Living Science: what ideas does that conjure up in your mind? What makes science “living?” For many people, it means doing science rather than reading about it. For others, it means learning interesting things about space, and animals, and volcanos, and other things you may not have much up-close and personal experience with. For still others, it’s about playing with technology: building robots and computers.
I think some of us of a certain age might remember when we were turned off by science. It was everybody’s favorite subject until high school; we couldn’t get enough of it! Those who really loved science even did it at home, with projects and books. I think of Oliver Sacks, in his “chemical boyhood,” taking chunks of elemental sodium and dropping them into the river from a bridge to watch them explode. Then, by high school, science became a chore. It became lists of phyla, chemical nomenclature and obscure vocabulary to memorize. It became incomprehensible math, divorced from reality as you experience it. It was the chemistry lab that didn’t “work” with no chance to redo it. It was an abrupt and painful transition from the glorious study of nature in elementary school, and from learning how a refrigerator works in middle school, to a sheet of math problems in high school.
I started my daughter in Year 7 with a text that was to take us two years, covering all four areas of study for science: chemistry, physics, biology and earth science. I thought to add one non-text book in for each subject: Secrets of the Universe covered physics, The Elements by Theodore Gray for chemistry, Life of the Spider by Fabre for biology, and Earth Story by Lamb and Sington for earth science, adding in Eric Sloane’s Weather Book later in the process. What my daughter and I discovered is that she learned far better from the supplements than from the text. She asked questions, she remembered details, she made connections. And when we came to earth science, we found the text to be fairly deficient, covering material she already knew, and horribly boring. So we dropped it.
When we finished, it was time for us, like all good Americans, to split out individual science subjects. So, learning something from her middle school experience, we collected more “supplements,” and used a text and a lab manual, and created a chemistry course. While biology typically comes first, I felt that chemistry was foundational to biology, not the other way around. If she wanted advanced chemistry, she could take an advanced course later. And the math was no more difficult than her pre-algebra work.
Again, the text became boring, difficult, and full of minutiae to memorize. We weren’t getting anywhere, except with the supplements, and her labs were fine.
What if, I thought, I just tossed the text? What if you could make a high school level course without it?
It’s been done, well and in great detail here and here. What has interested me is the possibility of doing it the way Charlotte Mason might have done it, and how it has been done in countries that integrate science until the 11th grade. I believe there’s a lot of development going on in teen brains in the early years of high school, and concepts not understood as a 14 year old may be easier to grasp at 16. What differentiates Mason’s approach from what is typically followed is that it is developmental, it is integrated, it balances field and lab work with living literature, it eschews detailed processes for big ideas, and it strikes a balance between giving youth enough technical know-how to light a fire or even build a project, without turning them into mere technicians. It grounds inquiry in a firm foundation of prior knowledge.
Rather than lay out a curriculum, I hope to lay out our process and to review some of the resources available. I hope to share some of the science learning we’ve done so far, and some of the obstacles we find in our way.