Science and the home educated teenager

My biggest concern, when starting home education, was how to teach science. I kept asking other home educators what they did, particularly in the teen years. I remembered my years of secondary school science with enormous labs – fume cupboards and bunsen burners for chemistry, ripple tanks and electronic equipment for physics, dissections and models of anatomy for biology. How could anyone provide facilities like these at home?

To make it worse, my sons seemed to overtake me in their science understanding when they were about seven or eight (and still in school in the UK). They wanted to know how motors worked. They learned from their father how to wire plugs and change fuses. They built themselves burglar alarms and radios, read Usborne science books avidly. Science lessons at primary school encouraged the class to brainstorm about safety and fair testing. The only problem was that they didn’t actually test anything very interesting, or which was new to my sons. But still they learned how to write experiments up, and how to interpret results.

Worrying about science in home education

When we started home education, it was my older son’s last year of primary school, when we moved abroad. We had an¬†excellent Dorling-Kindersley science book,¬†and I made an attempt to work through some of the chapters in that with my sons.

But I was convinced that secondary school science would be impossible for me to teach – or even to introduce. I never did understand about forces and motions, or electronics. I passed my science exams years ago by memorising formulae, learning the periodic table of chemical elements, and being good at algebra.

Of course, there were plenty of science text books available, as well as CD-Roms and the Internet, but my sons liked to ask questions around the topics they’re learning, to extend their knowledge and explore in greater depth. Without the background myself, how could I help?

Trying chemistry with a set…

Nevertheless, we decided to continue with home education. By the time my elder son was 12 and secondary age, he was firmly committed to learning at home. I bought school-type text books that showed more experiments at home, and we tried to work through them. But he found them dull. It was all so obvious to him. He had a fairly comprehensive chemistry set, so we worked slowly through the book that came with it, reading about acids and alkalis, producing gases, discussing theories of molecules and chemical formulae. My younger son found it fascinating.

But my older son was still bored. ‘How do you KNOW it’s produced those things?’ he would ask. ‘It all just looks like white powders.’ He wasn’t learning anything new; he wasn’t convinced. If the book said that a gas that ‘popped’ was hydrogen, and we produced a gas that ‘popped’, that was conclusive to me. For my son, it meant nothing. Why, he wanted to know, did hydrogen pop? How could we know that there weren’t several other gases that popped? How could we tell that hydrogen had a particular atomic weight and that its molecules were arranged in a certain fashion, when we couldn’t see them?

We gave up with chemistry.

We ordered an American Christian high-school biology course. We started to read it together, and it was fascinating. But there were so many words to learn – types of amoeba, ways they reproduced, descriptions of the number of cells. What was the point? Neither of my sons was likely to be a microbiologist. We moved on to the section about the larger animal kingdom, but still there seemed to be definition after definition. The experiments were slightly more interesting than those in the chemistry book, but didn’t prove – or even show – anything that my sons did not already know.

Text books with humour

We bought some physics and chemistry text books from the UK, which had cartoons and humour as well as explanations of complex phenomena that even I could understand, albeit slowly. They were quite enjoyable to read through, but STILL there was nothing new to my sons which they found relevant. Either it was so theoretical that it seemed pointless, or it was ‘obvious’.

Then finally it hit me. They were already knowledgeable about science. They knew what they need to know about the human body, and about nature. Knowing the Latin words for all our internal organs might have been useful if either of them had decided to study medicine, but not otherwise. Understanding molecular structure at a theoretical level is perhaps interesting, but continually producing new chemicals (which we could only identify because the book told us how to) meant almost nothing.

It might have been fun producing vinegar-and-bicarbonate-of-soda volcanoes when they were six, but that’s all it is. A dramatic example of an acid/alkali reaction using household ingredients. Unfortunately it gave them the idea that science should be dramatic and exciting, but this isn’t the case – even at school. These days, I’m told, most experiments are performed by the teacher anyway, because safety standards have become more stringent. All they would have done, if they were in school, is write up what happened and draw diagrams. And what use is that in later life?

As for electronics, my sons have learned far more than I was ever taught at school, from helping and observing their father. They built a computer out of old parts. They played with an old electronics kit and taught themselves all kinds of things which would never be covered in a school curriculum. When they needed to know more, they found it out.

Sometimes they asked me questions which I couldn’t answer, but I could help them research. We had an excellent encyclopedia in book form, and three on CD-Rom. We knew of science web sites where they could leave questions, and have answers within days. I was on a home education support mailing list where there were experts in just about everything.

What is science anyway?

Science means ‘knowledge’. Scientific method, as taught in the UK, means that we first propose a hypothesis, then find ways of testing it, then try it out sufficient times to demonstrate what we need to know. Then we analyse the results and see if the hypothesis needs altering.

Unfortunately too many books prescribe experiments for which the results are obvious. They are demonstrations rather than experiments. There is no hypothesis proposed – the so-called experiment is merely a visual aid in showing what the book is trying to prove. This might help background knowledge, but it does not help scientific thinking.

My sons demonstrated scientific thinking far more when they wrote computer programs, or tried out new ways of building lego structures, or new ingredients for baking. ‘Let’s see what happens!’ should be at the heart of modern science, not: ‘Do this and you will find that a specific result occurs’.

In their teens, they worked through the European version of ACE curriculum, in order to get a national certificate. The ‘science’ started with geology, the stars and the solar systems. There were no experiments to follow, but it was (sometimes) interesting. Had they started it three years previously, I would have found it frustrating without anything practical to do. But I realised that most understanding of science comes from seeing what others have done before.

My sons seemed to learn by seeing things in pictures, understanding links and concepts before getting down to basics. Specific experiments often frustrated them because I could not help them see where they fitted into their previous understanding. Simply reading – from their workbooks and from other resources – slowly increased their background understanding, and paved the way for them to understand the world better.

Science is not such a big deal after all

It took me three years to realise it, but finally I saw that early secondary school science is really no big deal. Much of it is taken up with organising thirty children to ensure they are safe. Mostly they need to learn the curriculum material to pass exams, and to have a narrow band of knowledge that the authorities consider the most important. At home, students can learn in their own way, at their own speed. Finding out what they need to know when it’s relevant to them means that they are more likely to remember what they learned.

After all, I recall almost nothing of my high school science, despite all those wonderful labs. Oh yes, I still remember that formula. Ohms = volts over amps. Or is it volts = ohms over amps? Something like that. I could use that – 25 years ago – as a basis for solving a question that boiled down to algebra, but I never did have much idea what it meant. Nor has it ever been necessary for me to find out. I remember growing rather a pretty copper sulphate crystal, and separating the inks in marker pens, using blotting paper. But have I ever needed either of these skills in adult life? No.

Of course, advanced science in high schools is thorough and often well-taught. But if home educated teenagers are eager to follow a career that needs science qualifications, there are courses available. If necessary, enrol them in an outside course at a college or adult education class. Or use a comprehensive correspondence package. But if they don’t find it interesting, don’t worry about it. Whatever they need to know for general information will probably crop up anyway. And if – aged 18 – your child suddenly feels a vocation to be a doctor? Then they will have the intrinsic motivation needed to learn all they need in a few months.

Further reading:

Introducing science
Science resources online
Learning styles
Multiple intelligences