When you put together Teja and children, something thought-provoking will happen. Teja believes in teaching science to very young children. So she designed science clubs for primary schools. The first results are promising. Teja will share her experience with teachers in Erasmus+ course Science for primary school children: when complicated becomes fun and easily understandable. Teja Bajt is a biologist with a master of research degree in molecular and cellular biology, awarded from University of Birmingham, UK. In years working in different research institutes in Slovenia, Italy and United Kingdom she gained valuable knowledge in how the research world works and obtained a first-hand experience in conducting scientific experiments. Now she uses this knowledge to inspire young children. We spoke with her about the science clubs for children and about myths connected with teaching science to young learners.
This year you started with your science clubs for 6 to 10 years old children. I heard that even parents want to join this club. What are the first results of this project?
Yes, even the parents said they would be more than happy to learn about science and STEM in this way, through practical hands-on experiments. When they come to pick up their children, after the lesson is over, children often go out of the classroom to bring the waiting parents inside and show them what they were doing that hour and they make their parents try the experiments by themselves. Usually, the children are then amused, because their parents do not do so well as children did. Of course, the reality is they were doing that for the past hour and they got skilled by practicing.
The first results can definitely be already seen. One of our main goals of this science clubs was to show children that STEM is not difficult, if only presented in an interesting manner and that children can do the difficult experiments entirely by themselves. At the beginning, when they started the programme, they were shy and unsure in themselves, but with a lot of encouragement, positive teaching approach and with increasing the difficulty of experiments from lesson to lesson children started to believe in themselves.
How does your science clubs look like?
In our science clubs there are children from 6 to 10 years of age. The science club takes place once a week, for one school hour. Well, at least theoretically the science club lesson should take one school hour. But children get so excited, they do not want to go home and therefore, we usually stay for longer.
In each group there are up to 12 children and there are always two instructors (teachers) present, who are there to help them during the experimental procedures. At the beginning of each science lesson the young scientists are confronted with a problem to which we need to find a solution to or to test, if something will or will not work.
After that, the children conduct the experiments, by the help of instructors. The experiments are all hands-on practical experiments with basic outline mimicking the real methodology and scientific techniques used in a real “adults” science. The experimental work and the lesson course is adapted from scientific world and that is something special for children, as they do not meet this kind of work flow in their everyday life. Through practical experiments the young scientists gather results, leading to the scientific conclusions, enhancing their knowledge of the topic. The lesson wraps up with the summary of the results, like in the real science world.
What exactly do you teach such young children?
We teach them about different aspects of science from physics, medicine, biology, chemistry, geology, etc. But most importantly, we are trying to make them realise, that the science is all around us and inside of us, so there is nothing difficult about that. We also teach them that, if you work towards your goals you always get the result.
Can you share one experiment with us?
I will share the last experiment we did in this school year. In Slovenia we have a nice warm weather and for the last science club lesson we wanted to make it special for the children. Therefore, we decided to make an ice-cream in a scientific way. We did not use the refrigerator or freezer.
When confronted with the idea of making the ice-cream without using the refrigerator or freezer, the children were very sceptical, if it is going to work. They said, it is a shame, because they would love to eat it.
Therefore, we started mixing cream with cocoa, vanilla etc. Than when the mixture had the perfect taste for each child, we took ice cubes and place them into a plastic bag. Than we added a lot of salt. The children fast grasped, that we added salt, because the salt will melt the ice cubes faster, like in the winter, when the roads get sprinkled with salt so the ice does not form. And this is what we wanted. We wanted that they connect their knowledge interdisciplinary to other things they already know – ice-cream making to icy roads in the winter. In this way, they remember more.
When they were eating their ice-cream, we had a discussion about the freezing point and what does that mean and what does the salt really do from a scientific point of view. At the end of the lesson each child successfully made and eat his ice-cream and went home with the new knowledge about the freezing point of water.
Do you teach them or they teach you?
