Science, Naturally! Review

Stem books for secular homeschooling

Clever STEM books for secular homeschooling families.

Are you looking for a fresh new addition to your secular homeschool toolbox? Look no further than Science, Naturally! With award-winning, National Science Teacher Association recommended books for preschool through middle school, available in multiple languages (and bilingual books too), Science, Naturally! connects kids with STEM education through brainteasers, puzzles, fiction, and nonfiction by merging facts and fun.

Though written for elementary students, my preschooler loves If My Mom Were A Platypus: Mammal Babies and Their Mothers by Dia Michels. It’s filled with information about how 14 different mammals are born, how they grow, what they eat, and more. The colorful illustrations by Andrew Barthelmes invite you into the world of baby bats, elephants, whales, shrews, seals, and other animals from around the world…and of course a baby platypus too.

We recently got a sneak peek at two new bilingual “Beginnings Books” aimed at children 0 – 4 that will be available this summer. Babies Nurse, a book of simple poetry and watercolor illustrations by Phoebe Fox and Jim Fox, introduces young children to mama and baby mammals nursing in the wild. Cuddled and Carried, written by Dia Michels and illustrated by Mike Speiser, is filled with sweet paintings of mother and baby animals and simple text that make it great for reading while cuddled up with your tot.

Upper elementary and middle school students will enjoy the fun fiction in the new League of Scientists and Innovators in Action series. In the first League of Scientists mystery, Ghost in the Water, we meet John Hawkins as he begins 7th grade at a new school. After receiving an invitation to the secret League of Scientists club John joins his new friends Malena, Kimmy, Hector, Natsumi as they solve mysteries using biology, technology, chemistry, and logic. Readers will be pulled into the twists and turns as this exciting story is told from multiple points of view and will feel like a member of the club as they solve interactive codes and puzzles along with the League of Scientists. In Leonardo da Vinci Gets A Do-Over, the first book in the Innovators in Action series, readers join three middle school students on a trip to Florence, Italy, where they meet a man claiming to be Leonardo da Vinci. This entertaining story blends fiction with facts while interweaving academic topics including science, history, math, and art.

101 Things Everyone Should Know About Math uses a Q&A format to connect math to sports, science, hobbies, careers, and pop culture through trivia, challenges, and a bit of math history. We have had a lot of fun in my house using this book to create game show style math trivia nights. I highly recommend adding these buzzers for extra excitement! This book is a great supplement, both for math loving kids and kids who struggle to connect math to real world situations, in mid-elementary through middle school grades.

The One Minute Mysteries series, including 65 Short Mysteries You Solve with Math and 65 More Short Mysteries You Solve with Science, is great for when we are short on time. These books are filled with mysteries and brain teasers that take just one minute to read. Then use your knowledge of math and science, along with logic, critical thinking, and deductive reasoning skills to solve them. The short format of these challenges makes them great for slipping in math, science, and reading when your busy homeschool life keeps you on the go. You can solve a few mysteries in the car, a waiting room, or anywhere you are.

The educational resources page of the Science, Naturally! website is full of free materials and resources that are great for secular homeschoolers. There are teacher’s guides and activity guides to use with many of their titles, as well as lots of resources that can be used with or without the Science, Naturally! books. With interactive activity sheets, STEM education power points, more than a dozen hands-on activities, and a Guild to Children’s Literature that contains 40 resources for students, parents, and teachers, you will definitely want to take some time to browse through their website.

With many titles available in English, Spanish, or bilingual versions (and select titles available in Korean, Dutch, and Hebrew) Science, Naturally! will add to so much more than just your science lessons. These books have been an excellent addition to our secular homeschool, leading us down many interesting rabbit holes, and I’m looking forward to seeing more new titles from them soon.

Science Naturally Will Be at the SEA Convention in Atlanta!





Science and the Secular Homeschooler

I live in Southern California. I taught science at community college, and now I write about it. Those two sentences convey a lot of information about how easy it is for me to negotiate my way through the homeschool community.

Where I live in California, there are many large secular or inclusive homeschool groups. In my experience in California, unless a group states that it is faith-based, it is understood that it isn’t. With one exception, the religious homeschoolers I have met in California have never seemed put-off by my stance about science or my being secular. I once overheard a homeschooler I knew to be a Young Earther tell another homeschooler, who had just explained to me that dinosaurs didn’t really go extinct, because dinosaurs were lizards and lizards still exists, “She taught science at a college. You know how scientists are.” This was the first time, but not the last being a scientist earned me a free pass to participate in activities with religious homeschoolers without my secularity being an issue. I admit though, when I socialize, I don’t talk science with people who don’t want to talk about it.

