Science, Naturally! Review

Stem books for secular homeschooling

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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.

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International Day of Women and Girls in Science: There’s Still Work To Be Done

International Women and Girls in Science Day

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International Women and Girls in Science Day

International Women and Girls in Science Day is upon us, and it’s interesting to think that we need a day to recognize the female interest in and contributions to science, but here we are. We absolutely need to celebrate it. And while I hope this is an inspirational piece of writing, I also believe that the time for well crafted words has passed and now, more than ever, is a time for action.

Women have always been involved in science, from the ancient wisdom of healers who used the natural world for observation, practice and teaching to the women who defied societal expectations to live a life of scientific inquiry, to the women now who are combining science and technology with entrepreneurship. We have also always been the subject of science, both with and without our consent. Women are still marginalized in scientific and technology focused communities, and not because of a lack of interest, but because of a longstanding history. Women in science still report their abilities being questioned, their advancement slower, and their exclusion from contributing important work, particularly if they choose to start a family. Most of the technology product design and start up industry is still dominated by men. Science and technology created for women is still predominantly created by men because of the slow changing nature of culture. These are serious issues that merit not only a day of observance and conversation, but a substantial effort towards change.

International Women and Girls in Science Day
Photo by S.Cook of her daughter, a budding veterinarian. For the record, they both believe girls can be any combination of princess and scientist they choose.

Click here to learn more about International Women and Girls in Science Day

When we celebrate science and technology, we are also celebrating the history of innovation and invention, the art of design, the mathematics of precision, the collective community of the users. The lines between subjects are a myth, a construction by the conventional education system to compartmentalize learning. This separation of subjects was particularly harmful to girls, as it allowed for the bias that still assigns an aptitude for certain subjects according to gender. As an educator, I have taught in almost every kind of environment and my experience has taught me that education has a primary role in changing society. The more I came to understand how much harm it has done to see different subjects as isolated and autonomous, the more dedicated I became to changing the paradigm and advocating for interpreting science and technology in a personal way.

As I experimented more with centering the acquisition of skill around the specific needs of the learner, I was able to utilize our family’s considerable participation in the maker movement and open a workshop designed specifically for children and their families. We formed a non-profit and began a 5 year experiment in hacking the way STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and maths) education could be presented and individualized. The most essential value we embodied at Curiosity Hacked was that each of us could choose the role science and technology plays within our lives, and I actively recruited women as mentors with a variety of interests and skills so that girls had solid role models of women makers and boys did too. The foundation of our programs was that using science, technology, art, and design thinking not only created skilled makers, but children who embraced and mastered creativity, innovative thinking, resilience, resourcefulness, and networking. These are the kind of strengths that are invaluable in a quickly changing world. For girls, the experience often dramatically and positively changed their self image and what they thought themselves capable of. Science is interesting and valuable in its own right, independent of future occupations, and that the earlier girls are empowered to pursue their own interest in it, the more prepared they will be for a future that depends on their science and tech confidence.

I also saw mothers learn new concepts and skills that they had never been exposed to or did not think to/were intimidated to try and it transformed them, not just personally, but also in the way they parented and their increased support of science and technology initiatives. We can’t change the future for girls if we don’t hold the space in the present for adults to gain the knowledge and skills that the younger generation is fluent in. Adults need to understand the essential value of science and technology as more than electronics, academics, entertainment, and healthcare. Our society often focuses on the future of girls in STEM fields, but their enjoyment of it, and the education of the adults influencing their lives, right now in the present is just as crucial.

Whether or not science and technology is part of an educational trend through STEM/STEAM initiatives, women and girls have always engaged with their innate sense of curiosity. The idea that we need to encourage them to love science and technology is placing the burden on those who already bear the cultural conditioning of many generations. Girls and women already love science and technology. What needs to be encouraged is policy and cultural changes that support their interest and leave girls with no doubt that they belong and are respected in their chosen field. This is a privilege most men have experienced for thousands of years.

Framework that protects and supports women, like family leave, flexible work schedules, and affordable quality child care, creates a pathway for women to be able to return to their work instead of being forced to choose between their career and their family. Work culture that has no tolerance for discrimination or inequity holds the community responsible for creating a safe and supportive work environment. Well funded educational opportunities for girls to innovate and be mentored by women who believe in them build engaged learners who grow up to pay it forward. These are the things that create change quickly.

