Friday, June 11, 2021

Why My Son Quit Science and How to Raise a Scientist

My son out exploring with his botanist grandfather.

We're systematically destroying our culture's love of and faith in science through the way we're teaching and parenting. When I was a kid I knew I couldn't do science, because I wasn't smart enough. Also I didn't have glasses. And when I finally did get glasses at about fourteen I'd realized that science was uncool anyway. Like my shameful glasses. Except for geeks. Geeks who were actually good at science were super-cool, and beyond my league. I could barely bring myself to speak to them, even when we were paired in biology class. Until I married one of those guys (they're almost always guys, right?) and raised some kids, one of whom, from the age of about seven, wanted nothing more than to attend university NOW to study theoretical physics. That wasn't an option for a young kid, so we unschooled our way into his adulthood, and everything about my understanding of science changed. I learned a LOT from watching how my science-passionate kid explored the world, how he was encouraged and discouraged and, ultimately, how our system fails both our kids and science. I'm going to lay it all out here, including, at the end, the list of resources I think are essential and nice-to-have for encouraging a love of science in all of us. says that science is "systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation." Look at that. Observation and experimentation are literally enshrined in the definition of science. Nowhere does that definition say "following instructions" or "memorizing facts". It definitely doesn't say "knowledge gained through performing boring pre-determined exercises where the outcome is already known". Of course, we like to call those boring, pre-determined exercises "experiments", but they're not experimental in any way, and I'm not going to pretend, here.

What We're Doing Wrong

Neil deGrasse Tyson points out in this fabulous lecture that kids are born scientists, and the first thing we do as they start wreaking havoc with their scientific exploration is to stop them, because the chaos is inconvenient for us. He also says "we don't have enough parents who understand or know how to value the inquisitive nature of their own kids, because they want to keep order in their households."
Taking the Exploration and Experimentation out of Science
Back to my son's experience, here's what happened. At nine years old, unschooling from home, he designed an interstellar space station, complete with a plan for the human population, sustainable onboard environment, and calculations to simulate gravity for that onboard environment. At thirteen, he took an admission test for an early-entrance program at the local university. He was younger than most kids there, and wasn't admitted to the program, but was encouraged to return the following year to try again. He declined. Over the next few years he became more and more adamant that the usual highschool graduation would have to be his route to studying physics, and so he pursued it, graduating a year early, and then attending a local college to beef up his collection of science and math courses. At the end of that year of study, he received his rejection notice from the university. Despite a couple of awards, excellent grades, and an honours graduation, he was rejected again from the university he'd longed to attend for most of his life. And shockingly, he was relieved!

Wait--what?! His whole family was ready to console him, and he blithely told us he didn't really want to become a scientist anymore anyway. How did this happen? Well... school happened to him. When he was a kid, science was about questions, exploration, and discovery. School made it about rote memorization and regurgitation. "Experiments" became a process of proving someone else's billion-times-already-proven theories. It was academic theatre. There was no inspiration or passion at all. He realized and explained to us that his creative exploration was more suited to a career in design.

How many of us have had our inquisitive nature killed or redirected by the school system that took the inquiry out of science? What would science be like today if we'd all been encouraged to participate? How would our social and technological evolution be different? Would we still stereotype scientists as elite, affable, or socially inept geeks with oversized glasses?
Stereotyping and Persecution
Why are science geeks almost always guys? Why geeks? Why glasses? Why is science uncool? These stereotypes seem to be as old as time, just like misogyny, religion, mob mentality and a thirst for power. 
Science is power. It means discovering new things; understanding how things work and developing methods for working with them and harnessing more power. That's why so many scientists have been persecuted. If you want to discover who's shaking things up, look for the guy on the stake, whether proverbial or real. People whose knowledge threatens to change the status quo (or unseat those in power) are silenced by whatever means necessary, from Hypatia to Galileo to many more modern scientists currently jailed, humiliated or disappeared following their work on controversial subjects.
But it's not only those in power who reject science. At the level of the lower classes (far from positions of power), scientific discovery heralds change, and that's pretty scary to those who walk the precarious line between starvation and survival. All the what-ifs of progress and change can be terrifying. And in the extreme, desperate people seek comfort and community in rejecting the norm, entirely, championing ideas like flat-earth and other conspiracy theories. These are people who've had their personal agency crushed by a system that told them science was for those at the top. Those uncool smart people with glasses. They were told they weren't smart enough for science. So they made their own "science." And I think not many of us wants to go down that road.

