Science investigation begins with questions. How does that work? Why does that happen? The Greeks and Romans used to marvel at the stars and the rivers. People noticed the fragile balance of the world around them and studied. The great scientists and inventors were the ones who noticed and wondered. As a teacher and founder of an educational nonprofit, I have also noticed something. As students learn science, they are given a book that contains all the answers. More often than not, the wonder of science has been eliminated in an effort to convey as many facts as possible. Some schools have resisted this trend, joining the Maker Movement or focusing on STEM education with manipulatives and student driven experiments. But those meaningful, high quality experiences begin to drop off in middle school, even though those students have just begun to wonder deeply. And students with disabilities often miss out on these experiences even earlier. Lab experiments in the middle school and high school are results driven, and are used to reinforce the learning in class. This kind of learning has its place! It helps create a concrete understanding of the abstract topics in science literature. But predictable, results driven experiments are not the sum total of science. As teachers, we need to reexamine the reasons we teach science in order to truly open the world to our students.
The purpose of science is to explain and understand the world. But we have placed the value on the final product, rather than on the process. In many classrooms, the goal isn’t to understand, but rather to memorize quickly and perform well on the test. However, science can be a place where students are encouraged to fail, and fail again. Thomas Edison said that “many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” Students experience frustration, impatience, and sometimes even shame when they fail. But a student who is making an attempt to discover and learn should not feel shame. They should feel a desire to persevere and a resolve to figure it out. Failure needs to shift from being seen as defeat to being seen as an opportunity to ask more questions. We have to encourage students to keep trying, because stopping at the first challenge could cause them to miss something big.
Take microwaves, for example. While researching radar technology, a Raytheon engineer named Percy Spencer realized that the chocolate bar in his pocket was melting! Intrigued, he placed four popcorn kernels near the equipment and watched them pop. From there, Spencer went on to invent the microwave oven, which most of us have in our homes today (Raytheon, 2020)! Scientists all over the world stumble upon similar opportunities. Their best laid plans lead to dead ends, and promising leads burn out. But they discover things along the way. Velcro was the byproduct of a hike in the woods (Loria, 2018). Play-Doh was originally a wallpaper cleaner (Hiskey, 2011). And Corn Flakes were born from a pot of wheat left on the stove too long (Loria, 2018)! If our students give up at the first failure and walk away instead of looking around, they are forfeiting an opportunity to wonder.
So the challenge for us as educators is to value the process and allow the wondering to lead to discovery. Slow down. Don’t provide all the answers. Instead, provide the vocabulary to explain what your students are noticing. Allow them to wonder and discover, and allow the books to be corroborating evidence. Allow for a productive struggle and teach your students to fail often, and to embrace their failures. If our students focus on finding the “correct answer” they might miss the next big discovery along the way. Students who begin exploring this way at a n early age will lay foundations for lifelong discovery (The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2019).
Another reason we teach science is to develop advocates and leaders. The best leaders do more than give orders – they get involved. They talk to people as they work, managing frustrations and providing tools for success. The best leaders care about the people doing the work, as well as the final product those people produce. Leaders who have experienced genuine collaboration are able to provide that same environment in other settings. Genuine collaboration brings together a diverse group of people and provides access for all participants. It is structured so that all voices are heard, and all talents are valued. Leaders who provide that space for others will continue to seek that kind of collaboration for themselves. They will get guidance and advice from a diverse group of mentors and colleagues. And they will advocate for those who don’t always have a chance to be heard. At The Genius Corps, the educational nonprofit that I run, part of our mission is to “advocate for the development of a diverse population of future scientists.” We bring together middle school students with disabilities and their peers, and design lab experiences for them that require collaboration. We celebrate skills, and we strive to spark wonder. We hope that by having these experiences, the students we serve will be able to advocate for their place in the scientific community, as well as serve as leaders wherever they go.
I began my college career as a biology major. I had always loved science, and it seemed natural for me to major in it as well. After my freshman year, I realized that I did not want a job in a lab setting or in the medical field. And by the end of the summer, I knew that my calling was to teach. Specifically, I wanted to teach students with disabilities. But I couldn’t leave my love of science behind. As a sophomore, I was given the chance to apply for grant funding to do something to “improve the quality of life and opportunities for people with disabilities in the region”. This was where my love of science and my passion for special education could collide!
I founded The Genius Corps because I realized that many students with disabilities miss out on key content and skills in science during their middle school years. When they reach high school, they are limited by their lack of familiarity with the methods, tools, and information. I strongly believe that every student brings gifts and insightful ideas to the table. I had seen schools that recognized those talents and encouraged their students to lean into their interests with the full support of the teachers and staff. I was lucky to grow up in a district like this. My school provided more opportunities to us than I knew how to appreciate as a student! But I had also seen schools where the priority was solely on remedial classes. That attitude effectively closes the door to countless opportunities for students. In middle school, students are deciding what they are good at and they are starting to imagine themselves in their future careers. Without the context to imagine themselves as scientists, innovators, and engineers, they are less likely to pursue those jobs. And that is a problem. I wanted to be an advocate for students, and I wanted to develop advocates that would impact the entire workforce.
So, teachers: instill the desire to lead and advocate in your students. Advocating is a skill that will cross disciplines and will create leaders out of your students. In a world with a lot of voices, science helps develop leaders who can speak clearly and powerfully.
Finally, if the purpose of science is to explain and understand the world, then the application of science is done for the improvement of the world and the human condition. I would argue that the world can only be improved if diverse perspectives are represented in the scientific community. That means that people from all backgrounds and abilities need to be represented and participating in genuine collaboration. And the only way to get all the necessary people into the lab spaces and research institutions is to equip them while they are still students. It takes dedicated effort. At The Genius Corps, our labs are designed for accessibility. We introduce scientific concepts in simple terms, and create lab materials that all students are able to use. If the participants in our labs leave feeling capable, we have succeeded that day.
It’s a monumental task. Changing mindsets always is! But teaching science well will allow your students to fail gracefully and learn from their mistakes. It will equip them to wonder and persevere in a world that is hyper focused on results and instant gratification. It will allow the young men and women in your classes to develop into servant leaders who advocate for the marginalized. And your students will be prepared to change the world.
Hiskey, D. (2011). Play-Doh was originally wallpaper cleaner. Retrieved from http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2011/11/play-doh-was-originally-wallpaper-cleaner/.
Loria, K. (2018). These 18 accidental and unintended scientific discoveries changed the world. Retrieved from https://www.sciencealert.com/these-eighteen-accidental-scientific-discoveries-changed-the-world.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (2019). Including young children with disabilities in STEM activities offers access to lifelong learning. Retrieved from https://fpg.unc.edu/node/10059.
Raytheon History. (2020). Retrieved from https://www.raytheon.com/ourcompany/history.