Natural Born Scientists: Children
By: Jim Virkler
“Every child starts out as a natural born scientist, and then we beat it out of them. A few trickle through the system with their wonder and enthusiasm for science intact.”
Carl Sagan, famous scientist and popularizer of science for the public, shares authorship of this idea with many other commentators, especially science educators. I have observed the justification for this sentiment in many ways after observing many children, and recently, my youngest grandchildren in particular.
We begin with a generalized discussion of the traits of children, even in their first few months of life. Children enjoy discovering their environment by vision and by the sense of touch. These are the fundamental means for children to discover the qualities of their environment. The sense of sound is also important for realization. Vision and touch are the most important discovery techniques for a child. Children wish to discover their environment in more depth by looking and feeling. By touching nearby objects in various ways, children supply causes in the sequence of cause and effect. The practice of intensive observation and analysis of cause and effect phenomena are clearly scientific methods.
When parents and grandparents supervise young children, they usually take precautions that their household’s treasured fragile and/or attractive objects are placed out of reach in the first year or two of their exploratory phase. Perhaps a humorous story about our two and a half year old grandson would illustrate the presence of his tendency to be a natural-born scientist. On my office desk I have a small magnetic levitating globe. Properly positioned, this globe “floats” in the air about an inch above its base. With a few cents worth of monthly electric power, the magnets in the globe and base enable the levitating globe to remain suspended in air indefinitely. Readers may speculate on what happened next.
The levitating globe needs little handling to loudly drop from its floating position to its metal base. We did not react unfavorably to the loud pop indicating sudden loss of levitation. Instead, we located a bottle of ceramic disc magnets. Several dozen heavily magnetized discs supplied Grandpa and grandson with activities featuring elementary forces of magnetic attraction and repulsion for a while. At our house we prefer to avoid push button noise makers and motorized or blinking light games to inspire children. In their place, we have found magnifying glasses, binoculars, and observations of live birds and insects to be more fascinating. We acknowledge that applied science is used in animated electronic games. However, parents and teachers may have to work harder to ignore the 21st century entertainment aspect and recapture the age of discovery for our young scientists.
Several years ago our local newspaper front-paged an unusual story. In retrospect, we found it difficult to believe that the account distinguished this 13-year old boy from hundreds of other young people in his community. His activities were deemed unusual enough to highlight with a feature article. What was so unusual, we ask? His activities provided a sort of “kid magnet” for neighborhood boys. The boy spent every spare minute outdoors building a fort, riding a go-cart, organizing a ball game on the field he laid out, or creating a haunted forest. His achievements apparently included practiced observing, analyzing, building, testing, correcting, and revising in an effort to discover the best method. These are characteristics of scientists. It is clear that he was encouraged to develop these traits. “Anything that keeps him from staring at a video game screen,” his mother reported.
In our video game culture it may be more difficult to develop and encourage young scientists. The video activities have been devised by the game creator. They serve primarily to entertain rather than to foster creativity. Individual initiative has been replaced by the clever skills of the manufacturer.
The world of nature ranks high in opportunities for scientific observation, not only of living things but also of the physical laws controlling matter. The scientific gift of curiosity and problem solving is implanted in varying degrees in our children. We must not forget other scientific impulses such as specimen and data collecting and skills of organization and analysis. If a child is naturally gifted with similar skills, we must be careful not to “beat it out of them” as Carl Sagan has warned.
The gifts of Sagan’s “natural born scientists” must be nourished along with gifts of music, ability in sports, writing talent, creative imagination, and a host of other in-born skills in our young people. As we contemplate unique human skills we marvel at the Creator’s gifts to man. Surely they are included in the intention of the writer of Genesis, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness…So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him…” (from Gen. 1:26-27).
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Jim Virkler, a retired New Jersey public school science educator, now devotes his time investigating the harmony of scientific discoveries and Christian faith. He and his wife, Eleanor, now reside in the mid-west near their children and grandchildren.