Lee Falin

Homeschool Science for Mortals

Homeschool Resource: DIY.org

DIY Logo

One concern I hear when suggesting that parents tailor science education to their own kid’s interests is how to make sure they expose their kids to a breadth of topics. What if you’ve got a kid with a latent talent for music or art but is never exposed to these topics because all they care about is motorcycles? What if they love art so much that they never learn about photosynthesis?

One of our goals is to provide our children with resources they can use to both discover and develop their talents.  Even though our methods might differ, I don’t think this is much different from what other parents want for their own children.

There are a ton of resources out there to help you accomplish this goal, and one of my purposes in writing this blog is to share the resources we’ve found particularly worthwhile and effective in our own family. One that I want to highlight today is DIY.org.

What is it

If you’re not familiar with DIY.org, imagine combining merit badges, Pinterest, and social networking for kids.

Kids create anonymous accounts on the site, and then set about to complete projects in dozens of possible skill areas. They have a huge variety of skills including entomology, sailing, web design, weaving,  entrepreneurship, and many more.

DIY.org Skill List In order to earn a skill badge, kids must complete a set of challenges associated with each skill. Each challenge has example videos from experts and professionals in that field, which explain one way to complete the challenge. There are also sample projects created by other kids showing different takes on the same thing. I love this aspect of the site, as it shows kids that there are often many ways to accomplish the same goal.

Once your kid finds a challenge that interests them, they work on it themselves. Once they’ve finished it, they upload a photo or video of what they’ve done to the DIY website. The site moderators then evaluate the submission for suitability and either mark the challenge as completed or let the submitter know why it didn’t pass.

To make the process easier, DIY even provides mobile apps that kids can use to upload their projects directly from a smart phone or tablet.

Get Social

DIY SocialAside from the feedback a project receives from the adult moderators, other kids can comment on it. Kids can also follow one another’s project feeds so they can keep up with what their friends are doing. Our kids follow the feeds of friends they know “in real life” as well as kids whose work they admire.

The kids really enjoy the social aspect as well. Just to give you an idea of the scale, one of my daughters has 2,800 “followers” on the site who watch and comment on her projects. (I have 52 followers on Twitter, so maybe it’s time for me to hire her as my social networking consultant.)

Kids can even create their own challenges for other kids to respond to. For example, one of our daughters recently created an art contest on the site, complete with virtual prizes. Dozens of kids entered, and she had a lot of fun interacting with them in the comments.

Safety First

As soon as you put “children” and “social networking” into the same sentence, some parents become justifiably concerned. If all the accounts are anonymous, what’s to stop some creepy cyberstalker from pretending he’s a six-year-old?

First, adult site moderators review all project submissions. Second, signing up for an account requires a parent/guardian email address. The parent has to approve the sign up, and then receives an email every time their child submits a project to the site.

There’s also a parent’s dashboard that you can use to see all of your children’s projects in one place, along with any social interactions and comments. If either a parents or kid sees a comment or account that looks creepy or suspicious, they can flag it for review by a moderator.

I use the dashboard mainly to browse through some of the cool things my kids do. I don’t have the time to keep up with the comments. Instead we take the “teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves” approach. Before allowing them on the site, we sat down with them and discussed internet safety. We also review those ideas with them periodically and occasionally spot check comments in their feeds.


DIY.org is a fantastic resource for parents looking to expose their kids to a greater breadth of knowledge. The social networking aspect, coupled with the thoughtful moderation and safety features, make the site a fun and safe place for kids to discover and develop their talents, while also finding and interacting with like-minded peers.

Tales From the Trenches: Tablecloth of Terror

Dining Room Table - courtesy of Pixabay and MirellaST

Tales From the Trenches is a weekly series of stories about real life experiences teaching science to small children. Some articles may not be suitable for adults.

It was a rainy afternoon in England. Over the past few days, our family had discussed Newton’s Laws of Motion in preparation for a trip to Woolsthorpe Manor, where the famous apple tree still stands.

We’d already watched a pretty bizarre video on Newton’s life, which for some reason featured Newton with green hair (linked below), so I knew I was going to need something good to top that. I settled on the old “Teach them about the first law of motion using a tablecloth” trick.

If you’re not familiar with that one, Newton’s first law of motion (also called the law of inertia), says that an object at rest will stay at rest until an outside force acts upon it. Newton’s first law of motion is the secret behind the trick where someone pulls a tablecloth out from under some dishes without knocking them all on the floor.

So, with the practiced hand of a stage magician, I pulled out a silk tablecloth and set it on our living room table. Then I carefully arranged a plate, glass, and fork on the cloth, while I explained to the kids that I was going to pull the tablecloth off the table without disturbing the dishes.

When I had finished, I looked up, expecting to find them greatly impressed, perhaps even a little awestruck at my confident audacity. Instead their looks ranged from incredulous to outright nervousness.