Just as important than all of the above, though, is the relationship we foster between girls and science from the very beginning. Read books on science and scientists, particularly female scientists. Cultivate an environment of slow science, where observation and appreciation become a sensory experience. Provide an abundance of ingredients and materials to experiment with. Build a relationship with technology that serves as a tool – not just for education but for enjoyment and for community building. Stop shaming children for asking questions, making messes, or for the interests they are passionate about. Examine your language for gender assumptions around science and technology. Stop telling your kids they are smart and start telling them they are capable, good problem solvers, or innovative. Stop telling kids they should go into science or technology just because they’ll get a great paying job, and encourage them to choose their work based on passions and strengths. Look for ways science and technology has changed lives and helped people, particularly for women and girls.  Elevate the acquisition of science literacy in your home and in your community. Demand family friendly legislation from your elected officials. Elect more women. Donate to scientific studies led by women. Donate to Kickstarters in which women are designing new technology projects. Finally, when your girls are older, share this history and its bias with them so that they know what we celebrate every year.

More Posts by Samantha Cook

Learning Through Making
Project-Based Learning and Making

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Choosing an Educational Game

Game

Choosing an Educational Game

If you decide that educational games might be useful for your child, it might seem like there are way too many things to consider. How popular they are, what themes and subjects to focus on, how recommended they are and so on. And while there are a lot of educational games out there, I hope I can help you narrow down your options — not based on what the games seem like on the surface, but on what type of learning your child will experience when they’re playing.

What is your Child Actually Doing while Playing?

One of the most important things to keep in mind is what your child will actually be doing when they play a game. A lot of educational products have rewarding elements like character customization, pets, apartments, etc., but obviously this shouldn’t be where your child is spending all their time in a game. So it’s good to ask: Are they spending their time problem-solving? Are they engaging deeply on educational subjects? Not just memorizing content, but actually participating in it?

The following story illustrates this quite clearly:

“A teacher once told me that for a fourth-grade unit on the Underground Railroad he had his students bake biscuits, because this was a staple food for runaway slaves. He asked what I thought about the assignment. I pointed out that his students probably thought for forty seconds about the relationship of biscuits to the Underground Railroad, and for forty minutes about measuring flour, mixing shortening, and so on. Whatever students think about is what they will remember.” (Willingham)

Of course, if the teacher’s goal is to practice measuring and cooking, that’s great.  But if their goal was learning about the Underground Railroad, they fell short.  This is because of the key concept: “Memory is the residue of thought.”  This is one of the biggest takeaways from Willingham’s book, “Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom,” which I highly recommend!

So with any material, consider what your child is actually going to be thinking about. What are they going to spend time doing? Because that’s what they’re going to get out of it.

Lower-Order Practice vs. Higher-Order Conceptual

I generally categorize educational games into two groups: Lower-Order Practice and Higher-Order Conceptual Learning. Both have their functions in a child’s learning, so let’s take a closer look:

Lower-Order Practice

Lower-Order Practice is the kind of learning where children answer questions and practice remembering content, but don’t actually learn the concepts or do anything particularly unique with them. For example, a child has to be taught how to do the math problem before they do a math-themed version of this type of game. A Lower-Order Practice game isn’t great for learning the content for the first time or helping them understand the concepts behind it.

And we’ve all seen this type of activity before: glorified worksheets with better-than-average behavioral and motivational science behind them.

I use the term Lower-Order in reference to Bloom’s Taxonomy of educational goals. In Lower-Order Practice games, the activities take place in the lower half of thinking skills:

  • Remember what they’ve learned by recognizing and recalling information;
  • Understand by classifying, comparing, or other activities;
  • Apply by using what they’ve learned on other problems, sometimes in new contexts or slightly harder examples.

I should emphasize that there’s nothing inherently wrong with Lower-Order Practice, because we do need to practice these skills and be able to memorize information. All the hype about how we don’t need to memorize information anymore because we can look everything up on Google is just that — hype.

Math is an easy way to explain why this is important: in general, people can only hold 5-9 items in working memory at a time. Therefore, if you don’t memorize your times tables by the time you get to algebra, it’s hard to have to constantly pause in the middle of solving a problem to do multiplication, as you end up dropping items out of your working memory. In the exact same sense, we can’t perform higher-order thinking skills like creating, connecting points, and being creative unless we already know the basics. So there’s definitely a need for practice and repetition to make sure the basics are mastered.

