It’s no secret that science education in the United States lags behind the rest of the world.
According to the Programme for International Student Assessment, the United States was ranked 18th in 2018 in science compared to other countries, and test results have stayed relatively flat since 2006.
In my experience, American adults think science is just too hard to understand and believe scientists are out to confuse them with their fancy language and complex theories. This is a huge problem because if people don’t understand science, they may be unable to make educated decisions about products they purchase or pseudoscientific trends they find on the internet. And most importantly, they may not support scientific research or vote for politicians who do.
Many people had bad experiences with high school and college science. It was dry. It was boring. It was hard. As a result, I’ve seen many science programs watered down to make them more fun. The thinking seems to have been that if we can get kids interested in science early on—make it cool, make it hip, make it fun—they’ll be more likely to pursue it as a career.
Do we pursue activities because they are enjoyable, or do we set objectives and achieve goals because we feel confident in our abilities to reach them? Is it entertainment capturing and moving us forward, or is it confidence?
Instead of the “fun” approach, maybe educators need to help students feel more confident about their abilities to understand and master science concepts. I believe the key to success is not being entertained, but instead developing skills and accumulating knowledge step-by-step to make complicated topics easier to comprehend.
Here are five ways to help kids develop confidence in science and scientific topics:
1. Stop Watering Down the Material
Educators should stop watering down the material in the elementary grades. The “fun” approach often means dumbing down the material to make it less challenging. However, in my experience, this approach doesn’t help students learn. When they are later presented with more complicated science, it can even make them less likely to be interested in the subject. Students in other countries learn the fundamentals before they are taught about complex subjects. In the United States, educators often try to make things more relatable by starting with complex topics and then working back to the basics.
For example, according to The Hechinger Report, when young children study the eye in America, they typically memorize the various components and stop there. “Meanwhile, their peers in high-performing countries study the basics of atomic structure and photons. When they first turn their attention to the eye, in eighth grade, they know enough to understand how one sees and they study how photons of light are translated into electrochemical impulses.”
The approach taken by other countries has two significant benefits. First, it helps ensure that students have a strong foundation in basic scientific concepts. Second, it helps give them confidence early on, so they are not overwhelmed by the material.
2. Ensure Students Understand the Scientific Process
Educators should make sure students understand the scientific process. The “fun” approach often means skipping over essential steps in the scientific method, such as hypothesis testing and data analysis. As a result, students may not develop a proper understanding of how science works and may be less likely to be interested in the subject. Instead of teaching the scientific method as a set of steps to be followed, educators should help students understand how to use it as a tool to solve problems.
3. Allow Students To Experience the Process for Themselves
Educators also should provide opportunities for students to experience the scientific process firsthand. The “fun” approach often means doing science experiments that are more like magic tricks than real science. These demonstrations may be entertaining, but they often don’t help students understand how scientists work or think.
Instead of doing experiments with predetermined outcomes, students should be allowed to design their own experiments and test their hypotheses. When you present science as a body of knowledge that is constantly evolving, you can offer students a more accurate picture of what it means to be a scientist. Too often, the “fun” approach can lead students to think of science as a static body of knowledge when it is a dynamic and ever-changing field in reality.
4. Encourage Students To Ask Questions and Seek Answers
Educators should also encourage students to ask questions and seek out answers for themselves. The “fun” approach often means that teachers provide all the answers and don’t allow for much student questioning. However, if you want students to develop confidence in their abilities to understand science, encourage them to ask questions and seek answers for themselves. When students are allowed to explore and discover independently, they can be more likely to engage in the material and develop a love for science.
5. Allow Students To Learn at Their Own Pace
Educators should also stop expecting all students to learn at the same pace. When you differentiate instruction, you can allow students to learn at their own pace and in their way. This approach is effective for all students, not just those struggling. By using a differentiated approach, you can help ensure that all students have the opportunity to develop a deep understanding of science.
If leaders in education want American students to catch up to their counterparts around the world, start teaching science the way it’s meant to be taught: with rigor, clarity, and a focus on the fundamental concepts. Science can become more fun the more students learn and expand their learning abilities.
I believe the answer is simple: Educators should focus on teaching students good science. Educators should provide science that is accurate, challenging, and engaging. They should provide science that will prepare students for the real world.
It won’t be easy. But I believe it’s the only way to ensure our kids get the science education they deserve.