Adventures in Ethics and Science

Homeschooling and chemistry.

The April 16 issue of Chemical & Engineering News has an interesting article about homeschooling families looking for chemistry curricula. (You need an individual or institutional subscription to view the article; it might be worth checking with your local library.)

I’m far from an expert on homeschooling (as we’re availing ourselves of the public schools), but I’m fascinated by the ways some of the families featured in the article are piecing together what they need for their kids.

Why families choose to homeschool is an interesting question. From the article,

One common reason [to homeschool] is that parents are dissatisfied with the quality of institutional education. David and Annemarie [Stroud] remember sending their oldest daughter, Ripley, to public school for kindergarten, only to watch their once-inquisitive child become increasingly quiet and withdrawn. “I watched the curiosity get stifled out of her,” Annemarie says of Ripley. “I couldn’t allow that to happen.” After talking with a psychologist and considering options such as private school and hiring a tutor, the Strouds turned to homeschooling.

Saving your kids from a school environment that is sucking all the joy out of learning seems like a worthy goal to me. (Meanwhile, I’m hoping that there are some parents in the district who are fighting to make the schools into places that cultivate a love of learning, but we all have to pick our battles.)

Another big motivation for homeschooling is a desire to “instill religious values in [one's] children” — and it turns out that “most of the high school chemistry curricula currently available for homeschoolers are based on the Christian faith.” This is sometimes a source of concern for homeschooling families who aren’t Christian, or necessarily even religious. Indeed, I’m having a hard time figuring out exactly what would make a chemistry curriculum a Christian chemistry curriculum. Are there parts of chemistry that are controversial on religious grounds? Is there a shift in emphasis (and if so, what does that amount to)?

If someone has reliable information on this, I’d be grateful if you could share it, because my imagination is running wild here.

Anyway, the existing curricula vary as far as how much focus they place on problem-solving compared to hands-on laboratory-type activities. Some dispense with laboratory work as “unnecessary before college”, not to mention demanding of materials, equipment, and all sorts of safety measures that might be difficult to implement in a home. Others have lab kits that come with the needed chemicals and equipment. Not surprisingly, some of the homeschoolers are interested in harnessing some of the newly-developed “green chemistry” experiments so as to avoid turning the kitchen into a toxic waste dump:

During the national meeting of the American Chemical Society in Chicago last month, symposium organizer and homeschooling mom Frankie K. Wood-Black, who is director of compliance decree coordination at ConocoPhillips, in Houston, described a homeschool chemistry text that she is developing with her brother-in-law. The text takes an inquiry-based approach, where each section begins with a lab experiment followed by an explanation of the scientific concepts. “It’s a whole different approach to teaching the subject,” she says. She envisions the final product as looking more like a lab manual than a traditional chemistry textbook.

Wood-Black’s labs will be based on green chemistry, an approach that reduces or eliminates the use and generation of hazardous substances. With its nontoxic chemicals, green chemistry is becoming an increasingly popular approach to doing chemistry experiments safely in the home.

Sally Henrie, a chemistry professor at Union University, a Southern Baptist school in Jackson, Tenn., is another educator working to integrate green chemistry into homeschool chemistry curricula. Several years ago, she and two of her undergraduate students developed a green chemistry lab manual for high school students. Some faculty members at Union who homeschool their kids learned about Henrie’s manual and asked her to adapt it for homeschoolers. She agreed and is now looking for a business partner to help her bring the product to market.

Some homeschooled kids get together with other homeschoolers to tackle chemistry. Some take classes at community college. Some just don’t do chemistry.

An important question here is what homeschoolers want their kids to get out of a chemistry course (or course-like thingy). If it’s just a matter of covering an important subject on the road to college admissions, perhaps preparing for an Advanced Placement exam along the way, one’s preferred approach might be all problem-solving all the time. If the idea is to get kids to be independent learners, or to get them to see how something like chemistry plays a role in their everyday lives, it seems like the messing-around-with-chemical-systems approach might be essential. Here, though, I have a wee bit of concern about what might happen when science-phobic parents lean on cookbook approaches. Potentially, this could render chemistry scary or boring, which sort of defeats the point.