Well, that is definitely an interesting question. We teach them, but they definitely teach us too. It is highly interesting to see how such young children engage in such scientific tasks and to see how even such young children get their own result and hypothesis by themselves. They are definitely able to think in a scientific way, if you only let them. But I must say, they have taught me a lot. The most important confirmation I got during this time, was that do not underestimate the children’s mind and capabilities. If you let your mind open and you treat them as if they were adults, you will be surprised of how much they can achieve.
How children change across the set of sessions in science clubs? How they act on the first and the last session?
They become more self-confident, they believe they can do even the hardest things. They do not fear to talk in public anymore. Few of our young scientists had an issue of speaking in public, meaning they were afraid of reading in from of the class in school. When they had to do it, they froze and nothing came out of their mouth. After few months being the part of science club these children are so confident they volunteer by themselves to report results to the class and that includes speaking in front of the science club classmates. That is something I personally take as an achievement of this science club.
At the beginning of the science club they were shy and unsure. They have given up quickly when they were given tasks, they were impatient. Now the story has changed. I was amazed to see children sit and observe the experiment, while taking notes, for 20 minutes. For 20 minutes they sat in silence and watched carefully, what it is going to happen to their experiment. My assistant Tanja and I, were a little bit sceptical, if we can make 6 and 7 year olds to sit and observe for so long. But then I said to Tanja, we must try and see, as I believe they can do it and they did. With the correct motivation you can achieve miracles with them. Now the biggest issue of our young scientist is, that the school is ending and they go on the summer break. Meaning, the science club is going on a break too. They want to come to the science club in the summer as well, as they said, 2 months is way too long period to be without science club.
Why science matters for young children?
Science matters for such small children as they develop a different mind-set. They get use to the critical way of thinking, the scientific way of thinking that is. They do not take things for granted, they think things through by themselves and do not get bothered by others opinion. Moreover, they start to understand that without science our world today would not exist, as science gave us a lot of inventions we know today. At the first science club lesson, when we asked children, what has science gave us, they usually say the light-bulbs and then they cannot think of something else. Now, they understand that science gave us thing we use every day such us: computers, phones, cameras, microwaves, health treatments, medicines, etc. So science matters for young children so they develop a different perspective of a world around them.
In your experience working with teachers, what are some of the common science myths which prevent schools from engaging more in teaching science such young children?
The biggest myth is that the children are too young to understand science phenomenons and that science is way too complicated to be learnt at this stage. That is a myth that has to be confronted and erased from our way of thinking. Children can learn science at this age, any age basically, if it is only presented in appropriate manner according to their age. Children can easily understand science, because this science clubs have a different approach that is an experimental, hands-on approach. And by doing things by yourself you learn more, you remember more and you understand things. Like Albert Einstein said: “Anyone can know, the point is to understand” these children at this age understand, they do not only know. And my heart sings when parents come to me and explain in what details children go when explaining scientific facts of that day’s experiment at home. I believe schools should overcome such myths and start teaching children science very early on.
In January 2017 you also lead an Erasmus+ course entitled Science for primary school children: when complicated becomes fun and easily understandable. The course is intended for teachers. What will they gain out of the course?
The teachers will get an insight in our science clubs and can take home all the knowledge we have gained so far working with our young scientists. My assistant Tanja is a primary school teacher by education and heart, and when I asked her to join the science club team, she was very happy to have this opportunity, as like she said, she has learned to work with children in completely different way. Different way than she was thought in the university and she also believes this knowledge is transferable to teaching approaches in schools and I could not agree more. Therefore, I think teachers will benefit from this course by learning new approaches from someone whose mind is set to more of a scientific way of thinking and who wants to pass that way of thinking to everyone willing to learn. Besides the new knowledge, the teachers will also receive a lesson plans to take to their school with them and to maybe try the experiments with their children in class. Maybe, if I am lucky enough, I will inspire some teachers to start their own science clubs themselves and start the new generation of scientists themselves in their own countries.