Raising Science-y Kids on the Cheap

raising science nerds, raising STEM kids,
Electron microscope image of an Arabidopsis thaliana leaf. It’s all how you see it. (CC by 3.0 CSIRO)

I’ve gotten a little weary (and wary) of STEM-promoted toys, kits, classes, and camps. I’m sure they’re wonderfully engaging but they make it seem as if parents have to spend a lot to raise kids who love science. That’s not the case. I’ve raised four very science-y kids while scraping along on a not-so-great income.

My husband and I don’t work in science fields. But we’ve found that keeping scientific curiosity alive isn’t hard. Instead it’s about saying “yes.” Projects that are messy, time-consuming, and have uncertain outcomes are a form of experimentation. They are real science in action. This sort of curiosity-driven learning can’t be contained in a kit or prescribed by a class. As Neil DeGrasse Tyson says,

Parents come up to me, “How do I get my kids interested in science?” They’re already interested in science. Just stop beating it out of them…We tell them to shut up and sit down after spending a year telling them how to walk and talk. We teach them how to walk and talk, and they start touching things — “Oh, don’t touch that, Junior. Sit down. Stop making noise. Stop banging on the pots and pans.” Every one of those is an experiment.

When a kid wants to know, they want to find out. Not later, not next week, but right away. Finding out is engaging. It leads to ever widening curiosity. In our family this process of discovery-to-mastery started early.

When my oldest was just a baby he was horrified by vacuums. Even the sight of one made him scream with This Will Kill Me volume. So we let him learn he could control the “off” and “on” switch. His horror turned to fascination, leading him toward ever greater curiosity heading in all sorts of directions. He’s the four-year-old who, learning that bones have Latin names, became obsessed with memorizing them. He’s the eight-year-old who inspired our friends to save all sorts of broken appliances and equipment because he liked to take things apart. He’s the twelve-year-old who insisted on joining a model railroad club even though all the members were decades older than he was. He developed the passions, we simply facilitated them.

When my daughter was barely able to walk, around 11 months old, she was fascinated by the stones at the end of our driveway. Day after day she wanted to toddle close to the street just to pick up those stones. It occurred to me that it would be a lot easier to satisfy her curiosity than to keep saying no and turning her back toward the house. So she and I went there together and sat in those stones. She was enthralled. I marveled at all the different ways she chose to experience them. Holding, dropping, picking up one at a time then grabbing handfuls, handing them to me and taking them back, rubbing the smooth ones and, once I showed her, holding them up to the light. Sometimes she’d raise a stone to her mouth, then shake her head, reminding herself that stones weren’t for eating. Once or twice a stone did touch her lips. The result? I told her we were all done, picked her up, and went back to the safety of the lawn near the house. She remembered. I let her investigate stones day after day until she was done, her desire to know satisfied. (She’s now a biologist.)

When my third child was three he was entranced by the lighters and matches his grandmother used to light her cigarettes. Since she lived with us and sometimes unintentionally left fire generating devices out, his intense curiosity concerned me. He knew that children shouldn’t touch anything that makes fire, but he was so active (I’ve already described his chimpanzee-like abilities as a toddler) that I knew it was a matter of time before her forgetfulness might collide with his need for some hands-on experience. So, explaining this was only okay to do with an adult, I stood him on a stool at a sink full of water, letting him light match after match to drop in the water. He was a little afraid. His fingers were almost singed a few times. He also conquered the fascination with flame. He asked a few times over a period of months to do this again. Then he was done. Warning about danger doesn’t have the same effect as a child getting close enough to know that matches do burn. It also helps to know you can find out what you want to know, even about scary stuff, in the presence of a parent. (He’s now a year’s classes away from a geology degree.)

Some experiments shouldn’t have happened. One of my little boys quietly carved a small hole in the drywall of his closet, then attempted to spackle it with the unlikely combination of toothpaste covered by an ostrich feather he’d saved from a field trip. We didn’t discover it until we were emptying that closet as he packed for college. We still laugh about that one. (He’ll soon be graduating with honors as a mechanical engineer.)

Sometimes our science-y obsessions are entirely nonsense, such as a typical dinner table conversation about how many citrus batteries it might take to start a car. Ideas were proposed for this never-to-occur project, including the use of lemon juice instead of whole fruit.

Sometimes that science is pseudo-educational, such as the time we swabbed between our toes and let the bacteria grow in petri dishes. The “winner’s” dish had such virulent growth that she felt sure it deserved to live. She gave it a name and tried feeding it extra glucose and agar. It quite effectively kept her siblings out of her room. I insisted she throw it away when it began creeping past the lid. I am still blamed for the demise of this biological fright.

raising kids to love science,
A glorious backyard arachnid/ (image: L. Weldon)

Sometimes it goes on and on. My offspring seem driven to find out. They can’t spot a spider without observing it, wanting to identify it, and then going on about the hydraulic features that are basic arachnid operating equipment. Then there was a certain months-long project that involved observing and sketching the decomposition of a muskrat. They have to discuss all possible angles of a problem, often in such depth that my far more superficial mind drifts off. They tend to walk into a room announcing odd factoids which invariably leads to strange conversations about recently de-classified Russian research, turbocharged engines, or riparian ecology. Or all three. Woe to me if I question a postulate put forth by one of my kids. They will entertain my doubts playfully, as a cat toys with a mouse, then bombard me with facts proving their points. Lots of facts. I’ve tried to uphold my side in science disputes but it’s like using a spork to battle a light saber.

making math relevant, raising young scientists,

Other family homes probably have video game controllers. Our house has stacks of books and periodicals (who took the neutrino issue of New Scientist, someone yells); tubs overflowing with one son’s beakers, tubing, and flasks; culturing products in the kitchen (like the jar with a note that says “Leave me alone, I am becoming sauerkraut”); and random sounds of saws, welders, and air compressors as something entirely uncommon is being constructed or deconstructed. I know other families have nice normal pictures on their refrigerators. Ours tends to post odd information. The longest-running fridge feature here is a card listing the head circumference of every person in the family.

Then there’s the front yard. A headstone leans by the garage door. It’s not left over from Halloween. Our youngest is teaching himself stone carving using hand tools. This stemmed from his interest in ancient Norse language and myth and lifestyles. That led to a study of runes, leading to old runic carvings, well, you get the idea. He’s already carved runes in a few stones. So of course his brother got him a headstone as a birthday gift. Entirely natural.

Handmade Trumpet Man, yes, still wearing a Santa hat. (image: L. Weldon)
Handmade Trumpet Man, yes, still wearing a Santa hat. (image: L. Weldon)

Also in the yard, a giant sculpture another son welded out of scrap metal. He’s never taken a welding course, or an art course for that matter. No problem. He measured his own limbs to translate into the correct human form. We call the resulting sculpture our Trumpet Man.

And recently my daughter spent the afternoon in front of the house cleaning an entire deer skeleton she found in our woods. She was entirely happy identifying bones, scrubbing, and assembling it into the likeness of a very hungry  deer. (Maybe our front yard is why our mail carrier seems a little wary.)

Sure, my kids have known from their earliest days that I have a bias toward learning. They know I’m much less likely to nag them if they’re reading or working on a project of their own because I don’t want to mess with anyone’s state of flow.  My kids are much more science-savvy than I’ll ever be, but more importantly, they’re capable Makers and doers eager to get their hands into whatever they want to learn.

Laura is the author of a poetry collection titled Tending and Free Range Learning, a handbook of natural learning. She lives on a small farm notable only for its lovestruck goose.