In 2013, after homeschooling for seven years, my eyes were opened to what it might be like for secular homeschoolers, who are not scientists living in areas with large secular communities. That is the year my biology course came out. It is one thing to be a homeschooling scientist who lives in California. It is quite another to be a homeschooling scientist, who lives in California, and publishes materials that say, “It is a fact that evolution occurs. The theory part is how it happens.” On May 22, 2013 the first review of my Biology book was posted on Amazon. It was 3-stars; the complaint was that it “Teaches Evolution and global warming”. I have always felt fortunate it wasn’t 1-star. Then in June of 2013, I was at a homeschool convention in California and was approached by someone who wanted to argue that any science text that did not include a discussion of the book of Genesis, when explaining evolution, was flawed and biased. One of the conference organizers overheard and put a stop to the conversation, telling the person they were at a secular conference. See what I mean about secular homeschooling in California.

Despite these two occurrences, I continued living in my “California bubble,” thinking it was similar for other secular homeschoolers. Then in September, 2014, I traveled to Georgia for the National Alliance of Secular Homeschoolers, NASH, Conference. It was there I realized how different it was for secular homeschoolers in other parts of the country. It was then that I came to understand how important it is for those of us in areas where we can comfortably tell others we are secular homeschoolers to provide support for homeschoolers in areas less tolerant of their secular homeschooling neighbors. I met homeschoolers who lived in communities where there was not another secular homeschooler. I met homeschoolers who had to make the choice between finding groups where their children could socialize versus being honest about the fact that those children learned from secular materials. I also met homeschoolers who were willing to brave the storm and isolation, and admit that they were secular homeschoolers. That is hard to do. It really is.

Before attending the NASH conference, I understood the importance of writing science materials for the homeschool community that include topics like evolution and the human causes for climate change. That did not mean I understood the importance for those of us living in areas where the consequences for doing it are negligible, of standing up, raising a hand, and saying, “I am a secular homeschooler”. Homeschooling by its very nature can be isolating. When you live in a community where being secular isolates you further, it can get lonely. What can our global community of science-loving secular homeschoolers do?

  1. If you live in one of those areas, start a science co-op. You do not need to be an expert or a scientist to start one. All you need are good reference materials, one or more people to run it, and a location.

Science is not the only academic discipline with fault lines drawn between secular and non-secular homeschoolers, but it is where most of the problems arise. That is because some of the well-established facts and theories of science are at odds with a literal interpretation of religious doctrine from several different faiths. There is continued agitation by some to change science to fit religious doctrine. The problem is science doesn’t work that way. When you change or omit science facts and theories to fit your philosophy, and then teach using those changes or omissions, you are no longer teaching science. I suppose you are teaching religious philosophy with some science woven through it. Scientists take issue with this for two main reasons. First, it is a denial of some of the foundational and fundamental principles all science is based on. For a scientist, this is incredibly frustrating and seriously misrepresentative of how the natural and physical world works. Scientists obviously care a lot about science, or they wouldn’t spend all those years in college studying it. 🙂 Second, the people and users of these non-secular materials continue to call it science while these materials clearly, at least to a scientist, are not really science.

No homeschooler would be surprised by the statistic Gallup released in 2014 stating that 42% of Americans believe God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago. That is certainly a dismal figure, but it has a good side too. 58% do not believe that. And while it is true that many of the people who do believe that are homeschoolers, there is no way ALL the people who do not believe God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago live in California 😉 Starting a science co-op is a great way to find the other members of your local homeschooling community who understand the difference between philosophy and science. In addition, running a secular science co-op provides an important service by promoting science literacy.

  1. Join secular Facebook groups, Yahoo groups, and forums like those on SHS.com. When you live in areas where there is not a good-sized secular community, it can be hard to find discussion about good secular materials, especially science. Online secular groups and forums can be a great place to get information about and recommendations for secular academic materials.
  2. Those of us who are in areas where we can do it, or who feel comfortable doing it no matter where we live, need to make sure we stand up and be counted as secular homeschoolers. It might not seem important in a state like California, but it is important to recognize your advocacy and support might resonate in places you have never been and with people you have never met. It seems part of the human condition to want a group to belong to and a community where we feel understood. I think we evolved that way 😉




Handcrafting High School: Year 1, The First Four Months: Crew

Crew

Crew: Once There Were Vikings, and that Is the Last Time Any of Sean’s Relatives Rowed!

The Boys in the Boat
Crew: The Boys in the Boat

Rowing, or crew as I am just beginning to call it, has been the surprise favorite this year. My husband’s grandparents emigrated from Norway, but they were farmers there and in North Dakota where they ended up. The last relatives in our family that we know of who rowed were Vikings. In fact, everything I know about this sport I have learned from watching my son compete and reading the book The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown, which is a good read. Honestly I don’t even know the prow from the stern (I think I got those terms right). 😉

Sean's curly hair earned him the nickname Broccoli
Crew: Sean’s curly hair earned him the nickname Broccoli

Crew is a physically intense, demanding sport, something we have learned Sean likes very much. The harder the coaches push him, and the tougher they are with the workouts, the happier Sean is. Sean likes everything about rowing. He likes the camaraderie with the other kids. He likes how it is a team sport but that it asks a lot from each individual in the boat. He likes his coaches. He likes the venue in Mission Bay. And he likes the club, The San Diego Rowing Club, SDRC, http://www.sdrcjrs.com/. He has even come to like the nickname his teammates gave him, Broccoli, because of his curly hair.

