Amateur Science

Science for children should be amateur science.

The scientists who laid the foundations of our understanding of electricity, anatomy, force, motion, evolution or astronomy spent most of their lifetimes searching – with the most rudimentary equipment – for patterns of predictability in the world (or cosmos). Many were wealthy or had wealthy patrons. Some pursued knowledge for fame, some for noble reasons, some for the love of the chase itself. They were almost all amateurs.

Then and now, most scientists begin their quest from within the boundaries of the prevailing ideology or paradigm. Expanding the paradigm – and especially breaking out of it – is impossible without devotion to (love of) truth. Professional or not, true seekers are also amateurs.


Children’s early experiences in science cannot be so intense, but science that is free from academic pressures, and academic knowledge, offers children the chance to explore the world playfully from within their paradigm and to love both the chase and the prize.

Early science should be appealing and challenging – qualities that are inextricably interwoven. Explorations that are grounded in conceptually transparent stuff – materials or things that are familiar and about which the children already have some ideas – leave space for inventions and creativity. Pipes carry water; batteries make electricity; soap makes bubbles; frogs jump and eat flies. But what else can these things do, what else can you do with them, and what patterns or processes connect our effort with their outcomes. Children love such challenges (games) because they are their own reward.

A challenge in afterschool science is a carefully designed task that channels effort towards an appealing goal. Make water flow uphill! Make light bulbs come on. Discover what kind of flies frogs prefer; how big a bubble can be. The challenge begins playfully, but soon demands close observation, testing, planning and reflection. The end-point is defined but not the means. The reward is the achieving and the doing.

All children face challenges: eventually we hope they will define their own. To build the skills and desire to meet these head-on, we begin with enticing, age-appropriate and achievable projects that stretch them just enough that they feel they have succeeded at something important – and loved it.

A Caring Heart and a Tough Hide

Almost any adult with a caring heart, an inquiring mind and a tough hide can lead rich and creative science explorations with children – provided they have good curriculum, adequate training and a supportive infrastructure. I’m not talking about AP physics, but about simple, rich, hands-on projects that get children excited about science and that start building essential skills that may lead them one day to give that AP class a try.

But before a child chooses serious science study she must first see herself as a person who does science (could one day be a scientist.) All children deserve to know what that feels like – to experience joyful immersion in important (to them) challenges that flex their intellectual and science (process) muscles – whether they end up choosing to do so professionally or not.

In the series 365 Words about Everyday Science, I share stories and conclusions from twenty years as an afterschool “science guy,” science curriculum developer, professional developer, and the parent of an inquisitive young boy. I’ll describe what good after school science looks like and how it can energize and support formal science learning. I’ll suggest goals that are appropriate and achievable. I’ll describe the support informal educators need to do the job well and I’ll suggest how to make affordable and interesting science available to vastly more children. I’ll identify challenges and suggest solutions for high quality implementation, and describe the enormous benefits to children when skillfully led science becomes a staple of afterschool programming.

My focus is on science in afterschool (or out-of-school) programs because that is where we find the children who need inspiration and skills most of all. Afterschool is generally a safe and stable place where skilled and caring adults build relationships with young people who are under served and under performing in other realms. The very mission of the institution is to develop confidence, skill and self-efficacy. It is not, nor should become, an academic environment. Though few afterschool staff have strong science backgrounds, I have seen a great many translate their youth development skills and caring attitudes into high quality project-based science facilitation. And that makes a difference in the lives of the children they serve.

Engaging, Challenging and Fun: Thermometers

Science for children should be engaging, relaxed, challenging and fun. Sadly, most science in elementary schools is none of these anymore. It’s mostly a 43-minutes-a-week phenomenon; heavily text-based and largely mandated to cover the standards. Science has become the backwater of formal elementary education and state testing is unlikely to encourage the qualities mentioned. No Child Left Behind is leaving almost all children behind in science.

No one is more harmed by this than children from minority and less affluent communities – groups that are chronically absent from the lucrative science trades and professions and showing few signs of catching up.


Some years ago, I led an afterschool science project with elementary kids in a working class Boston neighborhood. I had the kids build “houses” from cardboard boxes and heat them with a 40W light bulb. The challenge was to stop the heat escaping and see how hot they could get the inside – some reached 120oF. On another visit, I gave out 100W bulbs. The new challenge was to make the boxes (now ovens) so heat tight (more insulation) that the temperature would reach 300o. It did and we baked cookies!

But before starting on the houses/ovens projects, I gave out inexpensive alcohol thermometers and asked the kids to find the hottest and coolest places in the room. They measured the temperature of hot and cold tap water, their hands, melting ice water and more. They did this for almost an hour, obviously having fun while getting used to this simple (but sadly unfamiliar) tool: matching the different temperatures (numbers) with an experience.


By odd coincidence – really – my then 3rd grade son brought home a worksheet from school that evening. On it was a large picture of a thermometer and five or six questions – answered neatly – about the temperature of boiling and freezing water and I forget what else.

Oh my gosh, I said. I was just doing the same thing with kids in Boston. Was it fun? Did they really let you measure boiling water?

Dad! he said, they didn’t give us a thermometer.

You’re kidding, right? I said. But he had moved on by then.

So much for engagement, challenge and fun!

Game over after 8th grade?

Interest in science careers at 8th grade is the strongest predictor that a student will graduate from college with a science degree. Interest handily beats being good at science at that age and massively beats not interested at all!