Maybe what’s needed is a chemistry curriculum for homeschoolers that could get the adults who are guiding the experience excited by and engaged with the chemistry, too, so adults and kids can joyfully explore the subject together.

* * * * *
A potentially helpful link via C&E News: “Science Options for Homeschoolers”

Comments

  1. #1 VJB
    April 24, 2007

    Such chemistry as the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch, per chance? We had had our own problems with the public schools with our first kid, put him a private school for a year, then re-installed him. Long, long story. Now he’s teaching at a univesity, and is (polishes own apple) a paragon of virtue.

    But rich as our home life is, as educated as we are, we saw (at least my psychologist wife did) no benefit in separating him from his peers. Quite the reverse.

  2. #2 Ex-drone
    April 24, 2007

    Apologia says it “exists to give the homeschool student a scientific education that will help him or her make a reasoned defense of the Christian faith.”

    It amazes me that, in the US, fundamentalists (I assume that’s what Apologia really means by “Christian”) see themselves as a struggling, hard-pressed minority, always in need of defending themselves.

    Regardless of this inferiority complex, science is science. There does not exist a special category of science that is needed to defend faith.

  3. #3 John McKay
    April 24, 2007

    In my experience, what most evangelicals mean, when they insist on everything they consume having a “Christian” prefix, is that they want everything to reinforce their religious mindset. That is, they don’t expect there to really be a different chemistry in their “Christian chemistry,” but they want the teaching of it to constantly testify their religious teachings. Imagine lots of emphasis on three in one compounds (just like the Lord), things that are red (just like the blood of the lamb), and things they can’t explain, but which work anyway (just like God’s plan).

    Their approach to education is just like their approach to entertainment. They can’t just sing a nice song about feeling good, they have to say they feel good because of God. They can’t watch a nice G rated movie unless everything good that happens in it is expressly credited to God. Their history must be a narrative of God’s plan unfolding and people like them triumphing.

    In some fields, like history, biology, and geology, there is a genuine problem with this approach, because they have a unalterable narrative in mind which must be supported at all costs. In other fields, like math and chemistry, where they are just imposing a teaching style (rather than a content), the demand for “Christianness” could be harmless. Unfortunately, since the emphasis of their teaching is more on the religious lessons, they often lose track of the supposed subject matter and teach it badly.

  4. #4 brook
    April 24, 2007

    Hand raising wildly in the back of the romm “Me Me I know the answer, choose me” or at least maybe I can at least begin to illuminate some of the darker areas of homeschooling and science. This may get long, sorry.

    I am a homeschooling/unschooling mom of 4 kids who range in age from 6 to 20. Currently only the youngest 2 (6 and 8yo) are still at home. The oldest dropped out of school at 16, left home at 17 and is working (among other things), as an EMT, next one down decided to go to high school after homeschooling and is finding hs academically easy and 90% of the kids immature buffons, but very much enjoying the other 10% of the kids and his teachers. I will continue to homeschool the younger two for as long as they want or are making what I deem to be appropriate academic progress.

    One of the problems about choosing an alternative path is that you tend to bump up against monolithic stereotypes. Nobody would dream of saying “I thought ALL public school kids do XYZ” but I often get that misunderstanding about homeschooled kids. What I’m writing reflects my 10 plus years of experience but doesn’t necessarily hold for the hs’ing family my kids hung out with today.

    Sometimes I joke that I homeschool because I hate packing lunch for my kids. Really I hs because I believe that as a society we are deeply confused about the difference between information and knowledge, mediated versus unmediated experience. I see my role less as teacher than as gardener: we all have within us all that is necessary to become wonderful, productive, thoughtful members of society just as a seed has all that it needs to become a plant. But just as seeds need appropriate ground to grow on, and a recognition that a poppy seed will never produce a redwood tree, children need the right conditions to flourish and the recognition that even if I love something they may not and it’s useless to try to force them into my mold.

