Sunday, October 8, 2017

Slime & The Scientific Method

I'm taking a break from the formal science lab and bringing it all home on this long, rainy weekend! 

If you parent a child under the age of 14, you’re likely cohabitating with a good deal of slime. No doubt, it has consumed all the glue you bought at the start of the year, emptied your shaving cream stock and caused your supply of Tupperware to vanish. Like me, you may reach your wits’ end when recognizing slime “tracks” behind the microwave, above your kitchen faucet, and in multiple compartments of your refrigerator/freezer.

So what’s the upside to this daily sacrifice (apart from continual smiles and squeals of joy)!?!

Your child is living - and learning deeply - the scientific method. Yes, the scientific method! It’s how we humans have learned everything we know for millennia. How to crawl, speak, eat with our hands and kick a soccer ball squarely into the net has all been the result of considerable trial, error, frustration, reflection, planning, re-planning, and deliberate practice.

“Mom, we had an EPIC slime fail!  It was SO COOL!"

As a teacher working to help high school students re-learn the valuable role of failure in personal satisfaction and academic success, this was music to my ears. 

“Sounds exciting! Tell me about it..."

The narrative that unfolded next followed a highly dramatic arc, driven by detailed descriptions of her most recent slime experiments. The climax of the story was, of course, a recounting of today’s epic failure, with the resolution hinging entirely on the little learner’s ability to reflect, change course, and re-do the experiment. I know, right? All the things….

As we continue our guided research course with high school students, I still marvel at the degree to which they mature in such a short period of time. In a matter of months, they transition from wide-eyed students awaiting direction, answers, and wisdom from "others" to young scholars nimble in evidence-based reasoning, willing to interpret their own observations, and open to revising their experimental plans where necessary. They've re-acclimated themselves to a healthy dose of daily failure in order to assess what's working, what's not and what to do about it. And along the way, they've become ready to take the riskiest but most satisfying step of all: self-authorship of their own ideas.

In our lab, we define self-authorship as the communication of one's own observations and data in support of an original academic claim that has been both interrogated and justified in light of existing published literature. 

For years, I've wondered EXACTLY HOW they become ready to self-author at such a young age. And whether there are specific experiences that prepare and encourage them especially well to take this next step. In other words,

What helps our students stretch towards - and reach - this “sweet spot” of academic maturation? 

After studying our students' reflections, in which they describe the paths of their own growth as thinkers, writers and experimentalists, using specific examples from their own work as supporting evidence, I now wonder whether it may be the entire research process itself, with its inherent experiences of failure and recovery from start to finish, that drives this formative academic leap.

I also can't help but wonder whether it's possible to raise a generation of kids who never lose their comfort with the scientific method in the first place, obviating the need to completely relearn the value of failure on the road to finding their sweet spot.

Slime to the rescue?

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