Before You Start (1)

Some advances in science happen accidentally. We all know the stories of radioactive samples left on top of photographic plates, mold getting into your bacterial colonies, etc. It’s great when it happens. And you should take advantage of random opportunities to present science, technology, engineering and/or mathematics (STEM) to your child.

But that’s not how most science happens, and that’s not how an aquarium should happen.

Most science happens while going through a set of steps. Now, most people don’t think of these steps as steps, and they may rearrange the steps, combine them, or just do it subconsciously. But the steps look approximately like this:

  1. Thinking
  2. Planning
  3. Calculating costs
  4. Purchasing
  5. Assembling
  6. Performing experiments & taking data

At this point, I’m supposed to put “Evaluating “ as #7. In real life, evaluating happens all the time. During the “thinking” phase, evaluation happens naturally. That’s part of thinking. The same goes for planning. Unlike comic books where Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic) and Tony Stark (Iron Man) have unlimited funds, a lot of evaluating can happen during the “Calculating costs” and “Purchasing” parts of the experiment. A researcher might ask herself questions like these:

  • Can we afford this?
  • Is there a cheaper way to do this?
  • Does someone else have this piece of equipment that I can borrow?
  • Do I want to look for another topic to research?

Evaluation can occur during “Assembling,” especially when the researcher finds out things don’t go together like the instructions say. Think “Ikea furniture.” I know of one case where it really was Ikea furniture that didn’t go together like the drawings showed and changed the experiment.

Some of the most important evaluation occurs during the first couple runs of the experiment. Even when doing a double blind study, a researcher will check to make sure things are running smoothly. Most of the time, they don’t. The researcher may not have ever done this particular experiment before. Perhaps no one has done it. The first couple times, researchers check to make sure everything works as planned. Often it doesn’t, and the researcher goes back to the beginning and work through the steps again with the new knowledge.

Sometimes things don’t work as planned. And, if you look at all those serendipitous discoveries, you’ll find that those wonderful accidents were found during the evaluation phase of going through these steps.

What’s the one thing common to all of these steps?

Taking notes.

Seriously. Everyone knows that scientists record data. there are even cute aphorisms about data collection like “Document or it didn’t happen” and “Collect data; it makes it look like you’ve been doing something.”

But think about it even in your own life. Ever come up with a great idea and forget it during lunch? If you’d kept notes, that wouldn’t have happened. Think of something when planning a party but forget about it until the first guest knocks at the door?

So your first homework assignment is to go out and buy lab notebooks: one for you and one for each child with whom you’re working.1

You don’t need to get the big expensive professional lab books. Composition notebooks are wonderful, especially if they happen to have the numbered pages. Everyone keeps their own data. The adult will keep the adult version, but each child should keep his or her own. Yes, there should be words and numbers in the book, but there should also be drawings of things observed. If you take a picture of the aquarium or the supplies, printing out the picture and taping or gluing it in the book is wonderful. Scientists use drawings, photographs and more to record things–as well as words and numbers.

By keeping a notebook yourself, you’re modelling the behavior for your child or children. The children are practicing important skills like writing and drawing.

Also, when something goes wrong, that notebook might help you figure out what it was or keep you from making that mistake again!

  1. I’m keeping my notebook on a computer. The first time the data files get corrupted, you can laugh at me. Lab notebooks are things the child can touch and hold and look back on years from now. It’s a simple thing, but your child will benefit. []

Written by Rob Carr


Read previous post:
Science in 80 Liters (20 Gallons)

In 1967, I was in third grade and got a book by Beverly Cleary titled “Henry Huggins.” In the book,...