From perspectives of power and powerlessness, it's easy to see how science education for the masses has become the dry, uninspired wreck that it is in most public schools. The public school system was created over a hundred years ago to build a population of obedient, follow-the-rules workers. It was created to feed a growing consumerist society that needed cheap, dependable labour. People at the top don't want their positions of power threatened by the lower classes getting too inquisitive, and those at the bottom know that the food on their tables depends on keeping their noses down. 
Science Tied to Capitalism and Consumerism
The irony is that the technology developed in the rise of industrial consumerism has now displaced the need for that obedient work-force, and it's likely that the majority of jobs in the coming decades will require inquisitive, creative thinking--not obedient task-completion. This presents a way forward out of the educational quagmire we're now living in. It's time to shift the focus of education in general towards creative thinking, free exploration, and delightful discovery.
Besides, as the lower classes are no longer needed for the jobs now done by machines, the social pyramid is crumbling, and those on the bottom would like a new kind of geometry. So there's the question of justice. I think the only way to achieve a just society is for knowledge and discovery to be shared. Open-source technology is becoming more and more expected as the pitfalls of capitalism become undeniable; as capitalism-caused climate change makes technological advancement not just wonderful but urgently needed. And the sharing of knowledge makes global technological advancement even faster. I think the stereotypes and fear of science will fade away as our culture experiences change at an exponentially faster rate, and we become accustomed to a life centred more on agility than on stability. Then, with flexible minds, we can embrace science.
School Constructs: Facts vs. Questions 
Childhood is a big romp of explorative learning. Whether our kids attend a brick and mortar school, study at home as homeschoolers, or lead an unschooling lifestyle, they're exploring to learn, and learning to explore. Playing with baking ingredients, construction tools and materials, personal care products and even fire are exciting for kids because they inspire explorative play. Kids mix products and see what happens, they burn things and see what happens; they build and break and experiment and... see what happens. It's that exploration and discovery that creates learning, and even more importantly a desire to keep learning. That desire is the spark that my son lost in his journey into high school science.
When we, as parents or teachers, present things as already-known facts, we remove the need for our kids to explore, themselves. In doing so, we teach them that exploration is unnecessary or, at worst, unacceptable. We take all the spark out of science.
The most disastrous thing parents and teachers do to science is pretend that it's about facts--things that are already known. It's not! It's about questions! Sure there are answers to the questions, and thousands of years of other people's discoveries to explore, but it's the questions that are interesting; and discovering the answers... whether or not the questions or answers have ever been discovered, before. It's curiosity and the excitement of discovery that leads to science. Some questions are answered by researching other people's answers, and that's OK, but only if the initial curiosity came from the researcher. And curiosity comes from freedom to explore and experiment. As soon as we take away freedom to experiment, we take away the spark of science.
Pre-Determined Kits and Activities
Seriously. I can hardly even discuss this topic it makes me so frustrated. Cross wanton capitalist consumerism with the strangling of scientific exploration and you have pre-determined "science kits". Yuck. These are shiny, polished, packaged activities for which the method and outcome are already determined--usually described or illustrated right on the box. Kids look at them and know exactly what they are expected to do. And so often they know they'll face the disappointment of their teachers or parents if they veer off into actual experimentation with the components of the kit. 
These kits feed our consumerist desire to look like the saturated, tidy, smiling family in the photos and post something similar to our kids' Instagram accounts, but they also take the science out of "science." They're disastrous. And the instructions on how to use the components are disastrous, too. When presented with activities where the outcome is already known, we lose our desire to explore. 

So what is a well-meaning teacher or parent supposed to do? I have good news. There's a LOT we can do, and some of it even can include shiny store-bought kits. But the good ones.

My fifteen-year-old son's chaotic desktop: Collection vials, yeast experiments, and parts of various electrical and biological experiments.

How to Do Right

Free Exploration
It's hard to let go of our adult desire to guide kids' exploration, but actually that's the best work we can do, ourselves. Generations of unschoolers as well as a few democratic schools have provided ample anecdotal evidence (though I've never seen any rigorous formal inquiry into this) that kids who are allowed to explore freely, unhindered by adults' expectations and demands, end up having not only a similar academic ability to schooled children, but also a greater ability to work independently, more success finding meaningful employment, and a greater love of learning. That was enough reason for me to do the work of de-schooling myself, and making way for this kind of learning for my kids and students.

