child to help her think more creatively?

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