Teach your children science

Alom Shaha
Opinion - Children Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Alom Shaha hopes that his new book will help families appreciate the wonders of science together

When scientists are asked what inspired their career choices, they tend to fall into two groups: people who claim they always had a drive to understand the natural world (and have stories about how they did experiments in their parents' garages); and those who credit "a good teacher". I fall into the latter camp - I took no interest in science until I was about 14, when I finally had science teachers who made me see the joy and wonder in the subject.

I'd grown up lacking "science capital", a concept analogous to cultural capital. According to social scientists, it "helps shed light on why particular social groups remain underrepresented in post-16 science, and why many young people do not see science careers as being 'for me', nor see themselves as a 'science person'". Science played no part in my early life at home. There were no doctors or engineers in my family, no trips to the science museum, no gazing at the stars with parents who knew the names of the constellations, not even any dinosaur toys or Lego. The research would suggest that someone like me had a low probability of going into a career related to science; and yet somehow I've done exactly that, thanks to my secondary school science teachers.

I didn't realise it until years later, but my teachers didn't just instil me with a love of science, they were the role models for what I would end up doing for most of my career: teaching. When the publishers of Mr Shaha's Recipes for Wonder asked me for a biography, I eschewed the term "scientist" in favour of "science teacher", because it's what I've learned about teaching, more than what I've learned about science, that I really want to share with parents who might buy my book. I want to encourage parents, even those with little or no knowledge of science, to become their children's first science teachers.

Many parents read to their children and help them take their first steps towards literacy. They teach them how to count and do simple sums, do arts and crafts, and sing, listen to music, and dance. But I suspect far fewer parents are responsible for their children's first genuine engagement with science. Of course, there are lots of "science activity" books out there for parents who are keen and interested, and I read many of them before sitting down to write my own. Most of these books do the same thing: provide the reader with instructions for how to recreate exciting phenomena, such as inflating a balloon using baking soda and vinegar, and then provide "scientific" explanations of the phenomena. To me, it seemed these books had a very limited idea of what constitutes doing "science". With Mr Shaha's Recipes for Wonder, I wanted to do more than provide the kind of step-by-step instructions you can find in countless other books: I wanted to equip parents with the skills they need to help their children engage more deeply with scientific ways of thinking.

I appreciate that some people are turned off science by their experiences at school, while others may be put off by its apparent complexity or lack of relevance to their daily lives. With Mr Shaha's Recipes for Wonder, I'm hopeful that I can help such people to re-engage with science so they can help their own children get the most out of what the subject has to offer. I firmly believe that science can enrich our lives as much as literature, art, or music can, when we approach it in a way that is appropriate to our own needs and wants.

The book has been written and designed to help adults help children to observe and consider the world scientifically - by encouraging them to look at things more closely, ask good questions, and learn some of the answers science has given us. In other words, using the book properly should ensure that children are "minds on" as well as "hands on" when carrying out the experiments in it. I've personally tried out every activity in the book and included my thoughts on why that particular activity is a good one to do, just as a chef might explain why a particular recipe is worth cooking.

I want parents reading the book to gain the confidence to do science-based activities with their children, regardless of their own levels of science education. Taking the approach I suggest, any parent should be able to help their child gradually internalise scientific ways of thinking. My ultimate hope is that, just as a good cookbook can provide recipes to bring the family together over a meal, Mr Shaha's Recipes for Wonder will bring families together through science.

Scribe publishes Mr Shaha's Recipes for Wonder: Adventures in Science Round the Kitchen Table, illustrated by Emily Robertson, on 8 March. British Science Week runs from 9-18 March.

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