The (Christmas) Season For Reason With Young Critical Thinkers
December 7, 2012
A Discussion With Science Teacher Laurie Tarr.
Recently I've been writing and podcasting about Christmas (well, it is the season) and after documenting a suggested list of books to encourage young critical thinkers, I began to think about other kinds of gifts.
You may have heard that research indicates that life-experience purchases trump items when it comes to long-term satisfaction. To me, nothing indicates that more than having the kids imagine a rocket out of the box that the expensive gift came in, rather than enjoying the latest Apple product it once contained. In an effort to learn more about providing fun science adventures, I interviewed one of my favourite scientists, Laurie Tarr, about how she provides opportunities to explore science concepts in fun ways.
Laurie Tarr is a stay-at-home mom with two kids. She has a B.S. in physics from Centre College and works part-time as a science educator for Mad Science of Kentucky. Along with her husband Rob, she founded the Louisville Area Skeptics in 2009, where she organizes Louisville Science Café, a monthly science outreach program for the public.
She also organizes Born to Do Science Kentuckiana, a monthly science outreach program for children in the Kentucky and Southern Indiana area.
Kylie Sturgess: What are some of the challenges you've faced when it comes to communicating science to kids? I mean, I know that people go around saying kids are “natural scientists.” Is it more complicated than that?
Laurie Tarr: I think it is more complicated than that. I think kids need to have a foundation. They need to have a vocabulary, and the best way to do that is to read to kids from the time they're born.
But some kids that I teach, especially the inner city kids, I might use words that they've never heard before even though I am trying very consciously to use simplified terms and not use a lot of jargon. They still, I will say things and they won't know what I mean. And that is the big challenge.
I remember teaching to a group of kindergartners when my son was in kindergarten, and I was asking them, “How come you stand on the ground and you don't float around the room?” And they come up with things like "my shoes are sticky..." and other answers like that. Finally, I asked them if they'd ever heard of the word "gravity.” And half of them said no.
So it's sort of hard to remember that the kids don't always have the vocabulary and all of the words that we're used to using on an everyday basis, that this stuff really is new to them. They are "born scientists" in that they want to know; they question everything. They are constantly testing things—even babies do this. Everything, they pick it up and they put it in their mouths because they want to know why this one is different than that one! But they don't have the foundation in that they don't have the words, the terms. They don't have any of the maths. And so in some ways, it easier to teach older fourth grade, fifth grade, and sixth grade kids because they have all of the basics already. But the really little ones, you really have to introduce things as if it's new every single time.
Kylie: So what do you find works well when you're teaching science? Is there anything that has surprised you?
Laurie: Things that work well include saying things, then doing them, and then letting the kids do them, and then saying it again. Usually it's that second or even third time that I say it that sometimes a light bulb will go on, but the kids like to see it and they like to try it themselves.
And even after they done that, they still don't always get it. They might even be surprised that it happens the same way the second time. But things that really work with kids aren't just talking to them. The college professor at the lectern, with the chalkboard? That's not going to go over so great with little kids. They really want to see things. They want to try things. They want to touch things. I even have to constantly tell them, "Don't eat this. This isn't food!" They want to taste and smell and kids like to get their hands dirty, so that usually helps a lot.
Kylie: I agree about tasting. When I got my thesis, I was so happy with it all bound and everything that I hugged it and I smelled it and I tasted it. It was just joyful - "This is all mine!" So I'm perfectly okay with kids having a try too!
Kylie: Do we have to go out and buy the latest scientific gadgets to get kids engaged? When I was out shopping, I’d been trying to write a blog post in regards to things that you could do to encourage your kids in science. And books, I’m OK with. Books, I know. I can go down to the bookstore and ask the booksellers, or talk to Embiggen Books and say “Hey, what’s out there for kids?”
But I went down to my local store and saw that the biggest seller was Make Your Own Combustion engine, and I thought it was huge—in physical size. And I was thinking: “Jeez, really?” And I thought about how many parents are just going be spending all of Boxing Day putting this thing together and the kids are just playing with the box. Or playing with the iPad instead because who cares? It’s just a combustion engine.
