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Are science experiments and content subject projects valuable?


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I'm a huge fan of learning through experimentation (you should see the money I've spent on Magic Schoolbus, Young Scientist and Thames and Kosmos sets...), and as a (former) chemist I remember first finding my passion for science through doing labs (especially the chemistry set I got as a 10yo where I went throughout the house testing pH and turning things pink, and trying to make smoke, ha.) I've always felt that concepts are absorbed so much more thoroughly if a student can actually carry out the steps himself; he's so much more likely to remember the lessons and understand the big picture.

 

To a lesser extent, I've always felt like the same is true about projects associated with other content subjects. A lot of it may be busywork, but if it's associated with real learning won't it help with recall of the concepts in later years? The only memories I have of history in elementary school were associated with projects created to go with the papers written, plays I acted in, etc. And when those topics came up again in high school, I'm guessing I was able to recall more quickly and go deeper than I otherwise would have.

 

I'm bringing this up because I've seen a lot of talk about this recently in various posts, whether learning through books is enough, and this quote from Monica_in_Switzerland really made me think:

Your knowledge of the word footbath is stored as meaning, independent of whether you first learned the word by seeing someone take a footbath or hearing a description of it, or by actually soaking your own feet.  Most of what teachers want students to know is stored as meaning.

 

So do you think that's true? Can you get as much meaning from, say, the concept of friction by watching a video of different objects sliding? Or as much about magnetism by reading a book that talks about magnetic fields? Or is it better to do the work yourself to get and retain full understanding?

 

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I've been surprised at how much my kids absorb from books. My oldest has a tendancy to spout off random facts that she's learned from reading and whenever I've skeptically Googled them, they've always turned out to be true. For example, the unicorn actually *IS* the official animal of Scotland. I was *SO SURE* that she was mistaken about that, but nope, it's true [insert ROTFL smiley here]

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I am also a scientist and agree that the labs help make the course; my daughter loved our biology labs this past year.  That said, she was able to commit more to memory and retain it with old-fashioned study skills, buckling down type stuff. 

 

We've done projects here and there in other subjects, and my kids don't seem to be all that into hands-on busywork.  They actually do retain a lot of information just from reading and discussing, especially when it is reinforced through a related video and a lovely discussion, and they prefer that to projects and hands on in non-science subjects.

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I think some of it has to do with what kind of learner a person is. Some people just aren't going to get some things unless they can touch them. I do better with things I read, I remember more of the books that I read in school than the endless projects my mom made me do (she loved KONOS). DH on the other hand, when he was studying philosophy at USC, struggled with the reading because he's an auditory learner. He got the best grades when I read his philosophy books out loud to him (what I would have paid for audio books of those texts!!!)

 

 

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Purely ancedotal, but my kids thrive academically and we are no assigned project/experiment schoolers (until high school credit science labs.)

 

My kids have limited access to tv and spend hours outside playing.   Things like friction are life experiences.   Then when they read about it in a book, it has a name.  ;)  Same is true with levers, pulleys, etc.    I also can't imagine a child who hasn't just messed around with magnets while playing and making their own observations.   It doesn't take a planned lesson with someone explaining what they see.   They observe, play, try other things and then the ideas they have floating around in their head start to take form and comprehension on a different level when they read the scientific explanation.

 

FWIW, my goals for elementary level science is to simply love the subject and be inspired to always want to more know about the world around them.  I have succeeded in that objective.  My rising 10th grader is the only one of my kids so far who doesn't plan on pursuing (or pursued) some science related field.  (and there for a while she felt a tug of war toward ornithology)   Our oldest is a chemE, our oldest dd will be getting her license as an occupational therapy assistant in Aug, our graduating sr plans on a phD in physics, and our rising 7th grader has wanted to be a meteorologist since she was 6 and hasn't ever said anything different.  :)    Not one of them has ever had any problem with any science concept.

 

 

 

 

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I was also a scientist in my former working life and, for me, labs were what really got me interested in science, even as far back as elementary school.  I am definitely a hands-on learner, in college I had a harder time in the book-only classes but eased through my labs.  IMO, science labs are invaluable to truly understanding how things work.

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I believe in the book "why students don't like school" this is discussed in detail. if you haven't read the book I would highly recommend it.

he proposes that the learning that takes place during these activities is often not what the teacher intends.

