Natural Born Scientists

Imagine holding a spoon in your hand. You hold your arm out and feel a slight, gentle pull on the spoon, seemingly coming from the very air around it. It feels like it wants to escape your grip. As you slowly release pressure, the spoon begins to slip from your loosening fingers. Then suddenly, as soon as you no longer hold it, the spoon flies through the air across the room and crashes with considerable noise into a wall. It stops moving as suddenly as it started and sits motionless once again, halfway up the wall.

What would you do next after observing this stunning turn of events? Would you want to recover the spoon from its resting place on the wall and try holding and releasing it again, to see if the same thing happens? Perhaps you would grasp a different object, a cup or bowl for example, and slowly release it to see if it too flies across the room and crashes into the wall.

First Experiments
While this scenario is rather unrealistic, let’s consider another, almost identical scenario that most everyone has experienced and that was no less incredible to us when we first experienced it. Picture a baby in a highchair. He or she holds a spoon in their small hand, perhaps dangling it over the arm of the highchair. They feel it slip through their fingers and then see it drop through the air and crash to the floor. They look at the spoon on the floor for as long as their very short attention span can manage. Next, an adult or older sibling picks up the spoon and places it back on the tray of the baby’s highchair. As soon as they turn away, crash! The spoon is dropped again. The baby looks at the spoon on the floor again and gets excited.
Once again the spoon is picked up off the floor for the baby and once again, crash! Next comes the Cheerios, a plastic cup, or anything else available to be dropped to the floor, making different noises and eliciting various responses from the adults nearby.

The baby was practicing science. It observed the spoon drop the first time and found it interesting. Through repeated drops, it established a cause/effect relationship that it found was reproducible. Finally, it established that the cause/effect relationship was not a property unique to the spoon, but applied to other objects as well.

These experiments typically end with the baby being plucked from its seat, wiped off, and put down for a nap. Nonetheless, as the baby sleeps, neurological changes occur in its growing brain. Genes are turned on, proteins are produced, and connections between the baby’s brain cells begin to rearrange themselves to cement recent events into its permanent memory. This is an ongoing process—a series of broken dishes and scraped knees establishes the concept of gravity well before a child’s first science class. Children will never forget the cause/effect relationship involving mass and gravity, even though they will never remember their first experiments that proved it.

Observation and Interpretation
Great scientific thought arises from the same system of observation and interpretation that drives infant explorations in gravity. Galileo Galilei and Sir Isaac Newton, two of the prominent contributors to the world of physical science, made observations about the motion of falling objects. Their interpretation of these observations led to the concepts of inertia, gravity, and Newton’s Three Laws of Motion. In the biological world, scientists such as Anton von Leeuwenhoek and Robert Hooke used microscopes to make observations about the structure of plant and animal organisms, as well as microorganisms found in substances like saliva. Their observations served as the foundation for understanding cells and cellular structure and eventually for understanding the microbial basis of many diseases.

In the cases described above, each scientist made both qualitative and quantitative observations. Quantitative observations are those that include measurements such as mass, volume, length, melting point, boiling point, pH, and density. Qualitative observations are those that describe less quantifiable characteristics, like shape, color, state of matter, texture, and odor. Galileo and Newton’s observations include both a qualitative description of motion in terms of direction and quantitative observations of motion such as mass, velocity, and acceleration. Microscopic studies made by Hooke and Leeuwenhoek included descriptions of the shape and color of cellular structures as well as measurements of how much magnification is needed to see individual cells. As with Galileo, Newton, Hooke, and Leeuwenhoek, today’s scientists usually rely on a combination of qualitative and quantitative observations when conducting their investigations.

Young students are not very different from scientists such as Newton and Leeuwenhoek. They possess natural curiosity about the world around them and they continually make observations. However, one difference between young students and scientists is that scientists are trained to record their observations in enough detail that others can understand—and even recreate—the experiment after the fact. It is this attention to detail and to labeling that often sets a novice and scientific expert apart.

Therefore, as one of the earliest activities in science instruction, young students should be given multiple opportunities to observe interesting materials and phenomena. Student should then be tasked with describing their observations in as much detail as they are capable of given their mastery of the language. Also, as early as possible, they should be tasked with drawing and labeling their interactions with materials, to build scientific habits.

When children learn science through direct experience, regardless of their age, the effect is much the same as when the baby experiments with a spoon in its highchair. Learning of this type causes deep, almost visceral understanding of the phenomena studied. This type of learning will not soon be forgotten.

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