Learning Science at Home
Homes are special places of discovery, abounding with scientific phenomena and engineering marvels. Homes are places where student sensemaking and problem-finding are king; and intergenerational learning of science—where all generations can learn together (Lawson et al, 2019)—is common. A home* is a place where anyone with a question can be a scientist.
Mom, who invented the internet and how does it work?
Dad, what is a “smart home?”
Aunt Aliya, where did the water go after the rain stopped?
Uncle Bo, when does the sun rise in the winter?
Nana, why do clothes dry when you hang them outside?
Jackie, how does the elevator in our apartment know where to stop?
Learning at Home During COVID-19
COVID-19 has put renewed focus on the importance of learning from home. When the 2020-2021 school year started, 39 of the nation’s 50 largest school systems—affecting more than 6.1 million students—were among those that chose a distance learning instructional model (Education Week, 2020). Some chose a hybrid model that combined remote learning—where students learn at home—and in-class learning in various forms (SSEC, 2020).
When schools first closed in March 2020 due to COVID-19, most education organizations around the globe, including the Smithsonian Institution, supported distance learning by providing comprehensive links to learning resources for educators, students, and caregivers across all disciplines and domains. The Smithsonian’s Learning Lab and its Distance Learning websites are good examples.
Learning Science and Engineering at Home Through Sensemaking and Problem-Finding
Students need to talk about their ideas and what they are thinking when engaged in K-12 science and engineering at school or at home. Educators call this “student sensemaking,” which entails being active, self-conscious, motivated, and purposeful in the world (Fitzgerald, 2019; Morrison & Rhinehart, 2017; Weick, 1995). A good example of academic sensemaking at home can be seen in this at-home activity from the Smithsonian Science Education Center where students explain why their shadow is shorter sometimes and longer other times. Caregivers help young students engage in sensemaking by eliciting students’ ideas about their shadow, encouraging students to make a model to explain their shadow observations, and asking students to evaluate their model using evidence from a simulation of sunlight on the National Mall.
When engaged in engineering at home, young students should focus on problem-finding as well as problem-solving. Students engage in the engineering design process by observing, making, designing, and testing solutions to problems with simple objects from home in hand, making mistakes, iterating, and adjusting their design. For example, Smithsonian Science for Makerspaces is a series of free engineering design challenges for students to engage with emerging technologies through hands-on learning. Inspired by Smithsonian Science for the Classroom, these activities bridge formal classroom-based science education and the makerspace movement with at-home learning by helping students in grades K-5 engage with digital and physical technologies within the context of science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM).
The Role of Culture, Context, and Place in Learning Science at Home
Learning science at home should promote observation of scientific phenomenon in the natural world; encourage student sensemaking, wonder, and problem-finding; and promote scientific discourse between parent and child, often in the context of home culture (Aikenhead, 1996; Rodriguez & Bell, 2018; Solomon, 2003). The stronger the connection between the scientific idea and the context in which it is taught, the stronger the understanding (Wynne, 1989; Ziman, 1991). This is why at-home “place-based” science learning is so important (Bell, Morrison, & Debarger, 2015; O’Donnell, 2020). It promotes learning that is rooted in what is local to the family. For example, a 5th grader studying the science of sugars and starches might discuss their cultural experiences with corn and share stories of family meals. An engineering design project might involve designing a new composting bin for the home based on cultural norms for food preparation.
There’s value in becoming scientifically literate regardless of who you are, where you learn, what questions you ask, or how you engage. No matter what resources you use, success of at-home science learning should promote practical hands-on activities that use materials found in the home, focus on familiar scientific phenomenon that encourage student sensemaking, and be grounded in place, culture, and context to strengthen intergenerational learning of science—where all generations can learn together.
*The author acknowledges that “home” is broadly defined as the place where the child and his/her caregiver reside; in addition, the term “caregiver” is used broadly to include parents and all others who care for children at “home”.
Aikenhead, G.S. (1996). Science education: Border crossing into the subculture of science. Studies in Science Education, 27, 1–52.
Bell, P., Morrison, D., & Debarger, A. (2015). Practice Brief #31: How to launch STEM investigations that build on student and community interests and expertise. Teaching Tools for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) Education. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Institute for Science + Math Education. Available: http://stemteachingtools.org/brief/31
Fitzgerald, M. S., & Palinscar, A S. (2019). Teaching practices that support student sensemaking across grades and disciplines: A conceptual review. Review of Research in Education, (43)1, 227-248.d Available: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.3102/0091732X18821115
Lawson, D. F., Stevenson, K. T., Peterson, M. N., Carrier, S. J., Strnad, R. L., & Seekamp, E. (2019). Children can foster climate change concern among their parents. Nature Climate Change (9), 458-462.
Morrison, D. & Rhinehart, A. (2017). Practice Brief #48: How can teachers guide classroom conversations to support students’ science learning? Teaching Tools for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) Education. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Institute for Science + Math Education. Available: http://stemteachingtools.org/brief/48
O’Donnell, C. (2020). What Does High-Quality Science Teaching and Learning Look Like? Using Real-World Problems to Drive Student Learning Through Integrated Hands-on and Digital Experiences. Dallas Fort Worth, TX: Metroplex Area Science Supervisors Meeting. Available: https://ssec.si.edu/sites/default/files/2019_Freshwater_USE.pdf
Rodriguez, A. J., & Bell, P. (2018). Practice Brief #55: Why is it crucial to make cultural diversity visible in STEM education? Teaching Tools for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) Education. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Institute for Science + Math Education. Available: http://stemteachingtools.org/brief/55
Solomon, J. (2003). Home-school learning of science: The culture of homes, and pupils’ difficult border crossing. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 40(2), 219-233.