Children at play with the 10 piece Solar System Puzzle 275578

The most effective way to switch students on to science is to engage them from an early age.

Science educator and National Space Society of Australia Deputy Chair Dr Jeanette Rothapfel has been concerned by the noticeable reduction in the numbers of students enrolling in science-related studies in secondary and tertiary education.

She attributes this decline to the commonly held view of science professions as “irrelevant, boring…definitely not one of the glamorous career options.”

Dr Rothapfel said educators needed to change the negative perceptions students had about science and the most effective way was to capture their imaginations from an early age.

Children are naturally curious about science from a very young age, she said.

“They have abilities to comprehend scientific concepts far beyond what many adults give them credit for,” she explained.

Dr Rothapfel believes that educators have a wonderful opportunity to develop this natural curiosity in the learning environment, and encourage children from an early age to enjoy science.

“It is important that children are inspired in the early years of education, and that this inspiration is nurtured throughout their schooling,” she said.

“Making science an enjoyable experience for young children means they are more likely to want to continue learning science as they grow.”

In order for educators to be able to encourage curiosity about science in the children in their care, they too must feel inspired by science. Given that a vast majority of teachers have no scientific background, this can become a stumbling block, Dr Rothapfel said.

Dr Rothapfel feels that a lack of resources, lack of time and a low level of educator confidence for teaching science in the early years contribute to the low rate of student interest and participation in science subjects later in school life.

Resourcing budgets are limited and there is a perception amongst educators that science requires specialist equipment. Time is also a factor, with so many curriculum areas to cover, educators are already stretching their face to face time to the limit.

In addition to this, a lack of interest in and understanding of science on the part of the educator often converts into a lack of confidence in an educator’s own ability to facilitate scientific experiences with children.

For Dr Rothapfel, there are ways of engaging both the educator and the child in science. One way is to conduct science experiments that use everyday household items or resources that educators would already have on hand.

“Experiments that are simple enough to be repeated at home, by both the educator and the child, increase educator confidence and more actively engage a child, who can go home and show Mum and Dad what they have learnt,” she said.

Simple experiments require little in the way of expensive resources, yet they still have the same effect in the learning environment – that of engaging children with science and increasing their understanding of scientific concepts through active learning experiences.

Dr Rothapfel often uses an example of a group of five year olds and their educators experimenting with the extraction of DNA from a strawberry. This experiment requires a simple resource list: strawberries; soapy, salty water; rubbing alcohol; a zip lock bag; a test tube; a funnel; paper towel and a coffee stirrer.

She explained that while children of that age wouldn’t fully comprehend what DNA was, they were actively engaged in the process of extracting the DNA, and were excited by the process and seeing a result from their experiment.

And it wasn’t just the children that were enthused – the educators also found the experiment enjoyable, because of its simplicity and the ease of implementing it in the learning environment.

It is this sort of excitement - both in children and their educators – that stimulates an interest in learning about science.

Dr Rothapfel; firmly believes that over time, with the continued engagement with fun science, this temporary interest becomes a personal interest. A personal interest translates into greater confidence for the educator - confidence to continue to facilitate science experiments in the learning environment. It can also result in more children growing up with a hunger for science.

This hunger will ultimately result in future generations of Australian scientists, engineers, technologists and science educators. Not to mention a society that yearns for the how and the why, not just the what. A society that continually questions, investigates and explores.

This is an adaptation of an article originally published in Educational Experiences’ Healthy Learning Handbook, Issue 1. 2012.