Rowing was not a planned class. Another homeschooling parent posted that there were free rowing tryouts for 1 week to see if kids liked the sport. I had been trying to get Sean interested in something athletic for the better part of a year, ever since he got healthy again after breaking his ankle. Sean is a person whose mental psyche benefits greatly from regular exercise. I know everybody benefits, but with him it is immediately noticeable, and he’s an awful grump when he is not regularly exercising. He told me he would try rowing, but then changed his mind. Luckily, I forced the issue.

Since the beginning of September, rowing has become a part of our life. Most of the kids who do what is called crew, not rowing, are not homeschooled. Crew practice is from 4 to 6:30ish every weeknight, with an optional practice from 8:30 to 11 most Saturdays. Several of the Sundays have races on them. Sean is on the Novice Men’s Team. It is a team of boys who are high school freshman or who are in later grades in high school but have never rowed before. Next year Sean will automatically graduate to the Varsity Team.

Race days start early, before the wind starts up making the water choppy
Crew: Race days start early, before the wind starts making the water choppy

My husband and I took him to the first tryout. We sat in the car and watched this crazy, intense, challenging workout. About halfway through, the two of us looked at each other and said, “Oh, he must be hating this. We should make him stick with it for the first week just to see if he likes it though, okay.” When Sean got in the car the first thing out of his mouth was, “Best sport ever!”

Rowers spend a lot of time on the erg machine
Crew: Rowers spend a lot of time on the erg machine

It might surprise you to find out that athletics is a reason we are lucky that we are homeschoolers, but not for the reason most people mean when they say that. For many years, Sean was on a competitive ski team. He was on the race team, then after much begging on his part he moved over to the Freeride team, what a lot of people call the trick team. Sean was very injury prone. Sean has broken his nose, his ankle, both his heels, and the pinky fingers on both hands. More significantly, Sean has also had two complex concussions. You might think from reading this that we are negligent parents who just kept throwing him back out there, but some of these injuries are from things like hopping across a creek while playing tag with friends.

The first complex concussion he suffered was in an event where he was jumping and he over rotated on the jump. He landed on his nose, breaking it, and suffering a complex concussion. It was the worst thing I have ever witnessed in my entire life. The second complex concussion was a freak accident where he turned out of the way to avoid a snowboarder and into a tree. Once you have one complex concussion you are much more susceptible to others and you get them from a much lower force of impact. I won’t go into the details of what it was like having a child with a complex concussion. (It was a dark time for us, though. I could relive it in talking if it helped someone, but not in writing.)

When Sean went to the concussion specialist, the doctor asked me how good Sean was at school. I replied that he was a good student. The doctor told me that was good because Sean needed to take the rest of the school year off. Sean injured himself in the first week of February. Your child can’t do any academics if you want his or her brain to heal completely. Sean wasn’t allowed to read. He couldn’t exercise. He was unable to do simple math tasks. He couldn’t even play video games. According to the doctor, all Sean could do if we wanted his brain to heal completely was watch TV, and only if he was watching shows that didn’t require any mental focus. If Sean went to traditional school he would have missed so much school, he would be a grade below the rest of his same age classmates. Between the two complex concussions, Sean took almost a year off school. The only left over effect from Sean’s concussions is trauma induced migraines. That and he cannot participate in any sport where there is a risk of getting another concussion.

Here Sean is racing in a 4
Crew: Here Sean is racing in a 4

It’s hard to imagine how you could get a concussion participating in crew. (Now I am imagining how a boat could fall on his head while carrying it to the water!) I have been skiing since I was two years old. Sean also started skiing when he was two. Sean, my husband, and I really, really love to ski. I was lucky enough with my skiing that I never seriously injured myself. My son wasn’t so lucky. Sean’s mental health is linked to his participation in intense physical activities. When he is not participating in them, he gets very down. When he is participating in them, he is sunny, joyful, and very humorous. If you have a kid who needs this sort of physical activity then you know what I mean. It is like turning a light switch on and off. Crew is the first sport he has tried since skiing that he loved enough to want to participate in on a regular basis. We are lucky to have found it.

Read about handcrafting high school language art here, and about learning science here.





Handcrafting High School: Year 1, The First Four Months: Science

Science: A Parent’s Passion

        I LOVE science‼ My son likes science. This is the main area of handcrafting Sean’s education that has focused on the passions of someone in his family besides him. (My husband’s and my other passions are shared by Sean.) I am a scientist, and I know a lot of science. Even though he doesn’t have my strong passion for science, my son is good at science. He has had the benefit of a good science education. I am a passionate proponent of people learning how the natural and physical world works. I do not think of science as an ancillary subject, and I believe strongly that the treatment by our academic institutions of science as ancillary has led to a lot of the problems our world is facing right now.