As an example (his examples are MUCH better): if I want to make a diorama to details what life is like in a rainforest, my students really are learning how to gather material, to cut, paste, arrange. they are not in fact learning about the rainforest.

If you have projects/experiments/activities that actually accomplish your goal, great! but in many ways I wonder what is really being learned?

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Agreeing that some of the value for labs and projects, especially in the early years, is somewhat dependent on learning style.  My kids are young still, but we have a science-rich home.  I have one child that absorbs the written word like a sponge and generally finds projects busywork, and another that is more of a "do-er", who enjoys projects and I see how projects and hands-on materials cement and crystallize her learning.  With the caveat that she in only enthusiastic about them if they interest her.  :p  For the reader, in some ways reading and discussion *is* his hands-on at this stage, since he inhabits what he's reading so fully.  Which isn't to say that there isn't a benefit for the reader to occasionally do a project and for the more project-y one to practice reading skills, but just that the value of projects or labs may be different for different individuals. 

 

IME, most science labs down the line are actually largely about learning the skills of scientific disciplines (keeping records, how to accurately titrate a chemical, how to map the strike and dip of a rock face, how to operate a microscope) while reinforcing the concepts learned in classroom portion of the class and the textbook. IMO, in the K-8 years the skills that get kids ready for those types of skill learning experiences can be acquired many different ways.    In a few years when it comes time for my kids to have more formal science classes and lab environments, I am sure they will do fine. 

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It depends. Some things an average person isn't going to have any chance of experiencing hands on. And that's where the skills of being able to critically read a book, watch a documentary, research skills, online searches etc are going to come in handy. 

 

I definitely feel that as far as science goes, a project based approach is good. It doesn't have to be all activities or experiments all the time, but science is one area where it's a good idea to get your hands dirty. Some activities are sort of worthless though. My kids get nothing from building a volcano other than knowing what happens when vinegar and baking soda mix, which they get a first hand experience with when watching me or helping me clean the tub.

 

But watch a dramatic documentary about a volcano, read about them, and more is understood. 

 

So there's projects that IMHO are nothing more than edutainment and fun for kids, and then there are others that actually teach a concept...making circuits for example. Magnets, gardening, keeping bugs, rock collections, chemistry sets and so on are helpful. It's the difference between reading about different roots and actually classifying the ones you pull up from your yard. You need to be able to understand the botany text and identify the actual plant in your hand.

 

History is usually more book heavy. We've done various projects for history, and some have been great at helping them understand, others again are just that edutainment. 

 

I think both are important. Some topics lend themselves well to a project, some don't. But I always aim to make my time doing an activity worthwhile, because if it's just an interesting demo of something cool then I feel my time is a bit wasted.

 

 

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There are many different goals to 'hands on' learning.  If you are talking about just understanding concepts, some kids are abstract thinkers and some are concrete thinkers.  Some kids really can't believe it until they see it, others can.  As for internalizing concepts through hands on, you can only really do this with certain fields like ecology and mechanics, rather than biochemistry and modern physics.  So in the end, many fields must be understood only abstractly.

 

I'm a bit embarrassed to link to this thread for a second time today, but I do think that it will help you differentiate goals for hands on.  As a chemist, you obviously know this intuitively, but perhaps you have never explicitly differentiated the goals for elementary/middle/high school level study.  I know I hadn't until someone asked me. Science activities: setting goals and evaluating usefulness of activities

 

Ruth in NZ

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This is strictly anecdotal, but I notice this about a lot of projects, in a lot of places.  It probably depends on the project/experimental design and the individual.  My daughter learned tons from our experiments in biology, but they were always attached to an involved discussion, written questions, etc...  History dioramas, I'm not so hot at, LOL!

I believe in the book "why students don't like school" this is discussed in detail. if you haven't read the book I would highly recommend it.
he proposes that the learning that takes place during these activities is often not what the teacher intends.
As an example (his examples are MUCH better): if I want to make a diorama to details what life is like in a rainforest, my students really are learning how to gather material, to cut, paste, arrange. they are not in fact learning about the rainforest.
If you have projects/experiments/activities that actually accomplish your goal, great! but in many ways I wonder what is really being learned?

 

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