My oldest daughter suggested in a tone of voice calculated not to hurt my feelings that I might want to test the trick out with plastic dishes first. Her lack of faith was understandable since, being the oldest, she had been witness to the greatest number of failed science demonstrations. Her younger siblings, still carefree and innocent, expressed more confidence in me. Though they might have just been hoping to see me break the dishes.

Gripping the tablecloth tightly, I pretended to be nervous, but determined to go through with it. I took a few practice tugs. Someone else mentioned the wisdom of trying with plastic dishes first (possibly my wife).

I shook my head resolutely and warned them all that they should stand back, just in case. The kids cowered against their mother. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and pulled as hard as I could.

The tablecloth slid out from under the place setting effortlessly, everything went perfectly…except the fork. It was a bit too light maybe, or perhaps one of its tines got caught in the cloth. Whatever the cause, it flipped up into the air, and landed neatly on the plate, with a clatter as if I had planned it that way.

The nervous fear in my audience turned into amazed incredulity. They wanted to know how I did it, and especially how I got the fork to land on the plate. So I took that opportunity to explain the science behind the trick.

The Science

When Newton described the first law of motion, he put it this way:

Every body persists in its state of being at rest, or of uniform motion in a right line, unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed upon it.

That was a bit long-winded for your average high school science textbook, so over the years textbook authors have shortened it to:

An object at rest remains at rest, and an object in motion remains in motion until acted upon by an outside force.

Even that can sometimes be hard to fit into a text message, so most people just refer to it as:

The law of inertia.

The force of gravity is pulling down on the dishes, while the table pushes them back up. These opposing forces keep the dishes in a state of equilibrium. Newton’s first law of motion says that when things are at equilibrium, they don’t really want to change anything. Sort of like how you would really prefer to stay in bed, but eventually a toddler pulls on your arm enough times that you have to get up and make breakfast.

Since the tablecloth has such a small amount of friction, and since it slides out so quickly, the force that the cloth applies to the dishes isn’t enough to move them much. Part of the reason it’s better to use heavy plates instead of plastic ones, is that heavier objects have more momentum. This means they are more resistant to changes in their motion.

A few details if you want to try this at home

First, make sure you use a very smooth tablecloth. Silk is the best, but linen is a close second if you don’t have any silk handy. The important thing is that the cloth should have as little friction as possible. Friction is the arch-enemy of inertia.

Next, make sure you aren’t using the fine china for this sort of thing. Also, when you pull the tablecloth, you have to pull it in a straight line away from the table. Whatever you do, don’t pull up on the cloth.

If all else fails, you can always watch the Isaac Newton with green hair video:

Dining Room Table picture courtesy of MirellaST.

How to Tailor Science to Your Child’s Interests

Child Coloring - Courtesy of Pixabay.com and Jarmoluk

There’s no easier way to turn a kid off of science (or any other subject) than by trying to force them to learn something they have no interest in.

Leo Babauta (of Zen Habits fame) talks about this in one of his posts on unschooling:

If you have a job you hate, or a business that you don’t really believe in, it’s not only worse for your happiness, it’s worse for the world. You’re just doing it for money (or attention) and not because you care, not because you love it, not because it will make a difference.

Now shift this to education: why do kids go to school? Because they have to. Because it’s compulsory, because it’s expected, because everyone else does it, because they need to get the degree, because they need to get a job.

But if this is how you approach learning, that’s also how you’ll approach your job or business. You’ll do it because you have to, because you need the money, because everyone else does it.

Unschooling, and the smarter entrepreneurs, take another approach.

Unschoolers (ideally) learn because it’s something they’re interested in. Because it’s fun, or fascinating, or they care.

They do projects not because they’re forced to, but because they want to.

Helping your children want to learn science

So how do you help your kids want to learn science? You do it by teaching them the science behind what they’re already interested in.

For example, two of my daughters love to draw,  so I used that as an opportunity to talk about the science behind light, color, and perception. Because of their interests in art, we’ve watched educational videos from NASA on the electromagnetic spectrum, done chromatography experiments at the dinner table,  and talked a lot about Isaac Newton. (If you are fortunate enough to visit the UK, you can stop by Newton’s house and see some of the equipment he used in his studies on light.)

Now, lest you think that it’s all rainbows and butterflies around here, there have been tons of times I’ve tried to introduce a science topic only to be met with an unmistakable “not again…” look from one of the kids. Sometimes, they’re just not ready to learn, and that’s okay.  When that happens, you can either try to force them to sit and listen (which I’ve found never works out very well), or just carry on and see what happens.

Whenever I’ve been smart enough to take the second approach, I’ve found that those who are interested in the topic, (or just curious why I’m coloring on a napkin), will naturally gravitate in to see what’s going on.

Do you have experiences or advice for tailoring science to a child’s interests? If so, please share them in the comments.

(Image of Child Coloring courtesy of Jarmoluk)

Homeschool Science for College-Bound Teens

Girl Reading Book - Courtesy of pixabay.com and LouAnnaIn my last post, I discussed why I don’t believe you should force young children to follow a structured science curriculum. You might be thinking, “Well, that’s great for young kids, but what about older kids / college-bound teens?”