Stars are being born here. This is from the Hubble Telescope. It is easy to understand how captivating it is to study astronomy.
Science: Stars are being born here. This is from the Hubble Telescope. It is easy to understand how captivating it is to study astronomy. Photo from, http://hubblesite.org/gallery/album/

I want to come clean with you; I did something I caution other parents against doing. I am using my middle school science textbook for high school. I made sure Astronomy and Earth Science was far enough along so that I could use it with Sean this year. Let me start by telling you, it is a middle school text. I am beefing it up by adding more math to it, having him write regular lab reports, and having him read relevant periodicals, books, and on-line articles to go along with the weekly theory, but I am not significantly changing my text. I am calling this course Applied Chemistry and Physics, which it is, on Sean’s high school transcript to make it easier for the colleges where he applies to recognize the coursework this class entails.

It might make me sound a bit like a control freak (I am not btw), but here are my reasons for using my text even if it is a middle school text. My choices of texts and courses are severely limited when it comes to those that are sold to the homeschool community because:

  • I will not use a course that excludes or misrepresents scientific facts, principles, models, or theories that are considered core ideas in the field. I am a scientist. I am not going to play silly games about what constitutes good science. I care too much about it. It pains me to admit it, but most of the science materials developed specifically for the homeschool community play this game of omission and/or misrepresentation with many of the core established understandings of science. When I see this it is a signal to me that the person responsible for the material does not have the same passion I do for teaching people how the natural and physical world works, and I just cannot use their stuff.
  • I find many public school texts available for homeschoolers to be dry, arcane, and full of advanced topics without enough grounding in the foundational fundamentals.
  • Many texts have an inadequate or thoughtless pairing of labs with the theory.
  • Often with public school texts, there is just too much material to get through in a year, with too much emphasis on facts that could easily be looked up using your phone (which is what we all do!).
  • Most public school texts assume the material is going to be taught by a teacher, so the fit isn’t easy if you are not prepared to teach from it. And even I would rather not put together a yearlong series of lectures for just one student from someone else’s text. That is one reason my texts are written to the student as a really complete series of lecture notes. (That is how I think of my texts.) I consider each chapter in my text to be one (occasionally two) lecture’s worth of material written in a conversational manner. It is also why the Teacher’s Guide has a Text Review. Those would be my lecture notes if I were teaching from my book. It is much easier for me, the author, to write the lecture notes, than for parents who are using my texts.

This does make me sound like a control freak about science doesn’t it?!? LOL!

I have my reasons for using my text, but even so, a year ago it would have made me nervous to use this course for high school. Then two unrelated events happened that made me take a harder look at the science many consider high school level.

  1. I signed Sean up for a science co-op class to take along with this one. The class met the University of California a to g requirement for a high school science class. The class only met once a month! The labs did not seem to be carefully paired with the theory. They felt more like a hodgepodge of laboratory techniques crammed together. I concluded that if this class met the UC System requirements, then we were doing above and beyond that with my middle school courses.
  2. Early in the 2014/2015 school year, I was contacted by a parent who is using RSO Biology 2. They had recently moved to New York State. Here is her statement from a review she wrote about RSO Biology 2 on Amazon, “I’m now using this book to teach a science co-op in NY. According to the White Plains school district, the labs in this book can be used to qualify for the biology/living environment Regents Exam.” In a separate email, I learned that to graduate from high school in New York State you must take certain classes and then pass the Regent’s Exam for those classes. After reviewing the material in RSO Biology 2, the White Plains School District told the homeschooling parent that as long as they saved the records from the biology labs this course would satisfy the high school requirement for a year of biology/living environment. The irony was the parent was not trying to get them to approve this as a high school level course. Her daughter was in middle school. When she moved to the White Plains school district they wanted to look at the materials she was using before giving their approval that she could homeschool her daughter! She shared the topics and labs from RSO Biology 2 to get them to approve this book for use in middle school. Instead the school district approved the book for high school (and middle school). Her daughter and the other students at the co-op are getting credit for both, I guess. there was also a comment in a similar vein from a different reviewer on Amazon. This is a quote from their comment, “P.S. I suppose I should mention that before this program, he scored in the 69th percentile on science (7.3 GE) according to a national, standardized test for fifth-graders. This year he scored in the 90th percentile in science (13+ GE) on the same national, standardized test given to sixth-graders. What does that mean? It means he’s got mastery of the content more than anything.”
RSO Biology 2
Science: RSO Biology 2 http://www.pandiapress.com/?page_id=82

When RSO Biology 2 first came out, people contacted me about using it for high school. My standard response was that it was not written to be a high school level text and there were things that were left out that I would have included in a high school level course. For example, I left out the electron transport chain during the discussion of photosynthesis. I left out a probability exercise showing the number of different combinations of chromosomes that can be made during meiosis and then recombined at fertilization for two diploid organisms with 3 chromosomes in their karyotype. (I did write this though. My publisher wisely had me remove it. It really was advanced even for most high school students. 😉 ) There would be more chemistry woven into the biology. Next school year Sean will study chemistry. I will have to make sure he gets the important biochemistry then.

