Dinosaurs…and the new STEM literacy requirements

My son’s avowed interest in all-things-dinosaurs from the age of ten, combined with the boundless sense of wonder that all kids have, made it possible for him to use his four high school science fair projects to interpret the microstructures of dinosaur eggshells in some ways other scientists had not previously thought of.  As a result, he delivered a presentation to more than a thousand scientists at the annual Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Conference — at the age of 20.

Informal science education, such as the type of learning a student gets outside of the normal classroom environment by participating in a science fair, provides kids with an in-depth and hands-on look at “real world” science.  While it’s possible that participation in a science fair can open doors for students who have already discovered their abilities and passion for science, it can also help students develop an interest in science which could be important to them no matter what career they choose.

Getting students interested in hands-on science now is actually very important for another reason, since a new national set of science education standards is under development. The Next Generation Science Standards have a targeted release date of 2013.

Some of the most important arguments for the Next Generation Science Standards are: 1) American students are falling behind in math and science, performing at levels below students in competitor nations on international tests; the United States currently ranks 25th in math and 17th in science among developed nations, 2) fewer students are pursuing careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) disciplines, and 3) science is profoundly important to address the problems we’re now facing such as preventing and curing diseases, maintaining supplies of clean water and addressing the energy crisis.

Our collective futures are dependent upon students being interested in science.  The purpose of more science education, broadly expressed as ‘STEM literacy’ is to motivate all students (not just the parents and students who are already a fan of science) to fully engage in the very active practices of science and engineering. Aside from the movement to provide 100,000 STEM teachers over the next decade, the other important reason to help your child become interested in science is that through the Next Generation Science Standards, students will be tested on STEM literacy in school.

As your child passes through all grade levels, the new Next Generation Science Standards testing will be evaluating your child’s skills and capabilities in areas such as:
1. Asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering)
2. Developing and using models
3. Planning and carrying out investigations
4. Analyzing and interpreting data
5. Using mathematics and computational thinking
6. Constructing explanations (for science) and designing solutions (for engineering)
7. Engaging in argument from evidence
8. Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information

In essence, the new standards recognize that “science, engineering and technology permeate every aspect of modern life” and that by the time a student graduates high school they “should have sufficient knowledge of science and en­gineering to engage in public discussions on science-related issues, to be critical consumers of scientific information related to their everyday lives, and to be able to continue to learn about science throughout their lives.” (See the Report Brief from the Framework for K-12 Science Education for more details.).

Being a scientist or having an interest in science is no longer relegated to a bunch of old men in white coats with goggles, pens in pocket protectors, grumpy attitudes and an inability to talk about anything other than research.

A scientist can be someone who is 20 or 30 years old and who digs dinosaur eggs in the Montana badlands, does all his communication through a PDA, excitedly jumps up and down upon finding a 20-million-year-old fossil of a previously undiscovered life-form, and enjoys talking about music and videos and computer games and lots of other things with his friends.

A non-scientist – but someone who has an interest in, and an understanding of science – might be the salesperson at the appliance store who can help you select the most cost-effective furnace, or the grocery store clerk who understands the potential for botulism if meat isn’t properly refrigerated, or the politician who’s fighting for a clean-energy policy.

Science is all around us, and it benefits everyone at every age, to become more science literate.

Barnas Monteith standing next to Society for Vertebrate Paleontology Logo

As a college junior, Barnas Monteith was given the distinct honor of being the youngest person to give a Plenary session lecture before the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology, which is the central professional organization for dinosaur paleontologists from around the world. Barnas’ interest in dinosaurs since he was six years old, led to his cross-disciplinary study of eggshells for his four years of high-school science fair projects.

Discover the why

Have you ever had to speak in front of a group of people, or in front of a class in school? Some people get sweaty palms and dry-mouth when they have to speak to others in similar situations, and it ends up being a terrible experience for them. This is the part of the science fair project experience that can be most scary for your child. It’s never too early to start preparing for your child’s science fair oral-presentation and judging experiences, even though the science fair may not be happening for several weeks or months.

One of the ways to help your child get ready for that dreaded day NOW, is to start asking questions about the project as your child is working on it, and then have them write those questions and answers down in their notebook (don’t forget that your child needs to maintain a written journal to record everything they’re thinking and doing about their project) so the information sticks with them better. There are many studies showing that when we write things down, we create spatial relationships in our brains between the various bits of information we are hearing, saying, thinking and writing down. The process of writing things down usually means we are putting some thought into evaluating the information we’re recording.  The relationships between these spatial tasks are handled by another part of the brain that allows us to then remember a higher proportion of key facts.

