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Making science and maths fun for kids is as easy as 1-2-3

Posted June 21, 2013

In the 1980s I was accused, by very a senior Russian professor, that my research work in structural biophysics was artistic and therefore, by exclusion, not scientific.

But I had to disagree: while I could see her point, just because the images were aesthetically pleasing, did not mean they were unscientific. Science and art are not mutually exclusive – nor should they be.

In terms of creativity and thinking, it doesn’t matter when the science stops and the imagination begins, especially with children. After all, to get them interested in science early on, we need to recreate and recapture its creativity.

A real life example

In 2006, I decided to try an experiment while on a trip with my children’s school to a local pantomime in Wales. Many of the kids were between eight and nine years of age.

I told my captive travelling audience I’d “found” a new number the previous evening. This number was between the numbers 26 and 27. The question of whether this was a discovery or an invention was one of the first things we started with. They decided it had to be a discovery because, they reasoned, numbers are just “there”.

I told them that I was fascinated by this number because it was a whole number, a new number and also it could be divided by four. It was great then to watch the incredulity the amazement the thinking that was going on. Why haven’t their parents told them about this number?

I then – with minimal prodding – got them to think about other concepts:

  • If such a number could exist, then does it need a name?
  • What should we call that number?
  • And how do we count with that number?

Some were sure I was wrong: questioning, laughing, quarrelling and best of all, really thinking. I watched their faces while thoughts took seed and blossomed as they began to try and interpret what it meant, and what it could mean.

Had they really not been challenged like this before? Unfortunately, that was probably the case.

Free thinkers, even at that age

While it was really good fun testing the idea of innate understanding and existence of numbers against this disruptive idea of inventing a new number, it was also a fantastic opportunity to see the spectrum of behaviour in the children.

Some of them blindly believed what I was saying (after all I was the token village professor), whereas others immediately challenged the thinking on their own, and starting a logic journey of discovery independently.

I won’t say what my own kids said, but I realise now, looking back, that they have been immersed in a home where questioning, creativity and invention are all encouraged. And while they can “do” science, they don’t like science, because of its dull, prescriptive curriculum.

The above is a true story, but it makes me think about the whole concept of symbolism of nomenclature and how it is practically translated into working life. On the same bus trip, the kids and I talked about music – it was Wales after all – and what would happen if I created a note that wouldn’t fit into any musical nomenclature. Are we limited to only reproducing music that we can write down in the paradigm we typically recognise as five lines on a page?

I’d like to think that Russian professor has changed her tune in the three decades that have passed since her comment to me. There are definitely places for creativity and art within maths and science – and we should use them to capture the imagination of our children.

Source: The Conversation, story by Tim Wess

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