A question for those of you who talk to kids.

Although this question is somewhat connected to issues from the previous post, it's a question I've been meaning to put out there for some time:

What do you find most challenging or scary about talking about science with kids?

They can be your kids, but they don't have to be.

They can be kids with whom you interact in your professional life or in your personal life.

In your answer, you can specify particular areas of science that present the biggest challenge or the most anxiety for you.

And, if you talk to kids but you don't ever seem to talk science with kids, why do you think that is?

Thanks, as always, for satisfying my curiosity.

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Today, after my 4-year-old granddaughter discovered a horse jawbone among my "curiosities", we discussed human bones. I eventually got out my anatomy textbook and we named the main categories. She asked about dolphin bones, jelly-fish bones and finally dinosaur bones. We got on the internet and looked up the first and the last, noting how the dolphin doesn't have the rear limbs and how the fins have phalanges. I marked out on her hand the related bone structures.

A typical discussion. When her Daddy came home, she showed him how the jawbone links up, holding the horse jawbone up against hers.

In this case, there is no problem, and the only challenge is to make sure that I don't provide wrong information in the attempt to simplify. At least, more than the mere fact of simplification implies.

I don't mind saying, "I don't know; let's look it up."

However, with some other kids, including other grandkids, I tiptoe around eggshells because of the religious beliefs of the parents; I don't want them to curtail my access. I might have skipped the casual linking of dinosaurs to birds, for example. Or the mention of the human non-functional tailbones. Time for that later, when the kid asks direct questions.

I teach high school chemistry and biology. I have been wrestling with modern science literacy and curriculum. I continually find students simply want to memorize the data to get into college. They have little care of how science literacy is a societal responsibility for wise decision making. Without science literacy it scares me that our future has no idea of the implications of factory farming, carrying capacity, antibiotic resistance, natural selection etc etc etc. They lack the scientific ability to critically analyze the language of political candidates. Its the modern ignorance and disconnect from ecological systems.

And I'm personally responsible for perpetuating the cycle. Hence my angst at finding better methodologies for science teaching. Scienceblogs has been great in this respect to help me think divergently. Keep it coming.

I tutor mostly secondary school kids, and the biggest challenge is all the other priorities they have: staying up to speed with all elements of popular culture, what their friends are up to, and so on. It's hard to compete with all that.

Another problem is that there are too many ways to earn a comfortable living w/o actually contributing anything to the world: advertising, PR, law, "event planning," and so on. Even if you manage to get a kid interested in the arts & sciences, perhaps to the extent that they get an undergrad degree, can you make sure they're not going to sell out afterwards? Ha. I say bring back the days when life was cruel and offered few recourses to earn a reputation other than through artistic & scientific work.

The biggest mistake science-lovers can make when talking to kids is to assume that all or most kids are 1) as smart as the speaker, and 2) as fascinated by science or math as the speaker. That's an easy way to make the kids think you're a clueless fogey who they therefore have license to tune out.

The most fascinated I've seen someone get about evolution was when I told them about dating the invention of human clothing by looking at when a variety of body louse split off from a common ancestor with another: one is designed to cling to human hair, the newer one to fabric. Also shows how easily human cultural innovation can alter *biological* evolutionary trajectories.

We talk to our kids about science all the time. I, myself, being a non-scientist, sometimes don't know the answers. Sometimes I make stuff up, but I always preface it with "I think" and follow with "but we should look that up." And we usually do. We're probably anomalies though. Science and politics are the two biggest topics around here. :)

I talk science with my sprog as much as possible, and any topic is fair game -- bedtime stories have ranged from spatial wormholes and Martian geology to complex arithmetic and Cantor's diagonalization (and ultraviolet ducks of course) -- and although I'll tell her outright "I don't know" if she asks a question I can't answer, my biggest worry is that I might say something which is out-and-out dumb-assed wrong. At her age (11) she's still a sponge, and if an incorrect notion somehow gets lodged in, it might take some serious repair work to put right (although current evidence suggests that she is way smarter than I am). As Twain said, "What gets us into trouble is not what we don't know. It's what we know for sure that just ain't so."

By Hairy Doctor P… (not verified) on 31 May 2007 #permalink

I don't talk about science with the kids I work with because they don't really talk much about anything. With other kids, I think it would have to be because i'm not entirely sure what their parents would appreciate. Since there's a good chance they may not completely believe in science, they may not appreciate some of what I might say. I try to stick with things that won't get me in to too much trouble, at least for now.

My two sons (7 and 10) ask me science questions all the time. Many times I know the answer (thankfully, they still ask basic questions :-) ), and the challenge for me is actually *not* to over-simplify. I think my sons (and most, but not all, of their peers) appreciate that I am not assuming they are dumb. Of course, I don't get into the quantum physics of it all (mainly because I have no clue :-) ), but I try to give as many details as possible. I find it leads to more questions, which is a good thing. We can explore the topic, and have fun with it.

Of course, the most appreciated thing I think I can say is "I have no idea HOW that works" :-). Then they know it's OK to not know something, and they know I'm not just feeding them garbage. And, of course, it leads to a Wikipedia or Google session looking for the answers, which teaches them to look it up for themselves (the best lesson!).

I find the subjects that cause the most trouble, for kids and adults are death and sex.

By William the Coroner (not verified) on 31 May 2007 #permalink

I'm a science teacher and definitely the religion issue makes me the most uncomfortable. I have a few students every year who respond to every question with, "Because God made it that way," or something similar. I teach in a school that is almost entirely Hispanic so there are many Catholics and Evangelical Christians. I always try to start the year with a group discussion where hopefully we can reconcile religion and science but some kids definitely see science as the enemy.

Very interesting question.

I think the hardest issue for me, is discussing science and what it means. I mean, the five year old understands evolution, he understands the basics of gravitation and he understands germy bugs, both good and bad. But we seem to run into a wall, when we discuss the idea of science and empirical investigation. Its not really a scary discussion, just a very hard concept to explain.

Both Dad (a geologist) and I (physiologist, now a writer) talk about science ALL THE TIME! We have 10-yr old twin boys who suck it up and ask all the smart (and dumb) questions that typical 10-yr olds ask, but we answer what we can and we look up what we can't answer. Between having inquisitive kids, two scientists for parents, and LOTS of science books all over the house, they get science whether they realize it or not!

The interesting thing is that one of the boys has autism (he is classified as high-functioning and is in a supported special ed program) and seems to absorb the scientific facts just as quickly as his brother does, you just don't notice it until he starts drawing pictures about the things or telling us stories about the topics (usually many days later, after he has had time to process the information, I think).

Scientifically curious kids (and adults) are TOTALLY COOL!!

I come from a very odd household, a very non-religious demolitions engineer and a New Yorker Catholic who has gone about halfway through nursing school, albeit in the 80's, both are very conservative. I also spent most of my youth in a vry Southern town in Kentucky. I'm really the only once (besides my dad) who has any science education. I have nieces and nephews ranging from three to thirteen. Often, when I'm back on post to run errands for my mom (who just had hip surgery) I, being young enough to relate to and old enough to be 'cool', am pestered about what I'm doing out at university.

Sometimes it's hard to get past notions their second-grade teacher has taught them from sheer expediency (stuff about germs and hand-washing, for example). Coming from a trusted authority, like a teacher, stuff from "just Aunt Maggie" is a bit hard to get through, though they often seem to take "I don't know" as a promise instead of an admission of inadequacy.