Laurie: Yeah. No, I don’t think you need to go out and buy all of the science kits, and you can if you’d like! That’s fine! But I think that there is science in everything we do. There is science in the world all around us. And I tell kids that. When I’m teaching them, I’ll say, “Okay, today we’re going to do art,” and they say, “Oh, I thought we were going to do science?” And I say “But science is in art,” and they say “What??” And that’s where I try to explain that science is in everything.
I say “Think of anything, talk to me about it, and I can tell you the science in it.” And that’s something that’s kids don’t always realise, and I think maybe that’s something that grownups don’t always realise – that science is not a separate topic. Science is everything everywhere. And so you can go in the kitchen and cooking is science. And you can make concoctions in the kitchen… you know, that whole Mentos and Diet Coke thing, that’s science. And you can have science in the bathtub, you can make waves and splashing and all sorts of different things.
You can have science out in the yard. There’s physics in bouncing a ball and there’s physics in riding a bike. There’s science, there’s physics, there’s chemistry, there’s biology everywhere around us all the time, and I think the hardest thing is just to be conscious of that and to point it out. I can do an entire hour’s lecture science class on the science of balloons.
I have easily twenty-five different things that I can do with balloons that have to do with science. And it doesn’t take a lot of fancy equipment, and it doesn’t take PhD. It’s just me and some balloons and a few other gadgets, and me and the kids have a great time! And they learn physics and they learn chemistry and they learn action and reaction and they learn electrostatics and they learn all sorts of things.
One source of great stuff like this is YouTube. YouTube is just amazing – there is no science that you can think of that you can’t search on YouTube and find a video that somebody else has made.
Kylie: What got you into doing this is the first place? I read that you're doing the Born to Do Science program in your town. How did that start and what does it involve?
Laurie: I am friends with a wonderful man named Monty Harper, who I met around four years ago. He is an award winning children's songwriter and he has many CDs, including children's music, and some of it's just fun and some of it is educational. He's got a whole series of music about libraries and reading that he did for the library program.
He has a CD called "Songs from the Science Frontier" which are based on real scientists and their actual research. He hosted monthly science café type events at his local library during the day on a Saturday and he had fourth, fifth, and sixth grade children come. He invited a real scientist to come and talk about their research.
And he had the scientist not just talk about generic science. Not just, "Here's what biology is," or "Here's what frogs do," or whatever. He actually had them talk about their actual research and Monty managed to bring it down to a level that the kids understood. And then Monty went home and wrote songs about each of the scientists and so he has a whole album of songs that aren't just generic science songs—they're specific to these different scientists and their research.
It's such a fun thing; he's been doing it for at least three years now. In the meantime, I have been doing science cafés for adults here in my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. I've been doing it every month, science cafés with different scientists coming to talk to adults—I thought, "If I'm doing this and it's not so hard and it's not so much work, why can't I do this for kids too?"
I did find that finding scientists who are willing to come and talk to kids is a little bit more challenging than finding scientists who will come and talk to grownups! Some of them are intimidated by it! They think that the children won't understand their research or sometimes they're even a little bit scared of interacting with the kids.
I have found very few scientists who have said no to me about coming to science café, but I have had more say no to me about coming to talk to the Born to Do Science kids. I think that's interesting!
Kylie: What do you say to them in order to encourage these scientists? Do you say, "It's okay. They don't bite that much," sort of thing?
Laurie: I have! I have talked several of them into it and I have said, "Look. You deal on a daily basis with college students who don't want to be there. College students who are bored and asleep and obnoxious and who don't want to be in your class and you get through that, right?" And they say, "Yes that's true."
And I say, "These kids only come to this library program because they love science. They're only there because they want to learn science and they want to meet you. They want to hear about your research. So isn't that better? Don't you want an audience like that?"
I had one just last month and she was kind of nervous about it. Right before it started, she was like, "I'm a little nervous!"
I'm saying, "No, no. It's going to be fine," And afterwards the kids had a great time. They asked lots of really intelligent questions. They laughed when they told jokes. All the right things happened and when it was over, I said, "I told you it would be OK!" It all turned out fine and I don't know exactly what the concern is, but it does intimidate them to come and talk to a room full of kids.
