The chorus of proponents for increasing math and science education is getting larger and louder—and with good reason. Study after study indicates that as science and engineering (as well as almost every other part of our professional and personal lives) becomes more global, our students must have the education and skills to compete and to succeed. We need to provide the education and the experience to develop an eager, equipped, and ready workforce.
Maryland is taking math and science education very seriously; the Department of Education’s STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Education initiative provides valuable training and support to teachers, introduces students to exciting career opportunities, and works on curriculum development to prepare our children for a promising future.
While STEM and other educational programs are successful in enhancing the formal education that students need, we can’t forget to remind ourselves, “but wait… there’s more!” Learning takes place all the time, not just in the classroom or at the school-sponsored science fair. When we restrict “science education” to school-based experiences, we miss out on countless opportunities to teach, explain, and demonstrate.
A 2009 study by the National Research Council confirms what we, in the informal education business, have known for years: exposure to informal education enables students to grasp concepts faster and more easily. As parents, educators, and public servants, we should be reinforcing and enhancing what happens in the classroom with what is happening in our homes, our community and our world. We can provide students with a more engaging, more relevant, and more holistic education if we give them more opportunities outside the classroom.
Informal science education is experiential and interactive. By doing science—whether it sifting for fossils at a science museum or conducting an experiment at the kitchen sink—children are introduced to important science concepts in a fun and entertaining style. And because it is fun and entertaining, they will comprehend and remember what they are learning. They can be messy (exploration!), ask questions (inquisitiveness!), and let their minds wander (thoughtful!) without the constraints of a prescribed lesson plan or timed period.
But wait… there’s more! Engaging in informal scientific exploration helps students understand and appreciate the process of discovering “why” and “how”—a practice that will benefit them in all their activities and educational pursuits. By meeting “real” scientists and seeing where they work (as a field trip or arranged by Mom and Dad with someone they know), students will be motivated by achievement, success and passion—inspiration for their own future.
Informal science education can be unstructured and spontaneous. It can—and should—be fun!
Think about our recent record snowfall in December. While our kids were home from school (probably watching cartoons or reality shows on TV), we could have been showing them there is a lot to learn from something as simple and as fun as snowstorm; there are countless, easy activities where snow and ice can teach us about density, matter, temperature, chemistry—even animal behavior, as we watch Fido react to a blanket of white.
Let’s seize everyday opportunities to engage students in scientific exploration. Let’s create activities outside of schools that illustrate the concepts introduced learned in our schools. Let’s help our children understand the practical application of what they are learning. Let’s do more to help prepare our future leaders for success.