Let Them Be Bored
But how?! What do we give them to do? Well, that question--especially when backed up by little faces whining "I'm boooored" in the background of our Zoom meetings--is actually one of our greatest hurdles. The answer? We give them nothing to do. Boredom isn't a problem for us to solve. That's up to them. And when they learn to solve it for themselves, they'll have already set themselves ahead of the kids with the pre-determined science-kits.

Of course, our kids' boredom might cause too much interruption for us to carry on our own activities. Maybe we have to set our boundaries, and make sure our kids have a rich environment to explore. Partly, that means accepting danger, chaos and mess as part of our lives, and--importantly--also keeping boundaries around our own need for clean spaces. Maybe this means there's an experimenting/play/rumpus room, and a tidy, peaceful room. Maybe it means we agree as a family or class to do a big clean-up every day at a certain time, just because some of us have a need for a peaceful space. 
And by "we agree" I don't mean that we adults decide what will be done without consultation, or with a sham of consultation that actually amounts to coercion. I mean we discuss our needs in an equitable way that allows each of us to present our needs and our ideas for resolution. All of us have needs that can be presented and discussed as a whole, respectfully. That's how it works in a democratic school, and it can work that way in a home or school classroom, as well. Though I will admit as a teacher and parent, that it's far easier to do with with a classroom of not-my-own kids than with my own family late at night when I'm tired and grumpy and have let my guard down. Overcoming that is part of the work I have to do as a parent.

Natural Consequences
My needs aren't more important than my kids' needs just because I pay the bills or have a greater understanding of consequence. My kids have very important needs, too, and are developing their understanding of consequence through discussing our needs, together, and through having their own needs voiced and respected. Kids' sense of personal worth is reinforced through having their needs heard and considered. But what happens when we come up with solutions that fail? Natural consequences!

Natural consequences are teachers to us all. When we experiment with fire we may discover all kinds of interesting things. We may get burned. And guess what? That's science! We all experiment with our behaviour as much as we do with our physical surroundings, and through observing the consequences of our experimental behaviour (maybe a friend decided to go home early; maybe we ran out of time to make dinner; maybe our partner no longer trusts us) we make discoveries. We learn! That's science! 

My son and his friend experimenting with their homemade forge.

Materials for Scientific Exploration from Toddlerhood to Adulthood

So how can we encourage scientific exploration without those dreaded kits? More important than the specific materials we have is how we present them. 
The concept of "strewing" is often talked about among homeschooling and unschooling parents, and even used in many classrooms. Generally speaking, strewing means to scatter items of potential interest around the house for kids to discover: books, games, toys, craft or construction materials, etc. This can be great or awful, depending how it's done. 
I've seen plenty of Instagrammable "strewing" photos in homeschool groups: A perfectly clean natural wood table with a curated selection of art supplies and a brand new "activity book" laid out with a special treat, for example. That's not an invitation to explore; it's an invitation to tell Mama what a beautiful set-up she made, and then work tidily in the book with the provided materials while enjoying the treat. A more productive way to "strew" the same activity would be to simply add the (hopefully open-ended) activity book to the heap of books already in use, and go to the kitchen to bake the treat--experimentally. Maybe the kid will find the book. Maybe they'll play Lego. Maybe they'll join the parent in the kitchen to experiment with baking, or maybe they'll lie on the floor painting their arms with flour and water they took off the counter. Maybe three years later they'll pick up the strewed book and use it in some unexpected way. We cannot possibly know or direct the learning that will come out of good strewing, and that's just as it should be. As parents and teachers we need to open our minds to the natural consequences of strewing.

Are You Still Waiting for the Materials List?
I hope by now I've made it clear that our homes are already full of wonderful explorative materials; that there is no "right way" to teach science, and that the best of all worlds is an open-minded parent or teacher and time to explore. But we do live in a material world, and I'm going to give you a shopping list, just to make us all feel more satisfied.

