Saturday, September 30, 2006

Homeschool Science

My son approached me the other day asking to be homeschooled. I quizzed him about why he did not want to go to regular public school. Anyone who has read my earlier posts know that I hated elementary school. But I wanted to know what his beef was. Were bullies after him?- if so, we could solve that. What made him uncomfortable?

He said "School science sucks."

Boy, that brought back a flood of memories. He related that most of the time, they either learned words about science, or wrote essays. All of that seemed fine, and I told him that communicating about science was, in fact, a big part of real science. I asked him to describe the experiments that they were doing in his class. It wasn't pretty. Composting and looking at rocks. I began to see the problem.

I support public schools. I think that a basic education is an absolute must for citizenship and a productive life. I support the rights of parents to send their children to religious or charter schools, or no school at all, if they are willing to prove though testing that their children are learning. Still, no matter how ardent a libertarian or conservative or religious one might be, one should be able to see, if the education provided by the state does just the basics, the spillover benefits to the society at large offset considerable costs.

But that is a big "if". Testing suggests that this is not being achieved, especially in the areas of mathematics and science. Still, the public school system in the United States is hideously unresponsive to outside pressure, but it is too important to abandon entirely. I am not pretending that the prevailing culture is something that I always like, but it is the culture we have, the one my kids will have to learn to live in. Finally, I don't think America could survive if we lacked public education- we cannot count on people taking it on themselves to educate their children, and the consequences of not having them educated, even at the present sub-par level, would be dissolution of society.

Put another way, stupid people will make stupid decisions, including electing stupid people. We are already far enough along that road. So I don't feel right about giving up on public schools altogether.

At the same time, I am not willing to abandon my children to a system that will fail them in areas I hold particularly dear, and that are demonstrably important in the modern global economy.

As an experiment, I have begun a modest program of 'homeschooling' my son in science and math. I have an advantage over most parents in that I am a professional scientist, and have knowledge and access to resources that most would not. Over the next couple of weeks, I plan to detail what I am doing and what resources that I have found that are readily accessible. It might help as a guide to parents who are concerned that despite the sloganeering, their child might indeed get left behind in math and science.

Our first science project, as a example, is breeding fruit flies. There are plenty of experiments that can be done once a population has been established, from physiology to behavior to genetics(and for flies, fruit flies are tiny, clean and cute). 'Establishing a population' is a 10-dollar phrase for letting a banana get overripe and trapping a bunch of flies in a babyfood or olive jar along with a chunk of banana- the level of effort past that depends entirely on what you want to do. Just watching what the flies do is an education, if done carefully. Resources abound, from the simplest instructions for care and breeding to detailed, 3-dimensional maps of the animal's brain, most available for free on the web.

The average homeschool mom or dad might have no idea where to start. I want to offer encouragement- there are curricula and guides all over the internet. There are introductions for those who know little or nothing about the subject- to a bigger extent than one might think, that is the case for me when you get too far outside chemistry. There is lots of support out there, and a lot to learn. There is nothing more bond-forming for a parent and child to learn something together, so jump in, don't pretend you are an expert, and have fun figuring stuff out. Which, at its heart, is what science is about.


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