Pt. 4B: Teaching Science — for Educators

In Pt. 3 of this miniseries, I ended with the concepts of relevance, brain development, and understanding how the world looks through the students’ eyes.

In Pt. 4A, I discussed how parents can help with science readiness at school, and how they can help their children understand the physical world and the properties of living and non-living things around them. Science is more than a subject at school that can be discarded in later years. Leaders and decision makers, in particular, need to have a basic understanding of fundamental materials and systems that constitute our world.

In recent years, children’s experiences have changed. This has affected what they come into contact with, and therefore, with what they are familiar. It makes sense, then, that teaching methods should accommodate–and in some cases, this means filling in the experiences that students of today may be missing. What children have or haven’t come in contact with impacts how they learn what schools teach. This means we have to compensate for lack of hands-on experience by providing more hands-on experience as we teach.


I have seen science experiments in grades five to nine scaled back. The deficit is made up through theoretical work such as textbook reading about experiments, where reactants, experimental reactions, and products are described. The students are being asked to understand and remember material that makes perfect sense to us, but is nothing but random terminology and meaningless memory work for kids who have no direct experience with the materials discussed.

First, students can only learn if they are developmentally ready for the way concepts are delivered to them, and second, if the concepts are properly scaffolded onto the students’ existing life experiences. In addition, students often judge new material according to relevance–that is, how does it fit into the world they know? This is a question that deserves to be heeded.

Reduced hands-on schoolwork comes at a time when kids are less likely to have had

  • adequate playtime
  • free outdoor playtime
  • fewer sensory experiences
  • in some cases, lack of quality reading time with a more knowledgeable reader (parent, older sibling, other relative, friend, caregiver, etc.)
  • lack of pre-reading skills (priming for decoding and comprehension)
  • time to contemplate and question
  • create, find own solutions, and use makeshift objects to represent what they want (toys are over-specialized)
  • a chance to bake or cook from scratch with a parent
  • someone teach them how to read an analogue clock (picturing time), thermometer, or maps
  • magnets in the home
  • extended periods of supervised playtime in a bathtub or backyard “baby” pool to experiment with the properties of water as it interacts with other items (fluidity, viscosity, density, buoyancy, conservation, gravity, and evaporation)

prior to entering the classroom.


Why are these things important? Because this is how kids learn basic concepts about their physical world. They may not know the terms, theory, and reasons behind these concepts, but they are primed for school. Once there, they begin to connect what they intuitively know with what is taught (academics), and the work becomes relatable.

Early grades typically address “sink or float” (density) and introductory buoyancy. Some students have no clue whether metal nails, chips of wood, or other items would sink or float. They’ve never tried such a thing, or not with many items. This means it is imperative that these students are given enough time to experiment with a large variety of materials before moving on to theoretical work such as charts and observations, or discussion of substances with which they have no direct experience.

Students in grade five and beyond explore physical and chemical reactions and  learn about basic experiments and reactions. Some students have never seen oil float on water, baking soda react with vinegar, squeezed a hand around a cornstarch and water mixture, or added lemon to milk. Some students have never seen a parent bake a cake or fry an egg.

“Adults must not think with adult brains and take for granted that the students have the same background knowledge.”

Students who have not seen the reactants (starting materials) referred to in their textbook’s science experiment cannot fully understand the experiment if it is only presented at this theoretical level. This is because they cannot identify. For some students, these problems persist into junior and senior high science levels. Adults must not think with adult brains and take for granted that the students have the same background knowledge.

It is critical that materials (reactants) are provided for students in the classroom to physically observe before mixing and reacting them, then allow the students to try out each experiment–such as filtration, dissolving in water, evaporating water from salt or sugar, saturating a solution, comparing warm and cold solvents, using a thermometer, mixing rubbing alcohol (or vinegar) with water and oil with water, adding water to corn starch, reacting baking soda and vinegar, dropping food colouring into a beaker of water, and so on.

There are many safe experiments for younger children that do not require special lab facilities.

Safe, inexpensive items for a child’s home or classroom

(Note: Check for allergies first! Supervise children.)

  • food items (sugar, salt, tea bag, vegetable oil, corn syrup, vinegar, corn starch, baking soda, eggs, Coke, milk, lemon)
  • pH paper
  • rubbing alcohol
  • ice cubes
  • containers for water
  • food colouring
  • wood
  • cork
  • metal (paperclips, coins, nails, and other items)
  • magnets
  • thermometers
  • small squares of dark and light fabric
  • a pencil, orange or rubber ball, and light source (bulb or flashlight)
  • glass plates, lids or petri dishes, jars
  • seeds
  • soil
  • sand, pebbles, rocks
  • clay
  • strainer
  • coffee filters
  • eye droppers
  • measuring spoons and cups
  • compass and maps
  • mirrors (can make a ray box out of a small cardboard box by cutting a slit)
  • trays of water (for waves, buoyancy, etc.)

