Science-savvy females have a real advantage in today’s world, with typical payoffs of higher salaries and wider opportunities. But particularly in the tween and teen years, many girls get turned off to science. We know we should encourage her science interest, but most of us parents don’t feel so science-smart ourselves. In fact, kid questions such as “Why is the sky blue?” or “Why do magnets stick to some metals but not to others?” make some parents panic.
Homegrown, everyday science ideas for girls don’t have to be stressful at all. Science really is all around if you just look for it. If you’re a parent, just point it out.
Take the back yard, for example. That’s where our daughters Natalie, 14, and Valerie, 10, help plant and tend our garden. Every year we plant some different vegetables just to see whether they’ll grow. We explicitly call them science experiments, because that’s what most of them turn out to be, rather than a tasty side dish. We’ve learned from experience to improve our dinner table odds by our rising knowledge of growth factors such as soil type, optimal temperatures, sunshine, and water.
Another convergence that’s fun for dads (or moms!) and daughters is the school science fair. For hardware junkies, the silver lining in many science projects can involve rigging up contraptions with liberal doses of wire, wood glue, and duct tape. I had only one piece of advice when Natalie started doing science fairs in middle school: Don’t do an experiment that involves growing anything. Why not? See garden, above.
Our most fun science moments have occurred when my wife Patti and I incorporate science into our family vacations, which often includes forays to national parks. The nature centers and ranger programs always engage the kids and are effectively courses in geology, biology, mineralogy, meteorology, and other sciences. Natalie mined a trip to Disney World for a bangup science class project describing the mechanical process behind Dumbo rising and falling, the chemical reactions creating the fireworks extravaganzas, and the secrets to other Disney special effects.
Even keeping pets is an education in the needs and habits of various species—including, unfortunately, the short life cycle of some of them.
Our grandest science venture sprang from our family’s enjoyment of mystery stories. When Natalie was in late elementary school, I tried spurring her interest in science by writing stories in which the solution was based on science. I kept them short enough to be read in one minute.
Natalie liked the stories so much that she started writing her own, and before we knew it, we had more than a dozen. I mentioned our project to an acquaintance in the publishing field, and she said she’d like to see a manuscript. Unfortunately, the natural number for a book of one-minute mysteries is 60. Plus we’d need another five as a bonus section.
Fortunately, we had our everyday encounters with science to fall back on for ideas. The dog rolling in the garden became the basis for a story on how seeds spread. One of her school science fair experiments was the genesis of another. Events during the family vacations inspired several more.
Our end result got published: our co-authored book One Minute Mysteries: 65 Short Mysteries You Solve with Science! And then we decided to join up for a similar project involving math stories.
Natalie is in high school now and talks about marine biology as a career. That may or may not pan out, but at least it’s on her radar screen. And just the other night Valerie called me into the bathroom to share her discovery that a cup of water actually can be filled slightly beyond capacity—which sent me into a fumbling explanation of surface tension. Her current future goal is to work with animals. But even if she doesn’t, our life-inspired science adventures are already enriching her life.
Eric Yoder is a reporter for the Washington Post who also does freelance writing and editing on a variety of topics. Visit www.sciencenaturally.com for more info on One Minute Mysteries: 65 Short Mysteries You Solve with Science! and One Minute Mysteries: 65 Short Mysteries You Solve with Math.