Children's interest in science often seems to decline in grade four and after. This happens, in part, because science study is too often textbook-driven, passive, formal, and narrow in its scope. But the major goal of science study in these grades should be to keep children interested in science and cause them to believe that they can be successful science students. Positive attitudes about science -- from teachers and parents as well as students -- are vital.
Children must see and recognize "science" all around them in their everyday lives. Basic scientific principles are at work whenever a child rides a bicycle, puts air in the bike's tires and oils the moving parts, runs, throws a ball, gets water from a well or a faucet, uses a flashlight, takes pictures with a camera, flies a kite, or notices changes in the weather, the shape of the moon, or the visibility of objects seen in daylight or at night. And science is also a basis for understanding what is happening when a child watches cloud formations change or planes move across the sky, plants a garden or trims bushes, reads newspaper headlines about drought and ecosystem damage, or sees the effects of aging or infirmity in others. Good teachers draw heavily on such examples of "science in the world." They ask often, "What do you think is going on?" "Why is that happening?"
Nature studies, the basis of science study during the early years of school, continue during the intermediate years. In the sixth grade, however, physical science, life science, and technology come in for an increasing share of attention. Environmental issues -- the definition of an ecosystem, for example -- will be prominent in the science curriculum. Beyond learning about and examining machines of all kinds, including computers and mass communication systems, children will also investigate the ways technology affects our lives. In the process, they will continue to explore the link between science and ethics, using examples drawn from community discussions or local newspapers.
Meteorology continues to be a subject of study, as does energy. Children become fairly sophisticated about weather patterns, wind directions, temperature, precipitation, air pressure with high and low systems, hydroelectric power, the link between fuel and electricity, and so on. They will be able to examine weather maps, follow weather reports on television, and understand utility bills.
The intermediate years are a good time for classes to regularly visit science museums, or for scientists and technologists to visit classrooms. Children need to be exposed to these experiences, which will widen their science horizons, give them new questions to ponder, and show them how real people set about solving science problems. These exposures to concrete experience relate directly to one of the major goals of science study in the sixth grade: the use of scientific understanding to predict and explain various phenomena.
Inquiry - an open-ended approach to the study of science - has a large role in the sixth grade. Children will be asked to engage in the process of inquiry, experimenting with ways of finding answers both to their own questions and to questions posed by the teacher. Such questions might include: Why do we see better in daytime than at night? What shapes or designs will support the most weight? Why do some objects stand and others fall? How can I get my glider to fly farther? Or not spin so much? Or land more smoothly? How much of the school's waste is recyclable? How old are the trees in the schoolyard? How about the trees along the river? What are the differences between a pig's liver and a human liver? Why does hot air rise? How could a species of fish be introduced into a new ecosystem, as when coho salmon were introduced in the Great Lakes? Children's questions are unending, and good teachers use those questions to teach students about the process of inquiry - how to go about examining something. The children thus do what scientists do: define a problem and then figure out how to solve it.
In regard to the study of health, children continue the exploration of the life cycle that was begun in the earlier grades. What it means to stay healthy - to maintain wellness - cannot be overemphasized. Sixth grade children will continue to pay attention to life-style choices such as smoking, and they learn about the effects of various kinds of consumption upon health as well as upon the environment. They also learn something about medicine and its effect on health. And because many, if not most sixth graders have reached puberty, attention is given to bodily changes.
In many schools sixth grade children receive fairly concrete information about human reproduction, AIDS, and condoms within a framework of personal responsibility. Programs of this nature are sometimes controversial, and some parents and educators question whether topics such as birth control and sexually transmitted diseases should be introduced. But most of the programs of this nature that I have observed are extremely sensitive to the children's developmental status and cultural backgrounds. In the best settings, the teachers who present the material have received training in how to assess students' readiness to receive the information and how to communicate it effectively. Schools that offer such programs usually try to maintain close communication with individual parents and parents' groups; if your child is going to learn about sexuality and reproduction in school, you will be aware of it -- and you will have a voice in determining what material is to be presented, and how. You and your child can approach these sensitive topics by reading books together. For example, you can prepare your child to talk about AIDS by reading one of these books: When Heroes Die by Penny Durant, AIDS: How It Works in the Body by Lorne Greenberg, or My Own Story by Ryan White with Mary Moore Cunningham.
Reprinted from 101 Educational Conversations with Your 6th Grader by Vito Perrone, published by Chelsea House Publishers.
Copyright 1994 by Chelsea House Publishers, a division of Main Line Book Co. All rights reserved.