Remember when you built your first volcano with baking soda and vinegar? How about planting beans and lentils on a kitchen napkin, or taking a magnifying lens outdoors to examine leaves and insects?
Many families enjoy these fun experiments at home with their young children, and many elementary school teachers prioritize science learning in their classrooms. Just take a stroll down any elementary school corridor and you will be met with a science project or two hanging on the wall.
If the school has a maker's corner or tinker space, children gravitate towards spending their free time building and creating. This kind of curiosity and interest in taking things apart or building them comes naturally to young children. Watch a young child receive a gift and chances are they will be more fascinated with the box than the gift itself.
Schools and homes are not the only places bubbling with science opportunities for these children, afterschool activities, museum exhibits, zoos, aquariums, parks, and online apps have all become quite effective at attracting and engaging preschoolers and elementary school children.
Then comes middle school and science falls off a cliff.
Unfortunately, this age group is not supported by STEM funding the way younger ages are. It is also not fueled by high school parents' pressure and university application ambitions as well as variety in science class choices.
In the three years of middle school, many children lose interest in science. Previous efforts from parents, teachers, literature, tv characters, or toys to ramp up children's interest in science is practically halted. Even the most enthusiastic young scientists barely make it to highschool with enough interest in science to carry them through. Result: Back to square one.
But why does this gap exist?
The issue is a bit complicated, but here are some reasons to get this conversation started.
First, curriculum vs expectations
According to these young children, science is about exploration, building, investigating, and experimenting. It is a 100% hands-on magic show where they get to see big changes that attract and keep their attention.
Reality check: There is much more to science than experiments. All the thinking, experiment designing, reporting, calculation, statistics, and research may not be as fun but are all very important to real science. For some odd reason, science is split into fun in elementary school and logistics in middle school. We need to rethink this balance.
Second, lack of support
Science-based programs at museum exhibits, zoos, aquariums, and afterschool programs are quite abundant for young children. They are effective in attracting children's attention and keeping them interested in all things science. Even toys and TV shows are moving in a STEM direction.
Later, high school students can work or intern at these establishments to follow their interests and start teaching younger children about science. They get to explore science from a different angle that is interesting and developmentally appropriate.
What about middle school students?
Reality check: pre-teens and young teens are left stranded when it comes to afterschool and extracurricular science-centered activities. The exception may be coding and robotics, but there is so much more to science than that.
Third, integration opportunities
In elementary school, teachers teach several subjects and have the same group of students all day. Science projects and posters are often hanging somewhere in the classroom and in school corridors so children are connected with it all day.
In middle school, teachers specialize by subject and only meet with the students for about 45 minutes a day to teach this subject. When they leave the classroom or science lab, they detach from their science learning.
Another change is that in an elementary school, teachers have full control over how and when to integrate topics for maximum learning. A middle school teacher does not have this luxury. If they want to integrate, they have to coordinate in advance with several other teachers and hope for the best.
Reality check: Science time in middle school is choked and isolated from the rest of the student's learning. This is a big difference from what they came from in elementary school.
Some good news:
Some school districts are moving towards more interactive and engaging science teaching in middle school. Approaches like NGSS are showing great results when applied properly. Students respond beautifully to age-appropriate, impactful science that speaks to their interests.
There are also some fun science books and podcasts that tweens and teens would actually enjoy. I have started a book list on Pinterest to get you started.
If you were willing to invite vinegar volcanoes and celery stalks soaking in colored water when your children were younger, then maybe you can also accommodate science projects that interest your middle schoolers. Maybe have them draft their experiment and convince you to "invest" in it. You can ask them tough questions to make sure they have thought it out and that they will stay safe working on it, but if you can keep that door open, it will make a big difference in your child's continued interest in science.
I would be happy to help you keep science alive at home. Let's meet up for a virtual coffee and plan it all out.
Bottom line is
Curiosity and interest in creating things or finding solutions do not stop in middle school.
But middle school students are starved of real opportunities to learn, explore, and interact with science in a way that is both engaging and developmentally appropriate.
Solutions are in the hands of educators and other avenues like afterschool and extracurricular activities, museums, zoos, aquariums, parks, and also parents.
I hope we can work together to bridge this gap.