    That’s my soapbox. Now for some jargon and some more of my bias. A christian or biblical perspective means that either the material will be slanted in a god created this stuff for us to use (chemistry/physics) or out and out lies (biology) Science is a static entity and no challenge to the ultimate authority will be tolerated. The only reason to learn anything is to glorify whatever you think the deity is.

    A quote from Rainbow Resource, (a 1000 plus page catalog of homeschooling materials the overwhelming majority of them religiously oriented) about God’s Design for Science – “Following the initial orientation is a very helpful section on how to teach from a solid creationist view point….The authors clearly lay out several comon “takes” on the origins of life and explain why they believe the literal biblical account of creation.” I recognize that this sounds like it pertains solely to the biology section of science but fundamendalists see some creator’s hand in everything. Why else would those crystals be so perfectly arranged?

    Science phobic parents if they’re smart and truly homeschooling out of concern for their kids education send the kids to high school or community college at least for the topice they feel shaky on. Others just ignore science (I don’t know which group drives me crazier the religious or the incompetent.)

    Here’s what I’ve done for elementary level chemistry for my “big” kids and more or less what I’ll do for my youngest (the 8yo I’ll get to in a minute) we do as much hands on stuff as possible, there are tons of books out there from Janice Van Cleave, to Le Boom Du Jour. We make fudge, we make polymers, we play with cornstarch and water. We grow salt gardens and look at snow flakes and evaporate different types of salt crystals. We use books designed for intelligent lay readers like the Cartoon Guide to Chemistry, and Black Holes and Uncle Albert to look at why things work the way they do. 9/11 and liability issues have wreaked havoc on my ability to get chemicals (I understand the safety issues and don’t want my kids blown up or poisoned so lab safety is a big deal even if we’re just using red cabbage as an indicator of acid and base). Science is a way of approaching the unknown. Chemistry is a way of describing and predicting changes and determing the properties of everything. So far so good, one big kid is an EMT the other looking to a degree in engineering. All of them, even the 6yo, know how to write a lab report, why an experiment might “fail”, how to cite their sources.

    The 8yo love love loves chemistry. He just finished sitting in on a college freshman class for nonchemistry majors (I love this professor who is so good to take my 8yo’s passion seriously). His math skills aren’t up to “real” problem solving (As he admitted to the professor, “The algebra’s easy but I can’t often get the math right) so he listens for the big picture. For him it’s whatever we can lay hands on, plus lots of history of chemistry in Joy Hakim’s fabulous series The Story of Science and the philosophy of chemistry in books like “The Same and NOt the Same.”

    Now a request of you all, if anybody uses Crocodile Chemistry software I’d gladly pay for access. There may be better software out there, but we’re used to this. Unfortunately they reformatted their sales structure and are only selling goup licenses (at roughly $500 plus which is out of my price range) and I’d really like to update our version of it.

    Does this help?

  5. #5 JYB
    April 24, 2007

    In college I met a girl who went to Biola University. She said she was a Christian psychology major. I took that to mean she tried to understand Christians but she said that it was psychology using Christian beliefs. Unfortunately she seemed kind of wishy washy as to what exactly they were teaching her so I didn’t get too much information.

    I’m definitely guilty of stereotyping homeschooled kids. I’m a product of the public schools and I admit to a fierce bias in favor of them (not that I don’t realize that they have their problems). I know it’s wrong but I always picture homeschooled kids as umm…socially awkward. I also stereotype private school kids as being rich and self-centered and living in the bubble of their own ego. Again…I know it’s wrong but it satisfies my own prejudices.

  6. #6 speedwell
    April 25, 2007

    What’s more “socially awkward,” being caged in a room all day with a group of people most of whom you have nothing in common with (except a birthdate within a year of your own), and with whom you would never voluntarily associate, or being encouraged to form your own intellectual, social, or emotional relationships with people of all ages on mutually agreed terms?

