There is a problem in the education of children, and its nothing to do with the “No Child Left Behind” policy or funding levels. It is with the way elementary science is taught. Based on web searches of curricula around the country, science topics and examples seem to have a high profile in classroom activities. For example, weather, transportation, plants and so on are used in mini-projects to motivate journaling, thinking, communication and enriching the student’s knowledge literacy of the world.
This emphasis on literacy is also the problem. While science topics feed developing literacy skills, there appears to be no attempt to integrate them with numeracy skills. Numeracy skills, like basic arithmetic, need to be evaluated in standardized tests but are poorly motivated in most classrooms.
Here are some examples of how science topics can be used to motivate numeracy skills, here are things I am doing with first graders.
- The balance beam. Using a domino as a fulcrum, a 12in ruler and Lego blocks, put a cross on graph paper where the numbers of blocks needed on each side balance. The number of blocks on the right hand side goes on the X-axis and the number of blocks on the left hand side on the Y-axis. Draw a straight line through the crosses.
- Balance beam doubling. Perform the same experiment, only placing the blocks on one side at half the distance from the fulcrum (i.e. at 9in instead of 12in). Talk about doubling.
- The weighing scale. Give each child a small spring scale to record the weights of various items in the classroom.
- Then make your own spring scale by attaching a ‘slinky’ to the ceiling resting against wall. Students then calibrate the scale, by marking the length extension from a known weight on the graph paper, and drawing a line from the origin through the calibration point. Weight other items and validate accuracy using the spring scales.
- Electricity. Give each student a battery, a piece of wire and a light bulb and ask them to make the bulb light. After they have worked that out, give them another battery — the brightness doubles. Talk about doubling, circuits.
- The triangle inequality. Get them to draw a triangle with sides of length 3in, 4in and 5in. Make up maths facts with these numbers and point out that the length of one side is always shorter that the sum of the lengths of the other two sides — the triangle inequality.
Working with graph paper is a wonderful aid to communicating numeracy skills. The exercises above lead to more advanced topics like linear regression models, prediction, nonlinearity and statistics.
Sometimes an outsider can see things in a way that people immersed in daily activities can’t. A scientist is as much an applied mathematician as a writer and a thinker. If we want to make our children internationally competitive, then I think that numeracy skills need to be better integrated from the earliest possible age. Natural science is OK. Growing plants, and keeping pets is OK. But it seems to me this is already being done. Motivation of numeracy is not.
The exercises above work with first graders, but could be used at any elementary level. For the younger classes it would be best to have an assistant for 1-on-1 help. By volunteering in the classroom once a week and running one of these exercises for half an hour, the teacher has material for motivating numeracy AND literacy skills for the rest of the week. It is also a good idea to go through it with the teacher first, as some may not be able to do things like light a bulb with a wire and a battery first time around.
Above all, thinking, “How can I attach numbers to this exercise?” will support and motivate the childs interest in mathematics. For example, when doing weather, use a barometer and a thermomenter and record changes, measure rainfall with a rain gauge. When doing earth and space science, calculate how many hours in a day using a sundial. When doing plants, measure how tall it grows in different environments. When doing geology, order rocks and minerals according to their hardness. The motivation for science is not climate change and recycling — it is quantification of our world.