In a tangible, meaningful way, these items can teach students basic concepts about the world they live in.

Under supervision, students can use candles to melt wax, burn splints, or heat water.

Scientific concepts learned using readily available materials

  • acids and bases
  • buoyancy
  • density
  • viscosity
  • diffusion (and osmosis if you have membranes)
  • states of matter
  • physical and chemical reactions
  • solubility and factors that affect (temperature, agitation, concentration)
  • unsaturated, saturated, and supersaturated solutions (making crystals)
  • pure substance versus mixture
  • homogeneous versus heterogeneous
  • evaporation
  • filtration
  • strong, brittle, pliable properties
  • how a seed sprouts
  • parts of a plant
  • plants need water, sunlight, and oxygen
  • Earth’s spin and orbit: night and day, seasons, why day length varies
  • direction and intro to geography
  • how to measure and compare temperature, volume, distance
  • how dark fabric absorbs more energy in the sun and becomes warmer than light-coloured fabric (place a thermometer under squares of fabric and leave them in the sun on a window ledge)

These concepts aren’t for the sake of theory. The understanding of them–hence the physical world around us–is needed in many matters of the world today.

This is a huge list of concepts that children can internalize before even beginning a higher level of science. Depending on age, kids may not know the advanced terminology or theory behind how it all works, but they have seen it work. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then hands-on experience is worth even more. Students can always draw upon this wealth of experience in higher grades. The curriculum will have more meaning.

“If a student has not seen the substance, he or she cannot relate to theoretical information presented through a lecture or textbook.”

When discussing these concepts, remember: if a student has not seen the substances and how they feel and behave in the physical world, the student cannot relate to theoretical information presented through a lecture or textbook.

In addition, kids relate best when these principles are a cast into a real-life perspective and into their modern lives, not those of their dinosaur teachers. (Even if you’re 25, you’re still from a whole other world to a young student). They will inevitably ask, “When will I ever need this in real life?” Be ready with real examples.

Sure, there’s Google. But we have to know what questions to ask a search engine. We have to have the foundations on which to build more knowledge. Furthermore, we have to know what’s real and possible versus what’s rubbish so we can choose valid information from the Internet as well as what benefits us. We have to know enough to preserve our independence or to become leaders. We have to know what will protect our health and the planet, and what will do the opposite.

In conclusion

Complex concepts are easily internalized on a sensory and concrete level long before students have to address them in formal curriculumif the kids have had the proper exposure. These internalized concepts not only aid in understanding the school material, but take a load off learning, since they act as a springboard. With this foundational knowledge, kids don’t have to start at ground zero with an overwhelming amount of material to conceptualize all at once.

Parts 1-4A

See also

  • 20160918_155719Janet Lee Hamilton is a teacher/educator with 40 years of experience, a portion of it international (Japan, Norway, Sweden, Whales). She received two Teacher of Excellence Awards. Ms. Hamilton is an ATA (Alberta Teaching Association) facilitator as well as a mentor for public schools and two universities. Her focus is development in the early years. In this interview, Ms. Hamilton discusses the ultimate learning platform for children as she discusses the Project Approach.

About Eva Blaskovic

I am a multi-genre author of literary fiction, fantasy, and paranormal, and writer of non-fiction articles on parenting, writing, education, health, and travel. My background encompasses both the sciences and the arts. I teach at a specialized clinic for learning disorders and mentor young authors. In addition to writing and teaching, my passions are weather, Indian food, gardening, and music. I have played eight musical instruments and spent many years immersed in taekwondo and karate. In my youth, I was an avid canoeist. I was born in Prague, Czech Republic, grew up in the Great Lakes region of Ontario, Canada, and moved to Alberta in 1988, where I raised four children.
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4 Responses to Pt. 4B: Teaching Science — for Educators

  1. Pingback: Teachers Use Theatre and Dance to Teach Math to Young Students | Beyond the Precipice

  2. JJAzar says:

    I agree 110%. This was HIGHLY informative. Thank you for putting this together. It’s clear you put a whole lot of effort into it!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: June 2017 Roundup: Parenting and Education | Beyond the Precipice

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