A 10 Minute Introduction to Science For 7 Year Olds

Posted by on March 19, 2012 in Featured, Thoughts | 14 comments

I’ve been asked by my brother in-law to do him a favour and write a 10 minute introduction to science for his 1st graders. I know, I’m not a scientist, but he asked me because he thinks I have a firm grasp of what science is and it isn’t, and also that I am a good communicator. Well, I’m not sure about any of those claims, but I’ll sure as hell give it a shot. The topic he most wants to cover is that of “The Scientific Method”, what it is, what it means, and how to use it, and I have a couple of ideas that might just work. The only trouble is, how do I angle it so that 7 year olds will understand it, and not get bored? This is going to prove to be difficult.

So with this in mind, I’m going to use this blog entry as a sounding board, and put in blockquotes the things I might present to these kids. My mission is to get some feedback from you guys as to whether it’s good communication, whether it’s actually factual, and, well, whether it totally sucks ass.

You up for it? Good.

So to start with, I’d need to tell the kids what science is all about. They Might Be Giants did a great job of explaining it in their album “Here Comes Science“, but I think even that is too advanced. So for my definition of science I came up with this as a starter:

“When we think of science, we often imagine people wearing labcoats and goggles, in a laboratory filled with glass bottles and flames, mixing chemicals and the like, and sure that’s part of it, but science is much simpler than that. Science is simply this: trying to discover how things work. Science uses facts that we can measure, and makes new discoveries from these facts.”

Right well that’s not bad. Now, how does science work? Let’s see… The scientific method works like this (from Wikipedia):

1. Use your experience: Consider the problem and try to make sense of it. Look for previous explanations. If this is a new problem to you, then move to step 2.

2. Form a conjecture: When nothing else is yet known, try to state an explanation, to someone else, or to your notebook.

3. Deduce a prediction from that explanation: If you assume 2 is true, what consequences follow?

4. Test: Look for the opposite of each consequence in order to disprove 2. It is a logical error to seek 3 directly as proof of 2. This error is called affirming the consequent.

All well and good, but why would anyone want to use science?

“But why would we want to know how the world works?

Well, there are lots of reasons. With science we have discovered how to make cars, boats, aeroplanes and rocketships. We’ve made computers and robots. We’ve developed life-saving medicines, and yummy food that we eat every day. The electricity that makes the lights go on, and the radio-waves that brings the television pictures to your home. All of these things and many many more came from using science and a thing called The Scientific Method.”

Yep I think that’s good. Now for the scientific method, how can I simplify that? Let’s try this:

The Scientific Method has four steps:

  1. Start with a problem or question. For instance, if you find something in a forest, you ask ‘What is this?’
  2. Look at what you have, and make some notes about it. From these notes, try to tell what it is you have found. ‘It is green and flat. It’s not breathing. I think it might be a leaf.’
  3. If your notes are correct, what can you say about it that should be true? ‘If it’s a leaf, then it came from a tree. I should be able to see some of these leaves on a tree near here.”
  4. If what you found out is right, then you have identified your object ‘There are leaves like this in the tree above me, this is definitely a leaf.’ – OR – If not, you need to go back to step 2 and find a different explanation for what you have found. ‘There are no trees around me, so this must be something else, what could it be?'”

The Scientific Method can be applied to any time you want to find the answer to a question you might have, from “Why is the sky blue?” to “Why does a cork float in water?”

OK that’s not bad, what do you think? Now I think we need an experiment or two to show how this works. I was thinking maybe an experiment in taxonomy, a simple identification and sorting would do. Involving a cat.

“Part of science is sorting things into groups of like things. The first level of sorting is into three categories, plants, animals and minerals.

An example of a plant is a tree. An example of an animal is a dog. An example of a mineral is a rock.

Here is a picture of a cat. Now using what you already know about the world, would you say a cat is:

A. a plant

B. an animal or

C. a mineral?

Look at the cat. What are some things you can see about that cat to help you make your decision. It has fur, it has four legs, it has a tail and it has a cute kitty face. To plants have fur? No. Do rocks have legs or a tail? No. So the answer must be ‘A cat is an animal.‘”

What do you think of that? Now let’s up the ante a bit.

