By Kenneth J. Stein, Ph.D.
What could possibly be more fun than teaching science? Indeed, you have an entire Creation to work with! If you accept that all parts of His Creation have a story to tell, then teaching science is all about telling stories. What child doesn’t like to hear stories? For this reason, teaching science is no different from teaching other subjects. It might be easier than you think.
Science is all around us and is part of our everyday lives. Consider for one moment where you live. Do you have a garden? Do you have a park or vacant land nearby? What about water? Do you live close to a creek, pond, or river? How about indoors? Surely, you must have a kitchen with pots and pans, and all kinds of cooking ingredients? Well, if you answered yes to any of these questions, you can start teaching science.
It seems as though young children have an insatiable interest in science and the outdoors. Of course, their minds are ripe for exploration and investigation. Then, something happens when they become older and enter high school. Maybe it has to do with living in an era of electronic gadgetry. They seem to become turned off by simple things and their interests change. Why is this? Perhaps the age of modern science has removed the mysteries of Creation. That might seem a little bit harsh, but let me explain.
There is a perception among some that science can unlock all of the mysteries of the universe. If not at the moment, well, then maybe someday. Perhaps this is nothing new. In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s, The Brothers Karamazov, a character by the name of Kolya, made the comment that if you gave a boy, “a map of the stars, which he knows nothing about, he will give you back the map next day with corrections on it.” Clearly, Dostoevsky was criticizing the arrogance of science in the late nineteenth century. At that time, Russia was struggling with faith, doubt, and reason against the forces of modernization. We have the same problems today.
What mysteries are present in science? Science can explain things up to a point, but then everything becomes shrouded in mystery. For example, let’s examine three things you can find in your home: electricity, lights, and houseplants. We know that electricity consists of positive and negative charges, it can be stored, and, flows when in a complete circuit. However, no one can explain precisely what electricity is. Light is a mystery too. We understand a great deal about light and how to produce it. But scientists remain stuck on whether it is a particle or a wave. It behaves like both. For this reason, some physicists refer to it as a “wavicle.” Finally, let’s discuss watering your houseplants. The roots absorb water and somehow, magically transport it through the plants. Science books will suggest that the water wicks upward in a plant because of a process known as capillary action, but this alone cannot explain how it is transported. How, then, does water move up a very tall tree such as an oak or maple? Or, how about a giant sequoia? No one really knows, though a couple of theories exist. These are only three examples of things you can find in your home to discuss the Creator and His Mysteries. Obviously, you don’t have to travel far.
When you teach science, it is important that you do so with a genuine sense of mystery and awe about the universe. Using this approach shows humility toward Our Creator. You teach your child about a universe that is God-centered, and not man-centered. This openness can become contagious and prevents science from being just another subject to suffer.
The best place to begin teaching science is in the outdoors. A child can learn a great deal on a simple hike through the woods. There is no telling what you might find during a simple one-hour walk. You will see birds, wildflowers, grasses, shrubs, trees, fungi, insects, and a variety of rodents and other small mammals. Even in winter, nature is worth exploring. Birds are ever-present and you can find several species of insects crawling or hopping about on the snow. A shrub known as witch-hazel is in full bloom. Several plants flourish in mid-winter regardless of the air temperature. One such plant is skunk cabbage. It maintains an internal temperature of 61-74 oF, during bitter cold and heavy snow. Look for its flower heads popping through the snow in ditches and swampy areas.
Unless you have been trained as a field biologist, you may have to brush up on your nature studies before heading outdoors. Take your children to the library and search for various field guides. Bring one or two of these books with you on your walk, along with a notebook. Maybe during the first two weeks, you can study plants; the third and fourth week, birds, and so on.
Depending on the age of your children, you may find that the above approach may be too structured, especially, if they are very young. It is possible that they will show no interest the first few times out. In this case, it is important to head outdoors whether your child shows an interest or not. After all, this is “class time” and they need some level of consistency or discipline to develop an interest. It might help to furnish them with their own notebook, magnifying glass, binoculars, or small camera to provide extra motivation. What can they find? Can they tell you what it is?
You can also bring science into your daily household activities, such as cooking vegetables. When you cut your vegetables into thin slices, have your children look at these with a hand lens. Have them find the vascular tissue that transports water and nutrients. You can also teach chemistry by simply boiling a pan of water. That is, you can discuss how water can exist in three phases: solid, liquid, and gas. This could also lead to a discussion of the Blessed Trinity. St. Patrick used a shamrock but you can use water. Sprinkle some salt in the pan and discuss how it lowers the boiling point of the water and adds flavor to the vegetables. Discuss what it means to be the “salt of the earth.”