Personalizing Science

Originally Published: March/April 2006

Children begin with a curiosity about the world around them. If that has faded, these suggestions for adding a personal connection may restore their enthusiasm:

    • Begin with something that has captured the student’s interest, using it as the doorway into a more detailed investigation.

Does he enjoy watching Animal Planet? The Discovery Channel? Science videos? The topic from the program or video can be used as the focus for follow up study.

Does he want a pet? Let him look for information about the animal and all that will be involved in its care. Has he caught tadpoles? Dig into the life cycle of a frog.

If something grabs his interest on a field trip, give him time to explore that topic further. A field trip could also be planned as the starting point of a study in order to motivate the student. (That is, before telling him the topic of study, so it feels like his own idea to learn more.) A trip through caverns to see stalagmites and stalactites, for example, can make him curious about caves and formations. Having seen the real thing will also make it easier to understand whatever is read or heard.

    • Connect the topic to something real.

Begin weather studies with conditions for the area in which you live. Even if the students have never experienced tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, or volcanic eruptions, the fact that they could makes it personal.

Study earth science in conjunction with a culture and how the people’s lives are affected. For instance, a study of Japan can include the need to build with earthquakes in mind. It’s even more personal if the country chosen for study is the home of a pen pal or child the family is supporting through an organization.

Have students work on an “About Me” notebook or booklet, recording personal details as they relate to studies of the human body. Let older students look for information that could help them or a family member with a health problem.

Include a look at medical beliefs and practices during historical studies. Let students compare treatments back then to those they or family members have experienced from doctors and dentists.

Help students plan a garden. Let them find out what their chosen plants will need in order to grow and then use that information to determine the garden’s location (for proper sun conditions). They may need some help finding out what must be added to the soil before planting. Then, as the plants grow, let them pull some out at different stages of development, examining the root systems, and identifying plant parts.

    • Use a project as the motivation for research.

Enter a science fair. Like a musician polishing a piece for a recital, the student will choose his topic and search through scientific information to find what he needs. There’s usually more interest and motivation when others can appreciate their efforts.

Prepare a presentation for other family members. Choose a topic and decide on a type of presentation—display, model, panel discussion, or even a video production. (One family told me the kids acted as a news team presenting an “official” weather report.) Opportunities to be creative in presenting information often inspires artsy kids to dig into a subject that might otherwise bore them.

These are just a few approaches that can motivate kids; there are more in my workshop tape Science That Sticks. If you are hesitating because it seems easier to just hand your kids a book to read, hand them Science Scope*. They can look up the topic of interest and use the detailed list that follows as a working outline to direct their research. Having such a framework makes it much easier to sift through information that might otherwise seem overwhelming. This also frees them to choose resources they find appealing and understandable. The happy result is that without even realizing it, they are learning how to learn.

*Science Scope by Kathryn Stout gives science standards for grades K-12 by topic. A student may progress through the grade levels as far as his ability allows, or children of different ages can work together, each finding information appropriate for his grade. The teaching ideas include suggestions for using the scientific method, building observation skills, and encouraging discovery. Visit for more information.