It's funny, but we've been having a good time with it for about a year now and we've had lots of scientists come. We've had lots of kids come. I am more proud of that than anything else I've done I think because I'm getting these kids to come and meet real scientists and learn about what it is they really do. Because what you see on TV and movies with the scientists being the crazy guy with the crazy hair and the white lab coat—that's not always true. A lot of these scientists are women and a lot of them are just normal people with normal interests just like everyone else, but they happen to do science every day for a living.
I want these kids to see that and I want them to see that there are lots of options for careers in science. That normal people are scientists and some science is different from others. It's not all the chemistry with the beakers and the glass tubing and all of that that you see TV. So it's been a lot of fun.
Kylie: When it comes it our own children—or in my case my nephews and my niece—I can sort of feel confident that I'm in the same ballpark as they are. We're family. We've got certain shared ideas and values about some things. But when it comes to other people's children, sometimes you might get different beliefs and values—like creationism. How do you risk not coming across as judgmental or having parents complain? For example, teaching groups of girl guides and how sometimes there might be challenges about those kinds of issues.
Laurie: That is true; I am not a public school teacher. I work for a company that goes around and teaches science in different classes. I teach in public schools and I teach in private schools. I'm not always necessarily as mindful of that as I ought to be and so I did teach in a small private Christian school recently and I wasn't thinking about it. I was just teaching science. We were talking about animals and adaptations and I said, "These animals evolved to be this way to have fur and have long sharp claws. We evolved to be hairless except on our heads mostly. We have short soft fingernails." I just threw out some comment like that and didn't even think about it.
Apparently some of the parents did complain about me later and I had to have a talking to. And so I regret that. I did not realise that particular Christian school was a Young Earth Creationism school and a lot of Christian schools do teach evolution and so I didn't realise this particular one did not. So I now know that when I go to that school, I just don't bring up the age of the Earth. I don't bring up creationism or evolution. I just don't bring those topics up and then we get along fine.
My theory on the whole thing is it's not really any of my business what these religion these children are or what they've been taught at home. I just want them to learn some science and to get excited about science and to love science. When they're grownups, they can decide if they're going to be creationists or if they're going to be something else.
It is unfortunate that I can't teach them all of the science. I can't teach them cosmology. I can't teach them that dinosaurs died out sixty-five million years ago. I can't teach them those things at that particular school, but I still feel like I'm doing good by going in and teaching them better science than probably they would have gotten without me.
If it ever comes up in my classes…I was talking about magic one day and I said, "Do I have real Harry Potter magic?"
And they said, "No."
And I said, "No one does."
And the kids said, "Well, except Jesus,"
I just sort of let that go and went on with my topic. If they specifically ask me a question, my answer is probably going to be, "I teach science and science doesn't really have anything to say about religion. If you have questions about religion, you can talk to your pastor. You can talk to your parents, but I'm just here to talk about science."
And so I sort of try to separate the two and I'm trying not to step on anybody's toes because the last thing I want is for them to say, "OK. We're done. We don't want you to ever come to my school and teach science again," because the kids would really miss out then.
Kylie: To finish off, what is your favourite science experiment that you do with kids?
Laurie: There are so many fun ones and there's some that I do that it's just not that much fun to me, but I still try to make it fun. But I have some super favourite ones and probably the most fun I have is when I use dry ice. I can do an entire hour just on dry ice; dry ice and soap bubbles, dry ice and balloons, dry ice and bottles with corks on them, dry ice and just about everything.
It's kind of dangerous—you can burn yourself with dry ice, so you've got to be careful with it! Look it up on YouTube to learn how to do it safely, but there's so much fun to be had with dry ice and you can get a great big chunk of it for five bucks down at the grocery. There's so much fun stuff you can learn with it. I really enjoy it.
Kylie: I'm trying to wonder how I might be able to wrap dry ice and present it to my nephews for Christmas, but that might be a bit difficult…
Laurie: If you wrap it more than about a day before Christmas, they're going to open an empty box!
Kylie: "It was dry ice, kids! Merry Christmas!"
The interview with Laurie Tarr features at Token Skeptic #147 - On Being Born To Do Science.