Kids using technology

Can Kids Learn Science When Answers Are At Their Smartphone Fingertips?

To be clear, I am not one of these old, nostalgic adults that automatically presumes that things from “the good ole” days are better (Ok, maybe on the music but I digress). In fact, it actually annoys me when I hear people complain about modern advances and resources. I like technology and modern advances. Herein, I explore the state of science education from the lens of my own experiences. I offer the following disclaimer: Though a professor at the University of Georgia and a former NASA scientist, I am not a science education expert. Neither of those credentials suggests that I know more about methodology, latest scholarly research, or pedagogy of science education. As a climate scientist, I get my share of “opinions” and “non-rigorous theories” from random people on that topic. This essay simply offers my perspectives, but I do defer to two science experts as well.

I’ll start with inquiry-based learning. According to the website, it is defined as “an approach to learning that emphasizes the student’s role in the learning process….Rather than the teacher telling students what they need to know, students are encouraged to explore the material, ask questions, and share ideas.” The process involves developing questions, researching them, presenting them, and reflecting on the process according to

I remember doing all of these things. I love question-based learning and am particularly fond of the science fair process. Inherently, science fair projects are centered around asking questions, forming hypotheses, doing the research, and presenting what you have learned. Jessica King Holden is Co-Director of the Gwinnett Regional Science, Engineering + Innovation Fair. Holden, who is also the Science Director (Grades 6-12) for the largest public school system in Georgia, makes a very important point:

Memorizing facts as a way to engage with science content should no longer be the emphasis, especially in the “search for it on the computer age.” Students and adults alike can obtain information and facts at our fingertips with a quick search. It is far more important that students engage with science content through the Science and Engineering Practices, which include asking questions, analyzing and interpreting data and planning and carrying out investigations to name a few, as a means to learn science content.

The good news, according to Holden, is that the shift in science standards in recent years is more conducive to this mode of instruction. She sees teachers engaging in deeper science learning experiences, and science fair projects are revealing the ability of students to apply the lessons at high levels. My daughter is a high level volleyball player at Dacula High School and A5 Gwinnett Volleyball Club. She took her love of the sport and posed a very interest set of questions that resulted in 1st place project and trip to the Georgia state science fair (picture below).

Passion for volleyball led to a great science project.

Candidly, I try to employ similar approaches at the University of Georgia. I will often assign open-ended lessons or projects that challenge students to ask their own questions or develop appropriate methods. I will also occasionally “flip the classroom” in some of my atmospheric sciences classes, which requires students to engage with lessons prior to class then host immersive discussion. Additionally, if you ask any of the 10 Ph.D students that have trained under me, they’ve heard me say something along the lines of, “You are posing the questions or methods and captain of the ship, I am simply the occasional rudder as your advisor.” This perspective was shaped by hours spent in my yard watching ants forage for food or pondering how I could convert invasive kudzu to something useful. I still think about that last one.

I want to return to something that I alluded to earlier. It is important to embrace contemporary resources rather than approach them with hostility or misplaced nostalgia. Students are fluent in the use of smartphones, tablets, streaming, laptops, and gaming platforms. In other words, they are “digital natives.” Some of you reading this may consider yourselves digital immigrants. Such technology platforms were not “a part of your upbringing and had to be introduced to you. Heck, my mother still will not use a smartphone (smile).

Science is not intimidating when you meet learners where they are, make it accessible and have fun. A few years ago, we piloted a small project at the University of Georgia to exploit the popularity of the Multi-User Virtual Environment game called Minecraft. We developed lessons centered around science standards associated with weather, water cycle, geology, and more. Some of my colleagues have recently employed the wildly popular Fortnite game to introduce students to concepts of climate science.

Dr. Amanda Glaze is an assistant professor of middle grades and secondary education at Georgia Southern University. She is also one of the best science communicators and public engagement scholars in the world, and I am not exaggerating (Google her). She argues that “science in the 21st century is so much more than rote facts and standardized tests.” She also believes that educators must be willing to convert science classrooms into robust think tanks. She told me by message:

We are preparing students to think critically, be able to solve problems and be ready for careers or future issues of which we may not even be aware at this time. In a time when rote answers are a click away, we must be willing and able to turn the science classroom into a robust think tank where students have early experiences, beginning in elementary school with observation, communication, exploration, and problem-solving (to include engineering practices, mathematical skills, and trade skills). The traditional classroom of the past is obsolete and it is up to teachers of the present to protect our future by ensuring that students are not only scientifically literate but have the skills and desires to pursue these avenues after their time in K-12 education.

Generalization is poor practice so my intent in this essay was not to suggest that amazing best practices and science learning are not out there. They are. However, I have been around the “science block” enough to know that, on average, science is still something that many kids are averse to, especially as they get older. This lack of interest and exposure is particularly acute among women and children of color.

I want to close with a couple of points that I always convey to parents as a professor and scientist:

The inspiration for what I write in Forbes comes in many forms. This article was inspired as I sat in a meeting of the Gwinnett County School System’s Science Fair Advisory committee this week. My mind drifted to my own science fair and exploration years as a kid. I used to catch insects and keep them in jars just to see what would happen to them. I used to mix every liquid cleaning product or drinking material in the house just to see what it would make and whether it would destroy things. I cherished going down to the nearby creek at North Canton Elementary School to forage for minnows or crawfish. As an only child, I remember spending countless hours reading World Book Encyclopedia just because the volumes were in the house. I also remember asking my mother to take me to the public library to get books about weather, Dr. George Washing Carver, or airplanes. I didn’t know the fancy terminology then, but I am pretty sure it was inquiry-based learning and research. As the father of two bright kids in high school and middle school respectively, I keep a close eye on their science learning. They both have very strong aptitude and do well in science, but I often wonder if their generation as a whole is “missing something” in this “Google it-What does Wikipedia say-Gaming” era.


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