The questions don’t have to be complex.  Have your child explain to you what they’re doing.  Are they measuring something, are they making observations about the status of something?  What differences are they noticing from yesterday to today with their project? Are they thinking about an expert in the field they might want to talk with about their project?  Are they thinking about a photograph they might take to capture what they’re doing?

Remember when your child was “at that age” of always asking “why?” You need to do the same thing. Ask your child a lot of “why” questions. “Why did you decide to use that particular chemical or brand?” “Why do you think the liquid changed to a purple color?” “Why do you think this trial didn’t work out like the other ones?” These are the same types of questions judges will ask your child. If your child has been asked the same questions by you, then this means they’ve already thought about the answers and have a good understanding of their project.  They are less likely to be nervous when you let them know that these are the same questions they’ll be asked by judges.

Nurturing inquisitive minds

Several parents have asked me over the years, “What did you do to fuel your son’s passion for science?”

As someone who became a math major in college with the hope of someday realizing my dream of working for NASA and the space program, I used to love watching my son develop an appetite for science.  It was deeply satisfying for me to see him explore his personal interests in geology and paleontology – interests that would not only eventually become hobbies and science fair projects, but would also lead him to a career in these and other science-related areas when he grew up.  Don’t we all yearn to have fun at our jobs?

A lot of his interest in science was originally sparked by taking him to the Museum of Science and to the Aquarium, where he was first introduced to the “ooo’s” and “aaaahhh’s” of biology, chemistry, astronomy, oceanography, electricity and… dinosaurs.  What kid (or adult) isn’t fascinated with the Van de Graaff generator, the huge T-Rex, or real sharks in huge tanks? They can all be kind of scary when a child is very young!  But most museums also have wonderful interactive exhibits and trained professionals to help explain what your child is experiencing in ways that may help them want to learn more.

The courses my son took at the Museum and Aquarium, on weekends and during school vacations when he was an elementary school student, allowed him to have a hands-on experience in “the art of experimentation” with activities, materials and equipment that I couldn’t afford to supply at home, at an age when it could (and obviously did) make a lasting impression.

When it came time for him to start working on school science projects and his science fair projects, the contacts he had made at the Museum of Science, in particular, were invaluable to opening many doors.  The Museum staff not only helped him develop his project ideas, but helped him to find access to materials, labs and equipment not often available to someone so young.

The most valuable thing you can do to help your child start developing an interest in the fascinating world of science is to encourage regular visits to a science museum.  Encourage them to take the courses there, and when they express an interest in a specific topic, nurture their natural curiosity until it blossoms into their own experiment or project.  A museum course instructor or workshop leader may even agree to become a mentor to your child, and may be best equipped to help your child to expand upon ideas and interests.

What are your ideas for nurturing kids and getting them to develop a greater interest in, or appreciation for science ? Share your thoughts below.

15 year old Barnas Monteith was able to get access to equipment at Yale University as a result, in part, of the credibility he obtained by taking courses at the Boston Museum of Science

How to create a great…and winning science fair project

You’re probably at this website because you’ve been assigned to do a science fair project. Maybe you’re thinking about this like your other school work. No!

Doing a science fair project doesn’t have to be anything like school work. In fact it can be great fun, if you choose a topic or project on something that’s really interesting to you. Do you like plants or food, or computers or sports? Do you enjoy roller coasters, computer games or dinosaurs? Have you ever asked yourself why something works the way it does? Science is all around you, and you can do a science project on anything that interests you. You’re only limited by your own imagination.

It doesn’t matter if you’re in elementary school, middle school or high school, you should go through the same process to pick a topic. The most important thing is to choose a subject that’s interesting and fun for you — and your science fair project won’t be mind-numbing like some of your other schoolwork might be.

If you’re genuinely interested in the subject of your science fair project, then your interest will come through in the quality of your project, and in your interviews with the judges.

What are your thoughts about picking a fun and engaging science fair project? Post your ideas below.

Barnas, ISEF Winner Science Fair

A life-long interest and passion for all-things dinosaurs, resulted in 16 year old Barnas Monteith winning first place in the International Science and Engineering Fair. [The Patriot Ledger, May 23/24 1992]