This form of educational gaming works well across several types of devices: mobile, tablets, and computers, though most Lower-Order Practice games are apps or web-based for quick, in-and-out sessions lasting for a relatively short period of time. For example, the games available at Coolmath.com, Funbrain.com, and ABCya.com are largely simple practice games. I’ve had teachers tell me that these types of games generally retain their students’ interest for about 10 minutes.

Higher-Order Conceptual Learning

Games with Higher-Order Conceptual Learning use systems, problem-solving, and more in-depth types of gameplay to help the player develop a strong conceptual understanding, and they often use a constructivist approach to learning.

These type of games really take advantage of the power of what games can do, with potentially open-ended systems that let players experiment and get a much better, deeper understanding.

So in Bloom’s Taxonomy, Higher-Order Conceptual Learning has children:

  • Analyze by differentiating, organizing, and attributing as players problem-solve;
  • Evaluate by checking and judging to make decisions;
  • Create to generate hypotheses, plan, design, and produce solutions.

For example, in our game, Tyto Online, players engage in an ecosystem-building Sandbox. They use the basics they’ve learned to analyze their ecosystem, evaluate the evidence to decide what’s causing issues (like, “Why are my jackrabbits dying so quickly?!”), generate a hypothesis (“They have too many predators, or not enough food”), and then produce a solution. Players go through an engaging, iterative cycle of problem-solving and the scientific method constantly during gameplay.

Some of my favorite examples of Higher-Order math games include Motion Math’s games where children do conceptual activities like exploring a number line at various scales; and Dragonbox Learning, where players start by developing the concepts of algebra with balancing puzzles, and then work their way into replacing the symbols with letters and numbers until they’re solving full algebraic equations in the game.

There are even educational games that can enable types of learning that are difficult or impossible to do in real life as a child: build a spaceship with Kerbal Space Program, play with the universe’s physical variables with Universe Sandbox, or create an ecosystem from scratch with Tyto Online.

Session times in Higher-Order educational games are often a lot longer, depending on the game and what your child is exploring. Therefore it makes more sense to use computer installed games or tablets, or at least a setup where your child will feel comfortable playing for 30-60 minutes instead of 10.

Conclusion

For the practical side of timing and devices, consider:

Are you going for “instant” or “active” gaming? One of the most helpful workshops I attended divided mobile & tablet gaming into “instant gaming,” and computer & console gaming into “active gaming.”

  • Instant Gaming: on mobile devices, educational games are grab-and-go, and session times often average only 5 minutes. This can be great for quick reinforcement or other activities.
  • Active Gaming: on consoles or computers, the act of getting set up to play the game can take as long as the entire Instant Gaming experience! Therefore, these sessions are usually much longer and made for replayability, sometimes hours, and can be great for deeper and conceptual learning as players experiment, iterate, and create during their gameplay.

And finally, to assess if a game is right for your child, the main thing I would suggest is:

Consider the outcome you want and compare it to what your child will actually spend their time doing in the game. Are you using the game for practice and review? Do you want to help develop conceptual understanding? Do you want to improve their “21st Century skills,” like problem-solving and collaboration? Does the game help them reach that outcome?

There’s no “one size fits all” approach when it comes to knowing if an educational game is right for your child with so many options out there that fill many different potential needs. While we mainly focus on developing Higher-Order thinking with Tyto Online, we’ve also built in repetition and opportunities for children to understand the basic knowledge they need in order to get the full experience of the game.

To read more about the learning mechanics we use in Tyto Online, head over to our blog post outlining our approach.

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Find out more:

Immersed Games (the studio): www.immersedgames.com

Tyto Online (the game): www.tytoonline.com

Lindsey Tropf’s personal twitter: @ltropf

About the Author

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Lindsey Tropf, Founder & CEO of Immersed Games, was a doctoral candidate at the University of Florida in School Psychology, with a specialization in Program Evaluation and a Minor in Research & Evaluation Methodology, with expertise in data-based decision making. Her background has led to an expertise in teaching & learning, children’s development, social-emotional health, behavioral management, and executive functions. She now works on strategy and vision, product development, business development, marketing, and anywhere else she is needed at Immersed Games.