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Learning High School Science Outside a Lab
This article, by Sue Smith-Heavenrich, was originally published in the January-February 1995 issue of Home Education Magazine.
Most homeschooling parents have no problem accepting that science, at least for young children, is largely a matter of discovery and exploration. However, when those children begin reaching adulthood, the ages one normally associates with high school, a sort of panic sets in. "How can I teach biology (or chemistry) without a lab? How can I teach physics if I never took it myself?" You can't - teach, that is. You can gather materials, open doors to opportunities, share ideas. Maybe give your kitchen counters over to chemistry experiments and your window sills to snakes. Maybe this is a good time to hand this article to your homeschooling biology student, and go fix yourself a cup of hot tea.
Thomas Edison didn't have a lab. As I recall, he took on a job selling newspapers on a train. When he wasn't selling papers, he set up a few experiments in an old freight car, concocting all sorts of things as the train rolled down the tracks. Come to think of it, Darwin didn't have a lab either... and Marie Curie converted a rather chilly warehouse into her lab - and then went on to receive a Nobel Prize. Not that you will receive any prizes for blowing up the garage. But the fact is, you don't need a lab. What you do need is lots of curiosity, a good library, and some lab equipment that will serve you well for 4 years or more. It's also helpful to have parents who support your endeavor and answer your questions with the response: "I don't know. Let's find out." If you can, find another adult friend who's involved in science somehow: a doctor, veterinarian, engineer, amateur birder, gardener, or even a professor at a local college.
The first thing you need to understand about science is that you can't learn it by reading books. Oh sure, you can learn some spiffy things, like how fast sound travels through water and why whales sing. And you can get some great ideas. But real science is accumulating knowledge based on observation and classification of facts, through which you will discover some general truths about this world we share. To do real science, you've got to get your hands dirty. The scientific process itself goes something like this: observe, wonder, speculate, ask questions, think of possible answers, make up a theory, then test the theory. This raises more questions leading to more observations or experiments. Somewhere along the line you figure maybe someone else has asked similar questions, so you check the scientific literature (books, journals). Eventually you have some answers, and some results from your experiments. Then you either accept your theory, or modify it, or reject it.
The truth about studying science is that sometimes you end up with nothing - you have to rephrase your questions and redesign your experiments. This is The most valuable lessons you can learn in the pursuit of scientific understanding. It is also largely ignored in most high school science courses.
Science, as taught in high school, is a rushed affair. There is little or no time for pursuing individual investigations. Given the standard 45 minute class period, there's barely enough time to complete a lab, much less digest the implications of an experiments results. There's certainly no time to re-think experimental design. In recent years, fear of litigation has pushed most schools to abandon some of the most interesting labs. Biology courses now routinely use artificial blood, and many have eliminated all labs using body fluids. Often there's so much content to cover that there's no time to really think about what you're learning. According to the 1990 Science Reportcard, less than half of our nation's high school seniors could apply scientific knowledge to interpret data, evaluate and design experiments, or show in-depth understanding of scientific concepts.
Fortunately, homeschooling families are in a unique position to change the way science is done, bringing to the next generation of "high school graduates" a group of scientifically literate, inventive thinkers. But first, we've got to get away from thinking that science can only be done as it is now being done within schools. How to start?
* One thing homeschoolers can do is allow more time for the study of the traditional high school curriculum of biology, chemistry, and physics. There's no reason it must be completed in three years Why not four? or five? Almost every science teacher I've talked with complains that there's too much material to cover in one year. "Biology really ought to be a two-year course," responded one teacher.
* We can get away from the "layer cake" approach of Biology-Chemistry-Physics. Why not study some of each over three or four years? According to one chemistry teacher, "The whole sequence should be flip-flopped and students should begin with physics and chemistry." This makes sense when you think it through. It helps to have some understanding of physics and chemistry before you delve into the mysteries of cellular respiration and photosynthesis.