Apparently, 70% of engineers are related to another engineer – interest is evidently reinforced by family connections. It’s probably true for most “science” professions, but African Americans and Latino – who are significantly under represented in the science workforce – presumably develop less of this homegrown interest.

In our increasingly technology-based economy, workers with science skills command higher pay. So, early interest in science could make all the difference to life-long earnings. How then to interest the not interested.

The record shows it’s not happening much in elementary school. And high school science seems designed to filter uninterested students OUT rather than enticing them IN. For 8th graders who are still “not interested” – and not encouraged or driven by family or community to qualify for college level science – it’s almost certainly game over for a science career.

TV science shows, science museums and summer science programs might instill interest in some kids, but I’d guess these options disproportionately attract the already interested. For most kids, occasional exposure to science – however cool – has little impact on interest level or self-definition.

Afterschool science can redress this interest deficit because it can reach a high proportion of the kids who need it most. Frequent, playful and well-led projects can expose children to basic science ideas and processes and plant the notion – for them and their families – that they can become “scientists” one day. Engaging, meaningful and unpressured science should be a staple of afterschool programming, building confidence, skills – and interest – that might get minority kids aware of their potential and into the game.

It’s like Head Start – early intervention has the greatest impact.

Afterschool science needs strong state, federal and corporate support to train youth workers and science volunteers everywhere to lead age-appropriate and enjoyable science projects with the kids who aren’t giving science a second look – which is most of them.

75% of Nobel scientists trace their interest in science to early out-of-school experiences. We should be giving all kids such a start.

©2011 Charlie Hutchison

Widgets & Water buffaloes

I didn’t make this up! Really!

I’ve said elsewhere that I prefer simple materials for everyday science (and play) – dowels, clay, cardboard, plastic tubing, batteries, wire, balls – light bulbs and buzzers too. Things that don’t have just one way you are supposed to use them. And I’m no fan of computerized science and engineering toys. Too expensive, and not much room for creativity.

But the appeal of well-designed (and colorful) mechanical or modular toys is understandable. Toy companies have long profited from the thrill of remote control, or the easy fit of neatly interlocking blocks. But I love it when children break the rules – recombine the pieces, and let their imaginations override the blueprint.


By chance, when visiting friends some years ago, we arrived to find their 6 year-old son and his Dad assembling the interlocking sections of a plastic trucks-on-tracks kit complete with remote controls and other impressive widgets. They were frustrated at that moment because they could not find the “yellow segments” that the plans called for next. The Dad soon withdrew and my son (Oliver, also 6) joined in tentatively with the project. But the boys were still somewhat shy with one another and didn’t engage much at first.

After a while, Oliver moved a few feet from the other boy and began making sculptures out of unused sections of the kit. Soon he had made something I said looked like a water buffalo. He said it was half Pokémon, half monster, half dragon and half spaceship! He was extremely proud of his creation, and notwithstanding the math, I was impressed.

By the evening’s end the boys were happily playing some horrible video game on the couch together. But before they got to that point, Oliver had made some more sculptures and his friend had found the yellow bits and completed the truck structure. For a while they both enjoyed sending the garbage trucks crashing to the floor again and again.

Then, glancing admiringly at the Monster Space Pokémon Buffalo and back to his trucks, the friend said, talking to no one in particular: “You know, even when this thing is working fine, it’s not all that interesting, actually!”

Sweet! (I thought.)

©2011 Charlie Hutchison

Materials for Afterschool Science

The materials for afterschool science should be simple, inexpensive and familiar. Science that depends on gadgets will not be available to children from economically stressed communities, and will limit the number and scope of science experiences children can have.

But, beyond the cost, there are other good reasons for all children to explore science with materials that are just what they seem to be – paper, clay, wheels, sticks, string, springs and batteries – nothing exotic. The outcome of just about everything you try to do or make with such materials depends on the effort and insight you bring to the task. There’s no magic inside the box that will do it for you. Success with such challenges is really satisfying: it builds confidence and changes self-perception. It develops interest in science far more deeply than pre-packaged toys and gadgets.

Take the Gliders project (Design-It!). Materials: Two small index cards, a little tape, as many paper/binder clips as your like. Challenge: Make a Glider that flies straight and far. Rule: Cards must stay flat. Don’t TEAR, FOLD, ROLL, CREASE or DEFORM them!!

Fantastical designs emerge. Most are loaded with weight (binder clips) at the nose, the back, on the wings. Some move like missiles. Few truly fly (like a bird.) Frustration rises.

I move from team to team: “How are you doing?” “What have you tried?” “What have you noticed?”

“It’s impossible,” they say. “Tell us the answer.”

“Hang in,” I say. “Have you noticed what so-and-so is trying?”

Eventually, if necessary, I launch my glider (prepared ahead.) It swoops among the children. They are amazed.

“Let me see that!”

Soon they are all copying my design. That’s ok: it’s not the end of the process. There’s still much to discover about how to make it fly straighter or father: wing shape, weight, placement of weight, launch technique. Later, we add a tail (drinking straw, extra card.) Still more testing. Soon all the gliders are truly flyingon the air, not against it. Next, bigger wings (larger index cards) and a then catapult launcher (rubber band, cardboard.)

Everyone has fun. Everyone succeeds. And gradually they learn to pay attention to how they solved the problems.

That’s science!

©2011 Charlie Hutchison