Homeschool Science Curriculum - What Options are Available?

With so much emphasis on STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), it can seem daunting to homeschool parents to choose science curriculum for their students, particularly during the high school years. It can be confusing to wade through the options and to consider the standards of each state.

Perhaps we are asking the wrong questions when we look for the perfect science curriculum. Perhaps it is time to set aside our concerns about careers and focus on the educational  system  and  methods  that produced great scientists in the past. There are a few things to note about scientific pioneers.

  1. They were all curious about the world around them.
  2. They were all careful observers of the world around them.
  3. They were almost all classically educated.

It’s a curious fact that most of the world’s scientific innovators were educated at a time when science was not even a school subject. Most of them, like Galileo, Copernicus, and Isaac Newton, came of age in a time when students focused almost exclusively on education in the language arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric.

How did this education prepare them for making such important scientific breakthroughs? First, their educations fostered a keen intellectual curiosity so that they learned to ask good questions. Secondly, their studies led them to be attentive to details so that they became careful observers of the world around them. After all, it’s difficult to translate Latin sentences from Caesar’s Gallic Wars if you don’t pay close attention to the details. In addition to being careful observers of the world, these scientists were classically educated which means they were constantly trained to put their thoughts into writing.

How should we study science?
The modern reaction to studies, which show a country testing behind others in science and math, is typically to teach those subjects at younger and younger ages. Instead, we should focus on training our students in the skills listed above: curiosity, careful observation, and copious recording of thoughts. In other words, we need to train our students in the skills that form and inform the scientific mind.

What are the goals for homeschool science curriculum in elementary school?
One of the most disappointing things about science curriculum for the youngest grades is the lack of wonder. In the early years, we need to train our children to be curious and to observe carefully. They won’t do either of these if they are bored to tears. The most important consideration for curriculum for these ages should be whether or not the book encourages them to be curious. It is often better to choose science encyclopedias written for children or whole books about something they are interested in (plants, planets, insects) than it is to give them a textbook crammed with random, shallow, boring facts about a wide variety of subjects.

In addition to seeking out resources that spark wonder, parents should plan to spend time outdoors observing nature. Small children need to see scientific wonders, not just read about them. Finally, parents should train these little students to spend time looking, really looking, at the wonders around them. In other words, take a nature walk armed with a field guide, a sketchbook, and colored pencils. Let them start early to make their own science notebooks.

What are the goals for homeschool science curriculum in middle school?
Another sad deficit of science curricula today is the lack of talking about scientific history, of introducing students to the real people who devoted their lives to scientific discoveries. Middle school is a good time to study the history of science. “Meeting” the real scientists will satisfy their curiosity but will also inspire them to ask their own scientific questions and seek answers.

Middle school is the perfect time to train students to do science instead of just reading about it. Students should participate in a science fair so that they can ask their own questions (curiosity), conduct their own research (careful observation), and relate their findings to others.

What are the goals for homeschool science curriculum in high school?
In high school, students will be introduced to different branches of science like biology, chemistry, and physics. Students should continue to ask good questions, to conduct their own research (usually through labs) and to record their findings. Although they will most likely rely on a textbook during these years, it is important to continue to encourage their curiosity. Resist the urge to have them simply memorize the information in the textbook long enough to pass the test. This process of cram, test, and dump, has nothing to do with the scientific mind.

Students would do better to summarize the chapters of their textbooks in their own words, be pointed to additional readings about a subject that interests them, spend more time on their labs and lab notebooks, and continue to conduct their own research by writing scientific research papers. It is also important for our students to continue to study the history of the scientists who made breakthroughs in each of these fields. What is the study of biology without lessons on Aristotle, Linnaeus, and Gregor Mendel? What is the study of chemistry without reading about Antoine Lavoisier, Robert Boyle, and Madame Curie?

Which is better: textbook or real life?
Our choice of homeschool science curriculum should not be an either/or between textbook and real life. Students should read about science and do science. The choice of books will depend upon the field of study. For example, an astronomy class might rely on a book of history about famous astronomers, a traditional astronomy textbook, and a book of star maps. However, this class would not be complete without regular trips outside to gaze at the stars.

What about the science fair project?
As much as many parents dread the science fair project, it is really a must for any scientific education. Students should be taught that you don’t have to be a professional scientist to participate in science. In fact, we owe many wonderful scientific discoveries to amateur scientists who pursued science as a hobby because they were curious and because they loved the work. After all, that is what the word amateur means in the original Latin “to love.”

What about labs?
Homeschoolers can be tempted to pursue high school science without labs. After all, there’s a lot of equipment involved, and a lot of mess. Many schools are even being swayed by new technologies like “virtual dissections.” However, no science education is complete without doing labs, so homeschool families should find a local group like a Classical Conversations community to do labs with other students.

Author: Jennifer Courtney





 Classical Conversations