* Probably the most important advantage to homeschooling science is the opportunity to do REAL SCIENCE. Real science consists of asking questions, designing tests, collecting information (called data), and analyzing results. Because of time constraints, most high school students don't get the opportunity to ask the initial questions and design experiments. They walk into a lab where materials are prepared and ready to use, and the lab book sets out a list of directions to follow in order to achieve the desired result. Better than nothing, but only half the process.
A good place to begin is the library. Become intimately acquainted with the science section, and browsing through books. Janice VanCleave has written a bunch on experiments to do in biology, physics, and chemistry (see booklist). Look for things that you'd like to try. Chances are, reading through others' ideas you'll come up with some questions of your own.
Your local high school science teachers might be willing to share older textbooks. Texts are handy to use as guides, especially if you want to complete a traditional college prep study of science, but they shouldn't be your main resource. As you read through a text you'll come up with more questions, and maybe some good ideas for experiments. If your local schools don't lend books, perhaps they can help guide you to books and resources - for example, a physics book that requires only algebra and trig and doesn't cover every page with mathematical fomulae.
Try to find a real scientist and get involved in actual research. This is especially easy if you live near a college or university. I knew one high school student who worked in an entomology department insect collection. He'd found an understanding mentor, and was learning about insects while helping to reorganize their teaching collection. If you live far away from a college, you might still find a scientist willing to mentor you. In rural areas don't overlook local farmers and gardeners. Not only do they have tons of practical scientific knowledge, but many are amateur crop breeders, soil scientists, or entomologists.
Get involved with a project like FeederWatch (see information in Resource sidebar). FeederWatch provides an opportunity for amateur birders to get involved in real research. Backyard bird watchers collect information for a national study on bird populations. Those wanting to get more involved in bird research can participate in a food preference study. Or you can find projects from books like Beyond Birding (see book list). At the end of the year, FeederWatch sends out a detailed newsletter summarizing the results and analyzing the data.
What Should I Study?
I strongly advocate following your own interests. Keep in mind that studying science on a high school level, while fun, is more serious than what you've done before. Be prepared to spend time on reading, as well as allowing yourself plenty of time to play around, experiment, observe. Normally, high school courses run 4.5 to 6 hours a week.
Physics generally begins with a study of mechanics. This is basically "how things work": motion and speed, action and reaction, energy, gravity, and centripetal force. There's lots of room to play with pendulums, explore why air hockey works, and experiment with bows and arrows. Moving on, one studies relativity, properties of matter, heat and light, sound, electricity and magnetism. Usually physics ends with study of the atom and radioactivity.
The traditional chemistry course looks at matter: how to make mixtures, and then how to separate them back to their respective pure elements. It begins with the atomic theory, where physics left off, and studies how atoms stick together to make the stuff of which we are created. There's acids and bases, chemical equations, environmental chemistry, study of foods, drugs, and even the human body. And there's more to chemistry labs than pouring mysterious chemicals from one test tube to another. You can test for fat content in foods, create your own herbal salves, or study air and water pollution.
Biology is the study of the nature of life, which pretty much includes the world and everything on it. Or in it. Most biology courses begin with an overview of chemistry, and then surge into cell biology. This includes study of blood and body systems, and the intricate way the body regulates itself. There's usually some study of plants, a bit about how life reproduces itself, and genetics. Most biologists have a pretty good understanding of evolution of lifeforms on our planet, and how it is classified. Ecology is usually found near the end of most biology books.
There is no rule that says "thou must begin at the beginning of a book and read through it to the end." I admit, if you're studying physics and chemistry, the chapters do build upon each other. But if you plan to study physics, chemistry, and biology at the same time, consider beginning your biology studies at the ecosystem section. This will give you lots of time to digest a bit of chemistry before you jump into cellular biology.
Labs and Field Studies
I've heard the comment that science labs cost money, that supplies are expensive. Just ain't so. Granted, you do need some basic equipment, but you don't need shelves of beakers and flasks. A good microscope is essential - and it will cost a bundle unless you can find a used one. Also, if you really plan to do chemistry, a good balance and a Bunsen burner are needed. But much of the time you can improvise, or make your own equipment. A friend of mine, a "real" scientist, often creates his own tools for doing research. When he needed to see inside bird nests to count eggs, he tied a dentists mirror onto a long pole!