I spent some time thinking (mildly obsessing my husband and publisher would say, LOL!) about the situation with the Regent’s Exam, and I think I know why the school district felt RSO Biology 2 qualifies as a high school level course. Good science programs are moving away from a focus on memorizing facts and to a focus on science practices. In most cases, the basic concepts and foundational fundamentals are the same for a high school and middle school text. Maybe middle school courses do not check every single box for the more complicated concepts, but there is no way for middle school and high school students to practice most of the more advanced concepts anyway. Very few texts have a strong focus on the application and practice of the science concepts being taught. RSO Biology 2 (and Astronomy and Earth Science 2) have that as a primary focus. There is a focus in these courses on learning the foundational fundamentals and then applying them. A focus on the application and practice of science concepts and foundational fundamentals translates to a focus on using the scientific method in a meaningful way, the way scientists actually use it.  It is one of the reasons I have students make their own slides in RSO Biology 2. If you buy prepared slides, you will get a better view of the specimen than if you prepare your own slides. I guarantee it! But if you do that you will never become good at making slides, and studying science should not just be about looking at what others have done. Studying science should include you interacting with the natural and physical world to come to a better, more complete understanding of how it works.

Science
Science: Lunar eclipse, 10/7/2014

I would have used Astronomy and Earth Science 2 even without these two things happening, but I would have obsessed more, making sure I covered the specific facts I am leaving out of the middle school text that I would not leave out in a high school text. I have a confession to make about last year too. I used my biology text as a high school level biology course in 8th grade. Sean wanted to do biology again in 8th grade. The sequence for Sean’s science during middle school was 5th grade: middle school biology, 6th grade: physics, 7th grade: chemistry, 8th grade: high school biology. He hasn’t had astronomy or earth science since 2nd grade.

So far this has been a great year of science. The sequence of topics in the text is astronomy, geology, hydrology, the atmosphere and meteorology, and environmental science. Sean has only gotten through the astronomy portion. Sean is loving science this year. Astronomy has really captured his interest and imagination. I have to be careful when Sean looks at the supplementary videos and articles, because he can lose a day that way. Not that I mind, it is just that I have to make sure there is nothing pressing when he starts science!

The Parallel Universe Theory has captivated Sean's imagination.
Science: The Parallel Universe Theory has captivated Sean’s imagination. Illustration from, http://www.tip-day.com/parallel-universe-myth-reality-new-hypothesis/

In addition to using my course, Sean has read the following:

A Wrinkle in Time
Science: A Wrinkle in Time
  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle – The reading level was a little young for him, but I coupled the reading with a discussion of Einstein’s Theories and how there could be “wrinkles” in time. (A topic that isn’t too young for him or anyone else!) Sean loved this. In addition to his studies, he has taken the time to learn MUCH‼ more than I know about parallel universe theories!
A Brief History of Nearly Everything
Science: A Short History of Nearly Everything
  • A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson – This book along with my course, I feel, took Astronomy and Earth Science 2 up to the high school level! Sean has loved parts of this book and been lukewarm about others. I should probably state here, my son will enter college with a level of science that will enable him to do well in his science courses. Sean knows more science than most adults, but most adults do not have much science knowledge. Unless Sean changes his mind, Sean’s focus in high school science will not be at the AP science level. If your student’s focus is at the AP science level, this is not a rigorous enough course for you. But because of the focus on the foundational fundamentals, Sean is able to make connections across the science disciplines that are deep and nuanced

.

The Martian
Science: The Martian
  • The Martian by Andy Weir – I read this book in two days. It took Sean a week. This book is science, science fiction, action, and a nail biter. Each day that Sean read this, I had him email me a writing technique he noticed and liked that the author had used, I also had him email me 1 science fact from the book.

I know many of you want to get your hands on this text NOW!! I am peddling as fast as I can, I promise!

 

 

Check out our post on teaching computer science in home schooling high school here.





Learning Science

Learning Science, Secular Science Homeschooling

 Homeschooling and Science

A Winning Combination

Sean Lee learning about the science of aviation.
Sean Lee learning about the science of aviation.

I am reposting this article in response to an article in the New York Times. There is a link to that article at the bottom of this post.  The article validates what I am detailing below about how science is best learned!

Learning science is something I have spent 24 years working at in one aspect or another. Today I want to talk about what I have learned over these years educating in various venues and to a broad range of age groups. This is the text from a talk I gave at the California Homeschool Network Convention, CHN Family Expo, in June, 2014.

