Sunday, August 19, 2012

Science at home

Did you know that in Australia, right now, as we speak, it is National Science Week?? Well, it is!

National Science Week is designed to celebrate science in Australia - to enjoy and explore the wonders of science!

What does that mean for us homeschoolers? I think we are in a unique position - for us, science easily becomes "wonderful". But I also think a lot of homeschooling parents are a bit frightened of science, particularly in the high school years. I've been reading feedback from parents considering homeschooling on forums, and one of their concerns is that their kids won't get the same "quality" science education at home as you do in school.

But fear not! In a past life, I was a high school science teacher! So I thought today I would share with you some ideas, links and experiences for doing science at home!

As you are no doubt aware, there are as many ways to homeschool as there are homeschoolers. So, your approach to science is going to differ, depending on your homeschool outlook.

Purchased curriculum/kits:
There is a lot of science curriculum out there, which sets out topic by topic, a list of knowledge and activities for you to do at home - suitable for those that err more towards a school at home approach or if you really remember nothing about science from your own school days and the prospect of science freaks you out. Text books would also fit in this genre. The big elephant in the room is whether you opt for a secular or Christian approach. We are pretty secular here and as a scientist, I've seen some fairly "dodgy" science in the name of Christianity:

The goal of this post is not to start a religion vs science debate, but just be aware that some texts have bias (especially in the areas of evolution and geological history). However some incorporate religious ideas quite well within the text, without throwing out the science.  You just need to decide what you are comfortable with in your home.

The "alternative" approaches to home ed (eg: Steiner, Classical, Charlotte Mason etc) do not have a big emphasis on science, particularly in the early years, except for perhaps nature journalling. So if you want to explore more science within these contexts (and it's one of the reasons we don't really go for them), you would have to seek out extra materials/experiences.

Some common science homeschool curriculum (mostly from the U.S.) include:
  • Noeo Homeschool Science - gets good reviews. It picks and chooses resources from multiple sources (much like I do as a teacher), so hopefully doesn't get boring and you can buy the prac kits all sealed up and ready to roll.
  • Apologia Science - Christian resource, which has a good scope and sequence (for those that like to follow along) and good pracs, with easily obtainable resources.
  • R.E.A.L Science Odyssey - Secular, homeschool-orientated with lots of hands on activities
  • Sonlight Science - Christian perspective - includes books, activity sheets, kits, DVDs, instructors manuals.

Good Australian textbooks include:
  • Pearson Ed - Australian curriculum including student books, activity books, teachers guides.
  • Science Quest - I used/use these as a teacher - lots of great pics, good questions, extension activities, good pracs.

In the later high school years, there are still plenty of ready-bought curriculum and textbooks, and even if you need full-on chemistry or physics, there are resources for you too - we have The Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments: All Lab No Lecture!

There are also growing numbers of online courses and many of the open university subjects have bridging courses in the sciences.

DIY science curriculum:
This is the approach I take (for all subjects, including science). I start with the BOS Science Syllabus (K-6 here and 7-10 here, Australian curriculum here). I go through these and get a feel for where my kids are up to. Video Boy, in particular, has a phenomenal amount of science content stored in that big brain of his, and I often have to tailor the topic to suit his huge discrepancy between what he knows and what he can do. Then I go searching for a balance of written work and hands on activities and visual learning that will suit us. My sources come from:
  • Textbooks - see above. I also have some of the student activity books linked to these, which are good for worksheets etc.
  • General science books - we particularly love the Usborne Science Encyclopedia (Internet Linked) and LOVE Horrible Science (check out eBay for cheap copies)
  • Science experiment books - you can pick these up (usually cheaply) in any bookshop or even Aldi
  • Prepared science kits - again, usually going cheap in Aldi or the Warehouse or have a look at Fizzics, Jaycar (click on Kits, Science and Learning on the left), CSIRO, or Mad About Science. Bear in mind that you are able to replicate many of these "experiments" using stuff at home for much cheaper, but you can end up with a nice collection of equipment from them.

  • Videos - we got the entire set of Magic School Bus from Scholastic, we adore Bill Nye (I may or may not have the entire series via dodgy downloads from someone else, but most are on YouTube), Khan Academy has higher level science, we have quite a few DVDs from The Great Courses and you can't go past Top Documentary Films for a range of docos on just about any science topic you care to think about!
  • Websites - just Google whatever topic you are interested in, and I usually include "teacher resources" in the search terms - it's amazing what is out there. More generally, we love ABC Science, Discovery Science, Exploratorium, and Steve Spangler.
  • Museums and Science Discovery Centres - this is obviously going to vary according to where you live. But they are a great resource and usually worth the drive. Most go out of their way to have interesting, updated, interactive hands-on displays, but don't forget to read some of the panels too - a wealth of information! Some even offer courses or special days (if you're really lucky, especially for homeschoolers!).

  • Your local library - you don't have to buy everything! Don't forget this wonderful resource for a range of topics and often they will get in books from other libraries if they don't have what you are after. For Free!
  • Lapbooks - we have discovered that lapbooks are particularly useful for recording written information as well as experiments or activities you may have done. I usually just Google "lapbook + topic" but there are a range of templates you can buy at CurrClick. If feel up to it, you can download blank templates and make your own.