Where to get ideas for projects? Real life. Oh, sometimes I'll look through books in the library for ideas. Or I'll be reading an article and jot down a question. But most of my projects come about because they relate to what is happening around me. One summer I found ants on my counters every morning. I got curious about what they were eating, and what foods they liked best. Because I often discovered hundreds of them at once, I tested them to find out how long it took them to discover food and recruit helpers. Later I tried to determine how long it took them to realize when food was gone, and to go elsewhere to forage. Some of the best projects grow out of real life and real work. If you're studying thermal masses, why not experiment with different types of thermal masses in a cold frame?
If you use a high school lab manual you'll discover that "lab" does not necessarily mean "experiment". While some labs are field studies, for the most part they are simulations, designed to teach skills needed in scientific study. One I particularly hated in my high school biology course required us to cut out a letter "e" from the newspaper and make a slide mount. We then "learned" how to use the microscope, and also how to measure the size of things in our viewing field. Important to know if you want to compare sizes of cells or microscopic critters - but why not do the same lab with a cell scraped from the inside of your cheek? Or some tiny organisms from the bucket full of rainwater that's been sitting outside for a month and is sort of green and scummy? Believe it or not, that "letter e" lab is still in biology lab manuals! As for dissections, there is no need to cut apart an animal. There are computer simulations, books, anatomical charts, even coloring books illustrating anatomy. If you do wish to do some dissections, try to use an animal that has died, and treat it as an autopsy. We've dissected pet goldfish, snakes (caught by the cat), and rabbits (raised for meat).
Chemistry labs, on the other hand, seem to be full of caustic, toxic, or harmful chemicals - though many schools are moving towards less toxic labs. Still, you can do a lot without creating a hazardous waste site in your basement. Testing water samples for pollution not only introduces chemistry, but meshes well with a study of aquatic ecosystems. Or perhaps a local environmental group is trying to gather some information on the rivers and ponds on your watershed for an upcoming planning board meeting where land development will be discussed. (Or, more likely, nobody is doing anything, and the planning board is planning to waive the required environmental impact survey...)
You may not cover all the labs or topics in a high school text, but if you get excited about what you're doing, and have the opportunity to explore in depth, you'll learn more.
Scientific inquiry should include fair tests, and lead to valid results. It's true, you can learn a lot from informal observation. But if you want to compare your observations with what others have seen, you need some way to quantify your information. So you design an experiment. When you design your experiment you need to make sure it is fair - that you are testing only one thing at a time. If, for example, you want to know whether ants prefer large seeds over small seeds, you need to offer two sizes of seed of the same grain. Or if you're testing whether honeybees have a color preference by placing sugar water on colored paper, you must offer identical sugar concentrations at each color.
You also need to have a large enough sample size to make any predictions. Usually it takes about 40 observations to be able to state any result with a reasonable amount of certainty. So if you're testing seed-size preference in ants, you'll want to run at least 40 tests where you offer seed choices to ants.
Try to ask questions that you can answer by counting things. Not only does this make collecting the data easier, but it allows you to present your information in charts and graphs. You can even run simple statistical analyses to determine whether your results differ significantly from what would normally be expected.
Science takes time. What seems like a simple question might end up taking a week or more to study. Or it might grow into a three year project. However long it takes, don't rush through it. You need time to read and digest information, to test things and re-adjust your experiment. Talk over your projects with other people, view it from different angles. Graph your results. It's a good way to condense information, and gives you another way of seeing your research. If you do end up doing original research, for heaven's sake share what you learn. Take the time to write up a brief scientific report, and look into the possibilities of submitting your project to a local science fair. After all, you have a piece of the puzzle, another bit that might add to our understanding of the world we share. And that is what science is all about. Oh, yeah... if you want to give this magazine back to your parents now, it's okay
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