I was a college professor, teaching chemistry and biology at community colleges before retiring to homeschool my son. I also write secular science textbooks for the Real Science Odyssey series. This is a series of textbooks that have been written primarily for use in a homeschool or small co-op setting. As you can imagine, at our house, we definitely take time to learn science. In the school year 2013/2014, these two areas, facilitating my son’s science education and my textbooks, combined when I taught a homeschool science co-op using the REAL Science Odyssey Biology 2 Course I wrote. I learned some things teaching this co-op. I will touch on some of those things today, but if you want more, you should go to my articles in my blog where there is information detailing what I learned about teaching a science co-op for homeschoolers.

First I would like to ask a question. Have you ever had a great science course? If you have, what made it great? I doubt that even one person thought of a science class that only had reading text and listening to lectures! People approach me all the time worried about the job they are doing teaching science. So many people have had a bad experience in school when it came to science. Those same people want their children to learn science but they do not know what a good science course looks like.

When I think about what a great science course looks like, I recognize that the elements for it are best met with the type of environment we have in the homeschool community, whether in our own home or in a small co-op. I’ve come to understand that the homeschooling environment is absolutely the best environment for learning science.

So how can I say this? There are many people, notable scientists among them (Bill Nye comes to mind at the top of the list), who believe the exact opposite.

Of all academic subjects, science is the one that is the best fit for the homeschooling environment. Why? Because science is best taught where there is the time and space to ponder, research, explore, and get up and experiment. With the right tools and support you don’t need a science degree either. All you need is a willingness and desire to have your child learn how the natural and physical world works.

Start early:

  • Serious subjects are taught beginning in grade school.
  • Why isn’t the subject that teaches how the natural and physical world works serious enough to start teaching early?
  • Starting early allows for more depth and complexity.
  • I hear from people that they can wait to teach science, that kids are not ready to be taught science in grade school. I don’t understand the logic behind this. Science explains how the natural and physical world works. Why isn’t grade school the perfect time to begin teaching science? It’s sad, because kids want to know about plants and butterflies, stars and planets, how cooking works, atoms and energy. Young children are fascinated by these things. I actually think a big part of the problem with science education is that parents are not fascinated by it anymore, and it’s really a shame. Adults are not fascinated by it because their science education was so poor. We as homeschoolers can change that.
  • Recently I volunteered at the Intel International Science and Education Fair, the Intel ISEF. It is a huge international science fair. They consider it a science talent search with thousands of high school students from across the globe competing for a total of $4 million in prize money. I always enjoy myself immensely at these gatherings because it’s the only time I get to sit around with a whole bunch of scientists and talk science. At lunch time I happened to sit down with 6 female scientists. Three of them were, or had been, high school science teachers and one was a community college teacher who taught people how to teach science. We all got to talking about what we did or had done and of course it came to homeschooling science when they wanted to know what I did. It was very interesting. You might think this group would not be proponents of homeschooling. I did. You and I would be wrong. These women had been to many science fairs as volunteers and what they saw, again and again, was that increasingly often the best science fair projects were from homeschooled students. I was told that more often than not the homeschooled kids are the ones that win the science fairs. I was curious to find out why they thought homeschooled kids were doing a superior job of learning and experimenting with science. They said to me that the problem stems from when traditional schools begin teaching science. According to them, science is being taught later and later in schools. This is due to the current state of public education and the testing which affects a school’s funding. Schools pour time and money into language arts and math, because if test scores are low in those areas a school’s funding is cut.
  • Teachers focus all their energy and resources on math and language arts to the detriment of science. If kids are lucky enough to get science before high school it is as a component of language arts. It isn’t science for the sake of science. Now this touches on several things I want to talk about in a minute. But when science is a component of language arts, it’s about reading science. It’s not about doing science and there’s a big difference. It’s why a lot of adults think science is boring. So what happens when you don’t start science until high school is that you have students who come into high school weak in science. Therefore the science teachers have to start teaching at a much more basic level then they were teaching in years past.
  • If you’re curious to see the difference in levels, go to the Pandia Press website and look at the difference in REAL Science Odyssey Life 1, Chemistry 1, and Biology 2. RSO Life 1 is written for early grade school, Chemistry 1 is written for late grade school, and Biology 2 is written for middle school. You can look at them in the ‘Try It before You Buy It’ section. I really encourage you to look at them side by side. I encourage you to compare the two biology texts and to look at the progression within these books. There’s a big change. There’s a certain amount of knowledge that you begin to anticipate and expect that students are going to have. Students who start a new school year with some knowledge have an advantage. This is similar to what is done in math or language arts. You do not want to be teaching high school students phonics or basic spelling chunks. You want to be discussing literature with them.
REAL Science Odyssey Chemistry 1, Blair Lee M.S.
REAL Science Odyssey Chemistry 1, Blair Lee M.S. http://www.pandiapress.com/?page_id=86

Focus on the fundamentals:

  • Scientific Method
  • Good Foundation means a good grasp of how the various pieces relate
  • Good Foundation allows for a better understanding of new concepts
  • Good Foundation leads to a better ability to analyze data, models, and theories about how the natural and physical world works
  • When I talk about fundamentals, I am talking about the underlying principles that are the root knowledge required for a more advanced understanding of a subject. These are things that high school students in traditional schools are no longer coming into the science classroom knowing.
  • Scientific Method: An important aspect of learning science is learning how to use the scientific method. Using the scientific method depends on knowing the basic facts of science. The absolute best way to learn the scientific method is through applying it. The scientific method is based on experimentation, observation, and deductive reasoning. One reason that the homeschool environment is superior is because homeschoolers are given the time and space for experimentation, making observations, and deductive reasoning. It really is the best environment for learning science. Teasing out the answer to a problem is not something you can set a time limit for accomplishing. Schools, by their very nature, are forced into giving students time limits to learn and apply science concepts.   This doesn’t lend itself to a practical understanding of how the scientific process really works.
  • A solid foundation in the basic fundamentals of science will result in students who have a good grasp of how the various pieces in science relate, which leads to a better understanding of new concepts. A strong focus on the foundational fundamentals also leads to a better ability to analyze more complex data, models, and theories for how the natural and physical world works
  • There are certain fundamental principles that are the basic building blocks for understanding science concepts. For example atoms; all matter is made of atoms. Every single science principle where we explain how the natural and physical world works at its core is talking about atoms. Even a graduate student studying complicated scientific principles and theories must understand the basics of atoms. An understanding of atoms is one of the foundational fundamental principles in all of science and is necessary to understand how other pieces of scientific information relate.
  • I think it is a problem that often there is not a focus on the basic fundamentals for two reasons. The first is that the students’ knowledge base is not complete. The second thing I see happening in middle school and high school texts and classes is that concepts that are too complicated are brought in before there is an understanding of the underlying principles. This leads to spotty knowledge which results in people thinking they’re not good in science when it is actually the quality of their education that’s not good. In these situations, some students will learn the new material, but most students will just breeze right over it. I like to use foreign language as an example here. If you’re sitting in a restaurant and you overhear someone speaking a language you don’t know you tune the speaker out. But if you know a little of that language you will listen, try to understand what they’re saying, maybe even start a conversation with them. It’s the same thing with science. If I start talking about polarity and water molecules and you don’t even understand the basics of what a molecule is, you don’t know what I’m talking about and your brain glazes over or moves on to something else. If you do have some knowledge of molecules and polarity, you will pay attention and engage in the conversation, adding to your knowledge base.

Learn each discipline as a single subject:

  • Does not create artificial boundaries
  • Allows for an in-depth understanding of the foundational fundamentals, instead of a “Jack of all Trades, Master of None” approach
  • Mastery of each science discipline is superior for that discipline and for making connections across disciplines
  • On the face of it, it might sound like spending an entire year every four years on a single subject creates artificial boundaries between science disciplines. While it is important that the material you use to teach points out and makes connections between the different disciplines, the best approach is to learn the fundamentals of each discipline and make connections once the basics are understood. This creates a cohesive body of knowledge which enhances a student’s ability to make connections between the disciplines.
  • Often science is learned with a grab bag approach, which I call the smattering approach. When I told the gals at the Intel ISEF fair that I was not a fan of the smattering approach they said that in the past they would have agreed with me. But that now, the state of the science being taught is in such a shabby state that they would even like it if people went back to the smattering approach. It turns out that the smattering approach for learning science is better than not learning it at all. So I guess if it’s between the smattering approach and nothing at all, the smattering approach is okay to use. Otherwise, any good science teacher will tell you you’re better off teaching science as a single subject, just as we do every other academic subject we care about our children learning.
  • This really goes back to teaching the foundational fundamentals. You start to build on concepts, creating a firm foundation, adding more and more complicated material on top of it. Anyone who has worked with their child in math knows exactly what I’m talking about. There is no other subject that we take seriously that we do not teach as a single subject. There is a reason for that.

Rely on one or more good textbooks:

Real Science Odyssey Biology 2
RSO Biology 2 http://www.pandiapress.com/?page_id=82#level2
  • Comprehensive
  • It helps to have a guide, someone who is an expert in that field, to help you figure out the scope and sequence of the material to cover.
  • Different students access information differently.
  • Focus on the fundamentals.
  • Make sure the text is secular teaching the theories and models that are central to each science discipline.
  • Don’t teach a co-op class without a text.
  • I write science textbooks that are long and complete. I do not write fluffy science. So it should not surprise people that I am a fan of having some sort of guide and guidance to follow for each subject that I’m having my child study over the course of the year. I learned my lesson with first grade biology that even someone who is very knowledgeable in the field could use some direction. When I homeschooled my son in first grade I had a guide and reference material for every subject he was learning, except biology. I thought, “How hard will it be? I taught biology at community college. I have a biology degree from UCSD. Biology is going to be a piece of cake.” It turns out, with all the other subjects he was working on I was overwhelmed when it came to planning and figuring out a course of study as I went along. In fact, when my son was in second grade I had him work through RSO Life 1 and Earth and Space 1!
  • I will be honest; my reference material is not always a textbook. In history we use video courses and material where someone else has put together a complete package. Science is a little different than history though, because you are still going to need lab sheets, material lists, and I really think it’s good for students to be able to read the information if they need it.
  • Choose texts that are comprehensive and do not skip over the basics, introducing advanced topics and language with a focus on the fundamentals. I do not think it matters which science discipline you start with, but I would suggest waiting until 3rd grade for chemistry and physics. When your child is ready for their multiplication tables they are ready for chemistry. It has to do with the abstract nature of chemistry.
  • Every area of science has a lot of information to it. It helps to have a guide, someone who is an expert in that field, help you figure out the scope and sequence of the material to cover. I believe there is no way to teach the foundational fundamentals or to teach science as a year-long single subject without a textbook. In every science class I have ever taught, I have been handed a stack of textbooks. I was given the teacher’s textbook, the lab manual, the answer key, and test making software, because a committee of people at the community college where I was teaching decided that was what the course was going to look like that year. Perhaps this sounds limiting, but I did not find it so. You can use the textbooks as a touch point if you want, but it is essential to have a guide so that the material is covered in a complete fashion.
  • The other important thing about having a good textbook is that students access information in various ways. I learned how important it is to have reference material when I taught a co-op class this year. Based on my experience, I wouldn’t have my son take a science co-op class if there wasn’t a textbook because if the subject gets complicated your child needs something to reference, not the Internet either. I think it is important to have something they can hold in their hands, something they can underline, highlight, and make notes from. A source that you can both go to.
  • Along the lines of accessing information I’ve actually been thinking about making some videos for my text and putting them on my blog for kids who are struggling with some of the more complicated concepts. The genetics unit in my biology textbook, for instance, is an area kids find very difficult. I think if students had me lecture out of the book to them, those kids who were feeling challenged by the concepts would be able to understand the information better. I’m very into making sure there are multiple ways to access information.

 Carefully pair theory with labs and activities

  • All theory and no labs, what a bore
  • All labs and no theory, teach cooking instead 

Let’s be clear about what I’m talking about when I call something a good science course. I am not talking about sitting in your seats. I am talking about getting up and moving around, getting your hands dirty. I’m talking about taking those foundational fundamentals and applying them to real-world labs and activities that relate well to the theory. This is where science becomes fun.

  • When scientific theories are paired well with labs and activities it enhances an understanding of the scientific method and science learning. It demonstrates through use and practice how hypotheses are formed and conclusions determined based on science facts that are presented in the text.
  • Sometimes I see science being taught where it is all theory with no labs or activities. The science theory is the science information in the written text. Other times I see science being taught with all labs and activities but no theory. Neither is adequate.
  • Honestly all theory with no labs and activities, why bother. That’s where science gets a bad name. For parents I know that the labs and activities are work. I know you do not always feel like setting them up. I know this because I teach my child science, and I don’t always feel like setting them up, but I do it because it’s important to me that my son gets a good science education. A good science education has labs and activities that are carefully paired with the text and theory.
  • All lab and activities with no theory might be fun, but you are not learning science cohesively. You’re not learning the foundational fundamentals. For example, how many of you understand the complicated process that occurs when you bake a cake? By this I mean the physics and chemistry involved in the baking process. To bake a cake you don’t need to know the underlying science because that is not your reason for baking it. It is about making a yummy treat for your family. In order for it to be called science you would need to understand the physics and chemistry of the process. And to know and understand the science you need to have studied the theory and then done the experiments. That way it all ties together.
  • When this is done; the pairing of the theory with the labs and activities, no place outside a college lab that is thoughtfully paired with a lecture course can match the homeschool community. It might be another reason why we are winning all of those science fairs.

5 Steps to a Great Science Education

  1. Start Early
  2. Focus on the Fundamentals
  3. Single Subject
  4. Good Textbook &/or Reference Materials
  5. Carefully Paired Theory and Labs & Activities

I hope that this helps any of you who are worried about your children’s learning of science, and that this doesn’t sound complicated to you. All you need to facilitate your child learning science is a desire and the resources to make it happen. I want to close with, “Science is so much fun to do, to share and interact. I really hope you take the time to explore science with your child. Who knows, maybe the next time someone asks you if you have had a great science course you will raise your hand, because the years of science you did while homeschooling your child were just that good!”

Update: In December of 2014 the New York Times published an article about college reinventing how science is taught and better learned using the principles and methods I am advocating here!

This post contains affiliate links.

Check out this list for materials to use for your own homeschool science co-op here and read some of my Lunar Ramblings here.