Science equipment:
Most people think science and an image of a test-tube pops into your head! Whilst bunsen burners and beakers and test-tubes are firmly fixed in our memories of school science, they are not essential for science at home, although you can purchase them if you wish. Most topics have hands-on activities that can be done with basic equipment around the house (saucepans, eye-droppers, bicarb, balloons etc). 

There are science kits to explore particular topics (magnets, electronics, etc). Some of these are worthwhile and some are not. It really depends on your child's interests and how hands on they are and your budget. A lot of "experiments" can also be done virtually (eye dissection, circuits, nuclear physics, etc, etc).

A microscope is something that most families purchase eventually - we just have a cheapy that came with the Horrible Science magazine subscription, and surprisingly it works well for the level of work that we are doing. We may upgrade later...

Scientific Literacy:
I did particularly want to touch on this topic as opposed to "content" or "knowledge". Whilst kits and hands-on activities have their place (and help kinaesthetic learners), they are not necessarily "real science" or not really how science is done by real scientists. They are what I call "recipe" skills - you follow the instructions and voila! Concept demonstrated!

A big part of science is learning what actually makes something "scientific" - as opposed to belief, dogma, etc. And this is understanding the scientific method. How do we "know" what we know? How did things become "facts"? How do we understand what are dodgy claims and what is real, peer-reviewed science? This is more than just knowing the steps to doing a scientific experiment or first hand investigations - although this is a big part of it. It is understanding scientific theory and law. Understanding the work of scientists in the "real" world. The world of variables, data, analysis, research. 

Once of the best resources I know for this is Mark Hackling's publication Working Scientifically - it covers primary and secondary levels, has templates and scaffolds, and explains how science investigations work. The NSW DET's Curriculum Support Unit also has some good links for scientific literacy.

It would be great if you are trying to get your head around science for homeschooling that you spend at least a little bit of time developing your own and your child's scientific literacy - because in the end, that will enable us to think critically about the world around us (and bonus points - the data part links nicely with maths!).

Finally, the Australian Science Teachers Association produces a resource booklet each year which are very handy! This year is the Energy Evolution available as a PDF download and last year's React to Chemistry (gotta love freebies!!).

So many resources - so little time!! It can be a little overwhelming. But I would strongly encourage you to take it a topic at a time, gather info, and enjoy learning alongside your kids! There is almost nothing that is available at schools that you cannot do at home (if not better!).

Do you freak out at the thought of homeschool science?
What's your best science resource?

*Disclaimer - I have not been paid for any of the recommendations here - they are not sponsored. I have also not used all of the curriculum mentioned and cannot vouch for it's suitability for your circumstances - I'll leave that in your capable hands (although feel free to ask questions!).


  1. I love it when you write science posts :)

    This year we used Mr. Q Science, a Dorling Kindersley and a Larousse young-scientist type books, and just read How to Think Like a Scientist.

    I downloaded all the Eureka videos from YouTube for next year, and we'll be reading about The Great Scientists and Evolution.

    Thanks for all the great links!
    I'm going to go give them a look now.

    1. Oh goody! More science to find out about!! I will definitely check out How to Think Like a Scientist and the Eureka vids!

  2. Wow, this is an awesome post! We are heading off to wash the smelly dog (I know you can relate!), but when I get back I'm going to peruse this list to within an inch of its life!! Thanks so much, Ingi :)

    1. My dog is indeed at that smelly stage, Helena - how did you know? Glad to help out my friend!

  3. Ingi, thanks so much for this overview. As an ex-scientist myself I have found covering science with my 10 year old son quite challenging. It's almost as if as soon as I label something as 'science' he decides he's not going to do it. I considered buying the Noeo curriculum but it just felt like a lot of money to pay for something I could knock up myself if I really put the time and effort into it. Not that I have very much time on my hands of course! Anyway, I've finally found that I can appeal to his love of watching videos to satisfy that part of the curriculum. He loves Mythbusters and Backyard Science and we've just subscribed to the Happy Scientist as well. But those are just a jumping-off point. I completely agree with you about most activities being 'recipes' rather than really introducing children to the scientific method. So thanks so much for the Mark Hackling and NSW DET links, which I have now bookmarked.

    1. It's amazing how many ways you can butt heads with your child, isn't it? I have to be careful, because VB frequently already knows much of the content (the organelle in a cell that breaks down things - lysosomes!) and he really hates written work, so I can totally relate!

  4. Ingi
    Keen scientific minds here, in particular we have explored lots of great science videos including ones you've shared, and lots of 'living' science books including lots of biographies and jumping from there. Library has some great resources. currently all our boys are very keen on watching these videos about each element of the periodic table. I'm astounded at what they have learnt

    1. I forgot Poriodic Videos! We LOVE them! And that Professor is the coolest - I know one family who emailed him and he emailed back and they met him when he came out to Australia! I should read more biographies - I think that would be a great way to discover more about the shoulders of giants :-)

  5. Thanks for the great links. You've inspired me to dust off our Great Courses collection. Today we started "Black Holes Explained". Over my head (by miles) so it's great for the boys to hear someone who knows what they're talking about.

    You're the one who pointed us to the Minute Physics videos awhile back, another fun resource.

    1. Minute Physics rocks - we spent some of yesterday "catching up" with their new vids. Also WG found VSauce - fab vids there too.

  6. And looky what I just found - 8 science apps:

  7. And this! 27 places (not all physical) to get a science education:


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