I'm making different lists for different age-groups, not because they're not absolutely interchangeable, but because it's a bit easier to get our heads around, and, to be honest, people in specific life-stages do gravitate towards specific things. 
Please keep in mind with every single one of these suggestions, that it's only useful if we maintain total freedom of use: how, when and where to use it should be totally open for experimentation. It should always be OK to mix materials in new ways. That's often where creativity and novel discovery come from! Of course, sometimes some family discussions on safety and respect for others' property are warranted.
Early Childhood:
  • trips to the library, and an unending supply of ALL KINDS of books
  • musical instruments and sound-makers of any and all types with no attached expectations. Some libraries lend instruments, and parents of young kids are often trading around an assortment of interesting instruments as well.
  • an always-available assortment of art and craft materials (see my separate post on this)
  • cardboard boxes, ramps, large paper brochures, blankets, cushions and other materials for building in the house
  • shovels, rakes, buckets, and water for playing outside in the dirt, forest floor, or sand
  • freedom to cook and bake in the kitchen with appropriate supervision but as much freedom as possible for experimentation--be prepared for creations to be inedible! 
  • Duplo, Lego, Keva blocks, Zome, marble runs, or other similar open-ended building toys. Instead of keeping the sets together as they came, dispense of the instructions and create a mixed box for free-play.
  • dolls, stuffies, and materials for house or care-giving play. "Real" tools like brooms, rags, kitchen tools and baby supplies are great for playing, too!
  • fabrics and sewing supplies
  • endless outdoor explorative play (see separate article, here)
  • time spent with a diverse range of different people
Middle Years:
All of the above, plus:
  • a good quality dissecting microscope (we got ours from
  • a good quality telescope for astronomy or wildlife viewing
  • a little pocket jeweler's microscope that can be brought outside
  • a bunch of exciting chemicals: sulfur, stump remover, matches and books by Theodore Gray (especially Mad Science and Elements)
  • a fire pit
  • materials for electrical and electronic experimentation: discarded electronics from local recycling centres to take apart, some basic breadboards, wiring, and related components; perhaps a big transformer and some guidance on related dangers
  • petri dishes, measuring glasses or beakers, agar powder for growing molds and bacteria (again, with some guidance)
  • an inexpensive waterproof camera
  • access to wood and metal shops
  • Internet access. I'm not a big fan of screen time, but it's the world our kids live in, so the sooner they're able to have unfettered access (with lots of family discussion and good role-modeling by parents) the sooner they'll be able to master it and use it safely. Some of my kids' greatest self-determined learning has been through exploring and publishing on online platforms.
Teens Into Adulthood:
I always wondered how my son would manage in university, without having gone to school. And although it happened that school caused him to lose interest in studying science at university, we know of quite a few unschooled kids who went on to excel in university studies, including in sciences. We also know that many accomplished modern scientists were homeschooled or unschooled, and that Elon Musk educates his many children by encouraging open exploration, as well. So by now I've abandoned my fears about university and am witnessing my son develop a nascent career in 3D rendering, using many of the resources listed, here. 
The trick to learning exploratively through these resources is to allow inquiry and discovery to lead our progress, instead of the expectations of others. The same can be done through university, by allowing ourselves to change course when the need or desire arises, or to use resources in ways for which they may not have been intended. 

As with strewing, the point with these activities is not to provide a pathway, but to provide a rich matrix in which our open minds can explore and grow. I unexpectedly learned to cook Pakistani foods while doing respite care! You just never know what may materialize in a rich, explorative life.
  • open university courses either online or through brick and mortar schools
  • university or trade programs
  • interesting and unexpected jobs
  • online exploration through YouTube and other platforms
  • experimenting with tools (software, woodworking/metal/automotive shop, camera, etc.)
  • clubs or discussion groups
  • volunteerism
  • homemaking/home-building
  • pet care
  • farming
  • building relationships
  • raising children


To Conclude with a Neat and Tidy Package

Back to my son. His life is nothing like I thought it would be when he was a gregarious nine-year-old trying to get to university and I was a proud but ignorant parent. But I think it's a good life. After he quit college and declared the end of his pursuit of a physics and engineering degree, he reverted back to free-form explorative learning. He taught himself to play and compose on piano, and then eventually with synth and computer. He veered into the world of 3D rendering, and after two years of intense exploration and some online courses he sourced for himself, he's now developing a career as a digital artist. His most popular pieces? Spaceships. You can take the boy out of science, but...
As parents and educators we want to see our children succeed, and the way we measure success is set by our own experiences. But the limitations of our own experiences are roadblocks to our children's advancement. We have to let go of our own supposed knowledge and certainly our expectations in order to allow our children to succeed on their own terms. 
In the bigger picture, our children are the next generation on the trajectory of humankind's evolution, and we can't predict what tools or skills they'll need on that journey. Human advancement has always followed the path of ingenuity rather than the staid and unchanging path of what-we-already-know, or who-wants-to-stay-in-power. It's always the explorers, the inventors, and the heretics who advance science. Science needs these people. The way to raise a scientist is to encourage exploration, invention, and breaking all the rules.

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