Inspired by Science

It’s no secret that my family is mad about science. We love to get messy doing experiments, which provide a natural outlet for the burning curiosity that all children seem to have. It never surprises me to see the hypotheses, theories and solutions that my daughters come up with when we decide to do a bit of science. For me, it’s not about channelling them into science-based careers, although I do of course want them to understand that they can become scientists if they want to, but about helping them to learn critical thinking skills that will empower them in whatever they choose to do as adults – not just for work, but also in life. We live in a ‘post-fact’ era, after all, and being able to think for yourself is an important skill to learn.

To prevent these experiments from becoming too structured and school-like, I try to mix it up a bit – sometimes we do experiments with their friends and at other times we take field trips. It’s important to get out and about to explore the world, but we’re always the ones instigating these sorts of activities with our friends, so it was with much interest that I came across Ruth MacLaren’s Sciencedipity workshops in my home county of Devon.

Ruth is a teacher and biomedical scientist, and she set up the non-profit company four years ago. I asked her how she got into doing this, as most scientists stick to their professions and tend to stay hidden away in the lab. Ruth tells me: “When my daughter, who was then nine, said she didn’t like science at school because they did very few experiments, I felt concerned about the impact that could be having on our future scientists. You could say I had a ‘penny drop’ moment: I realised that this was what I was meant to do – to facilitate fun and inspiring science workshops so that children’s enjoyment of the subject lasts.” This is the side of science that my children love, too – the hands-on, messy stuff teaches them about the world far better than any textbook can, and allows for different ways of absorbing the information.

I find it heartening to hear that Ruth’s workshops are so popular. “I get lots of emails from parents to tell me their child had an amazing time, or thanking me for inspiring their children,” she tells me. I ask her why she thinks the reception has been so positive. “Making exciting, practical science accessible to all is really important. There is also a gender gap in some areas of science and engineering, and stereotyping still exists. I visited a school in Devon last week, and the children thought that although women could work in science, they definitely wouldn’t have children or wear dresses! As a busy mum, I hope that through my outreach work I can also show children that science is for everyone. I even do science parties. Science is brilliant fun and can be adapted to suit any occasion. Harry Potter and Halloween science are my favourites.”

It surprises me to hear that these gender stereotypes prevail, but we are perhaps an ‘alternative’ household, so I often forget what the wider world is like. At home my children watch The Magic School Bus, a popular American children’s show where Ms. Frizzle – a science teacher – often wears dresses that match the topic of her teaching. Yet other children think that scientists can’t wear dresses! What can we do to help overcome this? Ruth’s solution is certainly one route: I can attest that participating in workshops is extremely good fun! But you don’t have to be able to attend these events to spread a love of science. It can be achieved at home, too. There are many easy science experiments available on the internet, using common household ingredients – you could even invite some friends to take part and have a science party! Ruth says: “I’d recommend visiting some well-respected websites such as the Royal Society of Chemistry or Biology, as well as science buddies – they all have great experiments to try. Whatever you do, make it practical and fun, have the children take ownership of the activity, and let them bring their own ideas into the experiment.” Want to try something at home? Ruth’s favourite experiment is The Elephant’s Toothpaste: “It’s so easy to do, and really visual. The children love this one. The science behind it is very straightforward and can be explained in a child-friendly way. I have older children do The Elephant’s Toothpaste themselves using a weak hydrogen peroxide solution, which they find such fun, as the bubbles just keep coming!”

Parents who don’t have time to arrange science sessions at home but don’t mind paying for resources can use Letterbox Labs kits, as we’ve recently started doing. You receive a box of goodies and experiments in the post, with very simple-to-follow instructions and all the necessary equipment included. The diffraction experiment particularly struck my five-year-old, who has a bit of an obsession with rainbows and loves that the simple glasses we made make rainbows appear where there is light. I love it when my children become excited about things like this and continue to think about and ask questions about them, as it’s so obvious that the activities are worthwhile and are helping their critical thinking skills to develop while allowing the natural wonder to thrive.

We still have the soaps at home that the children made at the Sciencedipity workshop, and since using them my girls have a new understanding of what soap is and how it’s made – something that hadn’t even occurred to them to think about before. Who knew that such a simple household item could be such an object of interest – and also demonstrate the magic of science?

And this is fitting, since Ruth also tells me that what keeps her enthusiasm is just this: “My work with Sciencedipity is inspired by the children I meet at my workshops. My enthusiasm is fuelled by their passion for science.” As Ms. Frizzle says, “Take chances! Make mistakes! Get messy!” Just be sure to put on a pair of goggles first!

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This article was written for Natural Parenting by Zion.

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