Science Resources

Background

While we are both scientists by training, we did not begin any formal education of our son on the subject of science until Year 7 (age 12-13). Informally, of course, much of the way we approached many aspects of life, for better or worse, was inherently scientific. I had, however, been particularly unimpressed by the way that science was being increasingly, simplistically presented as a 'gee-whizz' subject to the population in general. Within the context of all the fuss over our changing climate, I was also unimpressed by the emphasis placed on so-called 'scientific facts', with very little discussion of the essential, objective manner in which 'scientific facts' should be derived.

Overall, I felt that the essential nature of scientific endeavour was being lost in the effort to present the subject in a simplified and 'relevant' context, in the way that much of true education is being lost through an emphasis on vocational training (i.e. teaching only the so-called relevant aspects of a subject, rather than providing a less immediately relevant, but broader foundation for subsequent development).

Goals

My primary goals were two-fold. First, I believe that one must develop an ability to observe one's environment objectively. This is in direct contrast with much of the current, popular thrust towards offering one's, essentially subjective, opinion on a subject. Second, and this is always the hard bit, one must populate a 'personal database' with (i.e. learn!) the scientific data that has already been accumulated. The one without the other, is not of great benefit. All the data in the world is of little value if it cannot be interpreted objectively, and all the objectivity in the world is of little use if we fail to recognise what we see. While we actively encouraged our son to observe the world around him in his primary school years, we did not call this science. I tended to draw from my experience as a Cub Scout leader and call this process 'discovery'. We kept the word 'science' to describe the process of objective reasoning, a small and perhaps pedantic distinction, and we introduced the concept of objectivity only when we felt our son had accumulated enough personal observations to understand the difference between objective and subjective reasoning.

The last factor that had a bearing on the way I assembled the science curriculum was the belief that, in an ideal world, the subject of Science would naturally embrace all of the sciences, including mathematics. In the end, this proved to be too large a task for me to handle, given that most of the available literature deals primarily with the individual disciplines. Nonetheless, the way I chose to present the material reflects an effort to teach the subject of science as a continuum, rather than as a set of discrete subjects.

Some of the 'big picture' subjects, the stars and planets for example, can be dealt with logically before we have started to formally populate our personal scientific data base, because we have already been observing these entities, although perhaps not very closely, from an early age. We also have the good fortune to live in the country, surrounded by nature. From a very early age, our son was encouraged to notice the form of plants and flowers, to notice what happened as they bloomed, and the way that different elements of nature interacted. This is of course the very essence of science, but we never spoke of it this way at the time.

While one can continue to develop one's appreciation for nature in this way, it is more difficult to formally deal with much in the way of physics, for example, until one has mastered the relevant mathematical procedures. Similarly, it is difficult to delve too deeply into biological processes without a foundation in organic chemistry. Of course, all subjects can be handled superficially in isolation, but then we begin to lose one essential element of the scientific endeavour—thorough investigation.

Syllabus

I began my curriculum development with the NSW high school science text that was prescribed in the 60s, "Science for High School Students". This text was introduced with the Wyndham Scheme, a reform of the NSW education system at that time, and endeavoured to do much of what I thought was important—primarily to integrate the individual scientific disciplines and teach them as a single subject. While the subject material became limited very quickly (the study of biology, and of the Earth's physical geography has come a long way in 40 years), the way in which the material was integrated provided the curriculum foundation I needed. From here, the Web became an invaluable resource. Ultimately, I collected a set of texts on the core subjects and extracted the information presented in the individual sections for which I prepared notes. Most of these texts are university prescribed texts, but it should be recognised that they are also designed to introduce the material to students who have no background in the subject. In that respect, if handled carefully, there is no reason why these resources cannot be used to support a junior high school science curriculum. The individual texts are listed on the Text Books page in this section.

I did not set out with any intention of adhering to the NSW Board of Studies syllabus. I found it very difficult to assemble a curriculum from this document as it constantly refers to outcomes, without any indication as to how these might be achieved (the Board is the 'law enforcer'—it lays down the law, but provides little guidance as to how one might abide by the law). Nonetheless, I did refer back to this document to check what I proposed to cover against what was expected and could see that, in fact, it would have been very difficult not to be able to fit any reasonable selection of material to this syllabus. In that respect, the material covered in the notes provided herein far exceeds that expected to be mastered in a NSW high school, but is in no way beyond the capacity of any interested student.

I do confess, however, that some material probably gets a little too heavy, a little too quickly, especially in the Year 7 notes when I was struggling to come to grips with what I was doing. If I had the opportunity to start all over again, I would work more closely with the text books that I have now assembled and develop the subjects more along the lines presented therein. This is probably most relevant in the chemistry and physics sections, where I initially thought I had things all under control. Unfortunately, at the time, I was suffering from the age-old problem of not being able to fully appreciate the foundation, or lack thereof, that a 12-year old has to work with. The biology and geology notes probably reflect the fact that I was learning a lot of this material myself as I was preparing the notes.

I would also really like to build a more comprehensive and coherent practical stream to accompany the written material. As with the other material that I have developed, I started with the practical exercises presented in the Messel text. Much of this was fine, but many of the chemistry experiments, for example, were simply not possible in today's OHS-constrained environment, with the associated restriction on access to chemicals. As a professional chemist, my expectations with respect to what could be achieved in a home laboratory were, nonetheless, probably completely unrealistic. With a bit more time and effort, I could probably have developed a practical stream that worked in with what was available, but our student didn't show much interest in chemistry from the outset, so the effort was better directed elsewhere.

Laboratory Work

I have not been able to collate much of our practical work for inclusion here at this point. It is my intention to present this in much the way that I have my Cub Scout Resources. For the moment, however, this task has not made it beyond my to-do list.

On the computer front, we've used Macs for over 20 years and could never justify buying (or even accepting as a gift) anything else. Having been surrounded by computers (always several) since the day he was born, and since both of us have backgrounds in programming, all aspects of computer usage and programming are as natural to our son as reading and writing. He maintains several Web sites (the main ones currently on general computing and photography), and he teaches me as much, if not more about computing today than I do him (He's not at all happy about the quality of this Web site...).

05-04-2014