“Things can be sorted in a lot of ways. Plants, animals and minerals can be divided up according to the things was can see and measure about them. Animals can be sorted into groups like birds, reptiles, mammals, insects, and many more, because of the things that they have in common with each other.

Look again at this cat. like we saw before it has fur, legs, a tail and a cute kitty face.

Next to the cat is a lion (rawr!), a snake (hisss!) and a tiger (rawr!). What do these animals have in common? What makes them different from each other? Well, the cat, the lion and the tiger all have legs, they all have fur, they all have faces. The snake has a tail and a face too, but it has no fur (it has scales) and it has no legs. Which of these is different from the others? Of course, the snake is different (it is a reptile), and all the others are cats! (The lion and the tiger are just very big cats.)”

Okay I think that’s a good start in taxonomy, do I need to go further? There is so much more to cover, but I think the kids might get bored if we go any deeper into classification. might be worthwhile telling the kids some really big numbers before I go on right? Ok, let’s try to get their attention with this.

“We can sort animals into many different types, just as we can with plants and minerals. In the world there are as many as

10,000,000 species of animal

4000 types of mineral


250,000 types of plant

WOW that sure is a lot of different types of things isn’t it? But sorting things is only part of science. A lot of science happens in the form of experiments.

Here’s a simple experiment you can try:

Fill a bucket with water. Taking a cork and a rock, drop them both into the bucket. What happens?”

You can see what I’m getting at here. This is an experiment in density and mass, but we’ll just call it weight.

“The cork floats on the surface, while the rock sinks to the bottom. Why could this be? The cork is light, while the rock is heavy. The water is heavy too, but it runs through your fingers and is not solid like the cork or the rock. The rock sinks to the bottom because it is heavier than the water. The cork floats because it is lighter than the water.

What would happen now, if I dropped in a rubber duck? What about a piece of fruit like an apple? What about an empty water bottle?”

So we’ve done the experiment, the kids are learning about relative properties of materials, then I guess I just need to make it practical.

“But science isn’t just experiments. The best thing about science is that we can use what we’ve found out to make things, to discover new things, and to help people to do things.

With our water, cork and rock experiment, we learned about weight and density. How can we make use of what we’ve discovered? Well we could make a boat, and sail to the other side of the world! If we know what materials float, we can make a boat using these, and be pretty sure when we are finished that the boat will float on the water.”

I think this is about 10 minutes. I hope my brother-in-law only uses these as ways to spark ideas. He has other topics he’d like to cover, but this should be helpful for him. I feel like I should finish this off better, but I’m not sure how.

What are your thoughts? How can I improve this? Please leave your comments below.

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  1. IANAT but,
    I think you need to make this much much simpler and more coherent.  I think you need to focus on the core message, the scientifc method and what all the bits of that are. 
    1. State the problem — what sort of problems might be open to scientific investigation? Can you think of some??
    2. Come up with a hypothesis — what is this? what makes a good one, a bad one? Can we test it, can it be falisibied — what does falsified mean? do a little exercise on falsification and what that means.
    3. Experiment — what are experiments, talk about them, what are good experiments, what are bad ones.
    4. Results — what did the experiment show us, are there other experiments we could do?
    How does this make new knowledge???
    Done … this will take well in excess of 10 minutes to explain to a room of 5 year olds.   
    The rest of your material is too much to cover in 10 minutes with 5 year olds … logical errors, taxonomy, density etc are well beyond a simple 10 minute talk for that age.

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    • I meant 7 yr olds :)  still applies.

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    •  @pdmct Fair call, but I think my brother in law was looking for more material than that. In any case, thanks for your feedback. I have no experience with dealing with that age group, and I found it hard enough to simplify it this much anyway :)

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      •  @martinspribble you can test it on my daughter, she is 6. Need to have a SiTP , Sceptics in the Park. 

