Cool science

Kids’ Science Challenge lets third- through sixth-graders design experiments for real scientists and engineers.

How do you get a ten year old turned on to science? By empowering them to create designs for a new skateboard, join SETI astronomers in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, explore new ways to improve the quality of our drinking water, or invent a new candy flavor.

The National Science Foundation is funding the project, which kicks off Oct. 1.

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  1. Call me a grinch once again, but I don’t think this is the way to get kids in interested in science. I’m not saying there is no place for this sort of thing, but I would say that it is insignificant compared to what actually gets kids interested in science.

    There are several themes that can be identified in the quote.

    First is the idea that science consists of doing experiments. That is an important part of science, but not the whole thing, not by a long shot. I talked about this at more length at

    Next is the idea that we learn by doing. Indeed we do, but that can be misleading. We learn science by doing science, but only by doing appropriate things to learn science, appropriate to the knowledge of science that the learner has in mind. For third through eighth graders that science knowledge base in students’ minds is very rudimentary. The appropriate activities for learning science at this age (indeed through much of high school and college science) are the routine activities of listening, reading, doing homework, taking tests, etc. The “worksheet teacher” is sometimes disparaged, but a well constructed worksheet is provides a very appropriate “activity” for actually learning a topic, in science or otherwise.

    And then there is the theme of relevance. Designing a new skateboard, I presume, is supposed to be relevant to children’s lives. My view is that relevance is vastly overrated. It can sometimes have some importance, but is irrelevant compared to the satisfaction of accomplishment that comes from successful learning, or the frustration that comes from difficult or unsuccessful learning. And what makes us think we know what really is relevant to a child?

    And then there is the theme of newness, as if anything new is automatically relevant to kids. So the article mentions, “explore new ways to improve the quality of our drinking water, or invent a new candy flavor.” I don’t think newness by itself has much relevance to kids. They may be suckers for trends and fads, just as their elders often are, but that doesn’t seem a very good basis on which to build knowledge.

    There also seems to be a social theme, that students are motivated by a connection to practicing scientists and engineers. I think this is overblown.

    What actually gets kids interested in science is good science instruction, just like what gets kids interested in math is good math instruction. The same could be said for any subject. If we go back to the old progressive education mind set that we should make learning fun, allow kids to do what interests them, just get out of their way, and wonderful things will follow, then things like this Kids Science Challenge seem the way to go. But if we start with the mind set that learning is the child’s work, and that learning is most effective when directed by competent teachers, indeed that it will be defective if not directed extensively by competent teachers, then things like the Kids Science Challenge are not so appealing. If we further observe that under competent instruction kids not only thrive and learn, but they also gain a great deal of enjoyment out of the process, then things like the Kids Science Challenge becomes more like an attractive nuisance than a help.

  2. I just took an English immersions course, for teachers to learn how to instruct non-English speaking students (NCLB).
    One big part of this was to do manipulatives and activities.
    Of course, good science instruction is important, but if the student and you don’t speak the same language, that’s difficult. Science activities can facilitate learning effectively.

  3. If you and the student don’t speak the same language, the Harpo Marx theory of instruction ain’t gonna be much help.