I am generally opposed to  teaching kids what I consider to be “science trivia” (as opposed to teaching them how to think scientifically). However, to gain admission to an American or international university, you have to know a certain amount of science trivia and vocabulary.

In order to do well on the SAT/ACT tests required by most American universities, (or to do well on your GCSE/IGCSE/A-level exams required by many other schools), you need to make the commitment to study a structured curriculum.

Unfortunately, I haven’t seen a lot of great options for American students. Most of the textbooks considered by homeschool families suffer the rather serious issue of trying to disprove, discredit, or completely ignore the concept of biological evolution. Regardless of your personal feelings on evolution, young adults looking to enter university-level studies need to understand this topic, as it forms the basis for all of modern biology. (See my F.A.Q. page for my personal views on the relationship between evolution and Christianity).

The textbooks used in public school tend to be either too verbose (sometimes I think textbook authors are paid based on the weight of their books), or simply not rigorous enough. Perhaps there are some really amazing books out there, lurking in some dusty corner of Amazon’s warehouses, but I just haven’t found them.

Fortunately, while our family was living in the UK, we learned about GCSE exams. If you’re not familiar with GCSE/IGCSE exams, you can read more about them here. Basically, they are subject-based exams for students finishing the UK equivalent of American high school. They are one of the major factors that decide whether you’ll go on to university studies.

There are a lot of fantastic GCSE study guides out there, which consequently also serve as fantastic high-school-level science texts. The ones I like the most, (and currently used by our oldest daughter) are the Edexcel IGCSE Student Guides:

(Image of girl reading courtesy of LouAnna)

Which Homeschool Science Curriculum Should I Use

Girl blowing a dandelion puff

As soon as another homeschool parent finds out that I have a PhD in genetics and that we also homeschool our kids, one of the first questions they typically ask is which homeschool science curriculum we use. What I believe they really want to know is which homeschool science curriculum should they use.

The two biggest questions I see parents struggle with when starting out homeschooling is how to teach math and science. I’ll talk about math in another post, but today I’m going to focus on science. If you’re homeschooling young kids, I’ll let you in a little secret: You don’t need a science curriculum.

Note that I’m not stating that you don’t need to help your kids learn about science; learning about science is essential. I’m saying you don’t need a structured curriculum to do so. In fact, I think that when helping young children become excited about science, a structured curriculum often does more harm than good.

“But wait!” You might be asking. “Without a curriculum, how will they ever learn everything about science?”

Bad news: even with the most amazing structured curriculum in the world, you’ll never learn everything about science.

How scientists learn science

Instead, of a structured curriculum, I recommend young kids learn science the way scientists do. Here’s how we do it:

  1. We observe the world around us and notice something interesting that we can’t explain.
  2. We go read information other people have written about that thing and see if we can find an explanation.
  3. Even if we do find an explanation, that explanation often leads to more questions.
  4. We then repeat steps 2 and 3 until either we’re no longer curious, or we have found a question that nobody has an answer to.
  5. We then think of possible explanations and come up with experiments we can do to rule out each possibility.
  6. Then we tell other people about what we’ve done, to help them along with their own step 2.

Some people call this process “the scientific method”, and it is the exact process that every curious child follows when learning something new.

How children naturally learn science
  1. “Hmm, look at this grass. It’s so…green.”
  2. “Mama, why is grass green?” (If Mama knows, she says so. If not, she can help the child google it, go to the library and get a book, or appeal to any number of other sources for information.)
  3. “It’s because of chlorophyl dear.”
    (continue repeating steps 2 and 3)
    “What’s chlorophyl?”
    “It’s a chemical in plants that helps plants to make food for themselves.”
    “How do they make food?”
    “They follow a recipe called photosynthesis, that’s a big word that means ‘making things out of light'”
    “They make food out of light?”
    “Yes, light and a few other things.”
    “I wish I could make food out of light.”
  4. At this point, the child might have more questions, might go off on a tangent, or might lose interest completely. Or they might wonder what happens if a plant can’t get any light to make food.
  5. Instead of answering that question, you could say something like “What do you think would happen?”. They might have some ideas, maybe they think the plant would die. Depending on how curious they are about this topic, you might even encourage them to do a simple experiment involving placing a plant in a dark place to see what happens to it after a few days without light.
  6. The child eagerly comes to you one day, dead plant in hand. “Look Mama! The plant starved because it couldn’t get any light to make food!”

Instead of using that method, imagine that you plop your young child down at their desk with a science book that you got from the local curriculum dealer and say “Okay, dear you need to read one chapter of this a day and write out the answers to the questions at the end of each chapter.”

Which of those two methods do you think will make your child more excited about learning science? Which would make you more excited?

Which is the more valuable skill: teaching a child to memorize science-trivia that other people think is important, or teaching them to observe, question, hypothesize, experiment, and form conclusions about things that excite them and spark their imagination?

I know which option I’d choose.

(Image of girl blowing dandelion courtesy of SkitterPhoto)

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