    How many mentoring relationships do you get to form in a public school as a student, for instance? (Not enough.) How many (not to mince words) idiots and troublemakers are you forced to tolerate? (Too many.) How much do you have to be thwarted and harrassed and group-processed in a school before you get the chance to do what you love best, in an atmosphere of peace and loving support, suited to your needs as an individual? (For most of us, twelve years or longer.)

  7. #7 drsigmund
    April 25, 2007

    Speedwell, your description of the classroom environment fits virtually every workplace and most family environments as well. Getting along with others because we have to is part of social maturity.

  8. #8 nv
    April 25, 2007

    chemistry – chemistry + jesus = ‘homeschool chemistry’

  9. #9 Dave S.
    April 28, 2007

    Are there parts of chemistry that are controversial on religious grounds?

    There should be. After all, the atomic theory of matter states that all matter is made of atoms…and that includes we humans. So if biology is to be vilified for suggesting people are not really different from any other animal, surely chemistry should be all the more vilified for suggesting that not only are we no different from animals, we are also no different from any other form of life or even inanimate objects.

    Imagine…the carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms in our bodies no different at all from the carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms in a pile of cow do-do. Indeed, they can and have been interchanged one for the other.

  10. #10 Heddi
    April 29, 2007

    If someone has reliable information on this, I’d be grateful if you could share it, because my imagination is running wild here.

    Probably this means that every lesson is introduced with a bible verse and the problems have overtly Christian back stories. It probably also means that any chemistry topics that would compete with “God’s Word” have been eliminated. In addition, there isn’t a focus on critical thinking or use of the scientific method except where the answer is obvious and godly.

    I recommend topscience.org for curriculum for home or in the classroom with great hands-on activities with easy to obtain materials. Their chemistry related books are here:
    http://topscience.org/book_listings/bysubjectarea.html#chemistry

  11. #11 Mary Daly
    May 5, 2007

    Christian chemistry means that when you come to the radioactive elements, you prepare the child for their use as an argument for an old earth and an old universe.
    It does also mean putting remarks about God in wherever anything is particularly astonishing, and Bible verses in various places, but the real problem is Darwin and Genesis. I deal with this stuff all the time because as a Catholic I am not committed to the young universe, but I do teach home educated students and these are the active questions. I have published several resources (in a small way) that are useful for those who want to be scientific and have multiple confusions.

  12. #12 Dawn
    January 7, 2008

    //Maybe what’s needed is a chemistry curriculum for homeschoolers that could get the adults who are guiding the experience excited by and engaged with the chemistry, too, so adults and kids can joyfully explore the subject together.//

    I know I’m very late to this but I think the last paragraph got skipped over and that’s unfortunate.

    I’m homeschooling two kids and the struggle to find a secular (or rather, real) science curriculum is something I share with a LOT of homeschoolers. I’ve settled on I-Science from Singapore Math. Yes, it’s actually from Singapore. It was just about the only choice for homeschooling. There are some options if I wanted to use a school text but those generally are a poor fit for homeschooling. I could also do as many secular homeschoolers do and buy a wishy-washy science curriculum that attempts to walk the fence by excluding references both to the bible and evolution but that’s NOT science and I refuse to support companies that play that game.

    I come across science blogs and articles that on occasion like to take pot shots at homeschoolers, thinking that we’re all creationists and complaining about what they think we’re teaching our kids. What I long for however is the science writer or scientist that recognizes there are secular homeschoolers out there crying for a science curriculum that is unabashedly about real science and who decides to actually DO something about it. Couldn’t someone within the scientific community take up that cause?

    I think your post was a good start so thank you. I read the Chemical & Engineering News article when it first came out and also noted that it wasn’t their first or only article about homeschooling. They seem to be reaching out and inviting us into their discussion. Now, if only more people in science would do that.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.