Science is not about facts. That may sound like an odd statement – after all, it is quite likely that the way you were taught science in school was ALL about facts. That is sort of a shame, and it may be part of the reason that our education system is struggling in terms of teaching children science. The truth is that science is about DOING. And about wondering, and asking questions, and figuring things out. While it is important that we learn about the things that other people have discovered, the real exciting stuff in science is the stuff we DON’T know. And that is where we fall short in getting children excited about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) content and careers…we focus on what is already known, and testing them on how well they memorize it, rather than getting them excited about what they might discover in the future.
Focusing on the unknown starts with good questions – the root of all great scientific discovery. And building a good foundation of scientific thinking and reasoning in your child begins with some early science skills, and none of them is as powerful a skill as observation. As parents we are often inclined to simply ask our child “What’s that?” when we encounter something new. But think about that question, and compare “What’s that?” – a question that suggests (and asks for) one ‘correct’ answer – with “What do you think that is?” That subtle change, adding the word “think” in there, transforms the question from fact finding to a request for actual thought. When you ask your child “What do you think that is?”, you are asking them to observe, to call upon prior knowledge and experience, to formulate ideas and even hypotheses…in short, you are challenging them to think scientifically. And imaginatively. All that in about 5 seconds. Wow, you’re a great parent. You should reward yourself with some ice cream or something.
Believe it or not, science and imagination are cut from the same cloth. Science is the act of wondering about (and then investigating) the world; imagination is the expression of that wonder. Imagining what could be, what is possible, is the foundation of all scientific discovery. If no one ever asked “I wonder if…”, “I wonder what…”, or “I wonder why…”, we might not have ever discovered much of anything. An authority no less venerable than Albert Einstein once famously said “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Pretty smart guy. He said it because knowledge is limited to what has already been discovered…but imagination is boundless. Every scientific discovery starts with someone imagining and wondering, and being inspired to act on that wonder.
Children are too infrequently asked for their opinion, or asked how they imagine the world is. They are more likely to be TOLD the way the world works, or asked to recite canned answers. But imagining and wondering are skills that great scientific discoverers relied upon in order to inspire their discovery. So they are skills that are critical to capture and nurture in our children if we wish for them to grow up as science literate adults, or even as the next generation of explorers of the big questions in our universe. And despite what you may have been led to believe, there remain an awful lot of those big unanswered questions. In fact, what we know about the universe is dwarfed by all that we do not yet know; all that remains to be discovered. As any physicist or astronomer will tell you, it turns out that the universe is so odd, so strange and beyond our understanding, that the next generation of scientists will likely need a whole lot more imagination than they will understanding in order to make any sense of it all. And do you know who is going to help answer those great unanswered questions? Your child. And the child next to her. So ask your child what she thinks, what she wonders about. Keep that imaginative part of her brain limber, because we’re going to need it to help us solve some of life’s great mysteries.