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    •  @pdmct I think Martin’s example is a better foundation. The whole idea of “The Scientific Method” can be dangerously limiting. Why start kids with this narrow view of science, then hope we can expand them later? IMHO, you’re better off starting them with more of a descriptive model, then move to experimental models later.

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  2. Hi Martin, this does seem too complicated and involved for 7 yr olds.
    Perhaps a simple example about trying to explain why the moon appears the way it does in the different phases, starting with different ideas generated from the class and then explained with a demonstration of shadow effects. Supported by the idea that science is about exploring explanations of things going on in the world around us until one comes along that best suits what we can observe. Difficult task because kids need something pretty concrete and practical not abstract at all. 

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  3. Hi Martin, how about a process which demonstrates something that is not obvious like why the moon looks the way it does in the different phases. The class might be asked to provide observations and the leader could add stuff like no stars are seen in the dark bit, ending with a shadow demonstration and an explanation of how the ancients would have been very confused if they didn’t guess the moon was a sphere sometimes being lit from the side. Science might be explained as trying to find the explanation that best fits all the observations we can make about some aspect of the world around us just like the moon in the sky.

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    •  @MarkFyfe yeah that’s the problem, there are so many cool ways to show science to kids, it’s almost impossible to show the best examples.

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  4. Science is like being an investigator and explorer. We should promote to kids that it is about asking interesting questions as Prof. L Krauss said.
    Also MORE DINOSAURS! And Mythbuster style showy experiments.

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  5. I have worked w/ children for a long time, so here is my feedback. 
    1. don’t insult their intelligence. Children are able to understand concepts we wouldn’t normally give them credit for when it’s presented in an interesting way.
    2. Pictures, objects, and anything they can feel, touch, look at etc. Tactile learning rather than authoritarian ‘I’m the teacher w/ all sorts of information’
    3. Perhaps explain the scientific method, & then set up ‘stations’ with different things to explore- the density example could be a station, perhaps a station w/ different animal hides/skins & at each station the students must form an hypothesis about why things are the way they are, implement the scientific method
    4. then you bring them back together & the children discuss what they’ve just ‘discovered’
    You will be far more interesting if you shake up the status quo, bring in lots of ‘science’ to explore, explain how scientists use their senses & scientific method to discover new things.  Applicable learning, real life learning is the way we all learn best :) Good luck 

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    •  @mariaRB I was pretending I was speaking to my niece with my tone etc. She’s 6 right now, and she understands stuff if you tell her the facts. In fact she’s way smarter than I’d ever expected a kid of that age to be.

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      • I was more referring to the ability to grasp concepts. Children are very astute
        That said, I’m coming from an unschool of thought, so I’m more inclined to focus on experiential learning. If someone had introduced chemistry to me through cooking, and decomposition through composting, I’d probably been more interested in science as a child. Demystifying science, and showing kiddos how they use the scientific method every day in how they interact with their world, IMO, is a way to engage them in a way that will excite them and fuel their innate curiosity.
        But that’s just my student-led learning, unschool indoctrination speaking. Damn hippies. 

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  6. I love what you written but my first thought is the level of info. I personally wouldn’t go into as much detail as you have (what I read sounds more like a full lesson plan than an intro).
    Depending on what tools/equipment are available, I’d be thinking about presenting something more visual to grab their attention. Something like an awesome movie trailer with the Hollywood style voiceover even. I’d be trying to convey the scope of science to try and show that every single person in the class can find an area of interest in science – from the microscopic through to the cosmic, but without going into too much detail. Just enough to tease. Maybe a video/presentation showing the scale/scope of science?
    I’d be looking at the objects in the room, things they use every day and talk a little about the involvement of science in the creation of everything.
    Having said that, I’ve only ever taught adults and I don’t have any kids. Good luck, it’s a great thing to be involved with.

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  7. It might be good to emphasise teamwork. Science is like detective work. We start with a question about something we can all see. Who dunnit? Anybody can guess at the answer. But different people will guess different answers, so we should work together to test out each guess. By comparing notes we can learn from each other and solve the mysteries.

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