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Education Science

What Can 4-yr-olds Understand About Science? 192

Posted by Cliff
from the show-n-tell-extreme dept.
dr.karl.b asks: "My 3 and a half year old son is in Kindergarten. Here in Germany that includes 3 to 6 year olds. He is supposed to explain what his parents' occupations are. I am a scientist, and despite all the advice I have received saying he can't understand what I do, I am determined to try. I study self-motion perception, from basic-science vestibular processing to the role of real-motion cues in flight simulation. We have several cool labs in my institute, like robot-arm motion simulators and full-immersion virtual reality set-ups. We can easily compete with amusement parks for wow-factor, but I have 2 questions: How can I explain my work to my son? How can I invite his class (3-6 yr olds) to our institute to have them learn AND have fun, rather than ONLY have fun?"
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What Can 4-yr-olds Understand About Science?

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  • by grub (11606) <slashdot@grub.net> on Saturday May 19, 2007 @02:21PM (#19192035) Homepage Journal

    What Can 4-yr-olds Understand About Science?

    They can understand that 6000 years ago a superbeing created the universe and all things within. That dinosaurs lived on Noah's ark and that... oh wait, you're in Germany. Forget all that, you can teach your son actual facts!

    • Even in North Carolina(part of the southern US but nowhere near as far down as, say, Alabama) my biology teacher taught evolution, although apparently if your parents kicked and screamed enough you could get out of biology class for that part of it.
      • Even in North Carolina(part of the southern US but nowhere near as far down as, say, Alabama) my biology teacher taught evolution
        Even in Alabama they teach evolution...or at least taught it two decades ago. I have no idea what goes on in high schools today, though.
        • Straight from the horse's mouth:

          >> I have no idea what goes on in high schools today.

          You should be ashamed.

          • by idontgno (624372)

            You should be ashamed.

            Why?

            Really. Was that a measured, reasoned, rational response, or just some kneejerk crap?

            If GFP has no children and will never have children, why would the state of high schools mean jack crap to him? Maybe they're solely burdens on his tax-paying butt, in which case their mere existence is more than he needs to know about them.

            If it's of no personal consequence, shame is not indicated. Altruism isn't altruistic unless it's truly voluntary.

            • Then perhaps you will be able to see past the end of your nose.

              Think having a bunch of illiterate hoodlums running around doesn't have a negative impact on a childless member of society? Think some more, you might eventually get the correct answer.

              Altruism is not required. For entirely selfish reasons I want good schools, attentive responsible parents, and my tax dollars well spent rather than wasted.
    • by adisakp (705706) on Saturday May 19, 2007 @07:07PM (#19194117) Journal
      Son... this is the honest truth about the universe:

      The universe was created by an all-powerful all-knowing being who came down to us in the form of a cosmic Jewish Zombie who was his own father who can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree.

      Your little friends might laugh at you when you tell them, but trust me... pretty much all us grown-ups actually believe this is true.
      • by JohnFluxx (413620)
        > who can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh

        The catholics say it's not symbolic, but that you are actually eating his flesh. It turns into his flesh and blood literally.

        • by kalirion (728907)
          Peter Griffin: Wow, is that really the blood of Christ?
          Preacher: Yes.
          Peter Griffin: Wow, that guy must've been wasted 24 hours a day, huh?
      • Oh, ROFL until it hurts! You're going to "hell" for that one! :-)
  • Hell, (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday May 19, 2007 @02:23PM (#19192045)
    I can barely understand what it is you do.
    • He studies

      >>> "... self-motion perception, from basic-science vestibular processing to the role of real-motion cues in flight simulation".

      So basically he tries to work out "am I moving, am I dizzy, can I see".

      I figure he's a professional drunk.

      >>> "We can easily compete with amusement parks"

      The queue for the water cooler must be horrendous.

    • I can barely understand what it is you do.

      Me too, and I am nearly five.

  • Well... (Score:3, Funny)

    by 0racle (667029) on Saturday May 19, 2007 @02:26PM (#19192065)
    Given what most adults and High School graduates currently seem to understand about Science, nothing.
    • Curious about everything around them, and how everything works.

      Until they hit 5 or 6, at which time pop culture, peer pressure, and the public school system start working together to stomp the spark of interest wight out of most of them....
      • by kestasjk (933987) on Saturday May 19, 2007 @11:23PM (#19195493) Homepage
        That must be why kids never sit down to watch TV until you explain exactly how TVs work, and why they treat santa claus, the easter bunny and monsters under the bed with such skepticism.

        The other day I did the pull-off-my-thumb magic trick to a cute four year old girl, she coldly said "what the hell kind of idiot do you take me for? I've got a trick for ya:" And then she flipped me off and walked away! These toddlers have such an incisive sense of skeptical intuition.
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Grishnakh (216268)
      Don't forget, however, that this guy is in Germany. People there might actually be somewhat knowledgable about science there.

      German guy: you really screwed up by asking such a question on Slashdot. Most of the readers here are American (makes sense since it's an English-language site), and the rest of the world should know by now that we Americans know absolutely nothing about science, and most of us believe the earth is 6000 years old and that dinosaur fossils are fakes placed there by God to test our fa
  • Concrete examples (Score:5, Informative)

    by Metasquares (555685) <slashdot AT metasquared DOT com> on Saturday May 19, 2007 @02:27PM (#19192075) Homepage
    They won't understand vestibular processing, but they will probably understand "that dizzy feeling they get when they spin around". You can then explain why that happens when it does, then talk about manipulating balance for virtual reality (maybe using video games or movies as an example) and the work that your lab does. You just need to find some way to relate it to them while maintaining its "coolness".
    • by Baron_Yam (643147)
      Six year olds, maybe... I wonder how much of a prodigy a kid would have to be at three to get much out of it.

      I say, keep the words small, the concepts basic, and accept that maybe a few of the kids will remember and learn something from the memory when they're older.
    • by tsa (15680)
      Virtual reality? At age 4 people don't even know there is a real reality! Get real! ;)
  • by Coryoth (254751) on Saturday May 19, 2007 @02:36PM (#19192161) Homepage Journal
    According to the studies I've seen 4-year-olds don't tend to have a very good grasp of abstract concepts, and in general understand a lot less than we tend to think -- we adults take a lot of knowledge and conceptual understanding for granted. That doesn't mean you can't make things educational, it just means you have to be careful with exactly what your goals are. I'm guessing that for 4-year-olds even getting them to realise that there is a problem (that we can be cued to think we're moving when we're not) would be a good start. You can probably do that by tricking them into thinking they are moving and then showing them that they weren't. That's relatively abstract -- that their perception of the world isn't always accurate -- but it is the sort of thing that they are starting to get a grasp of at that age anyway. They might not fully grasp it, but there is also the fact even if they don't get it at the time, such experiences have a habit of sticking around and helping inform later realisations, so make it memorable and it will be good. The sort of dawning realisation that could occur, that the world is stranger and more than it appears, and the idea that people (such as yourself) explore such things, well that's a good way to start a fascination with science and trying to understand the world.
    • Coryoth is correct, you don't have a hope in hell of teaching them anything. I've worked with 4-year-olds, and they tend to say things like "You wear a fashion, so you're a jello and I'm going to eat you!" and it makes perfect sense to them. Some can't pull their own pants up. You can have them spin around and get dizzy and say you study that, and that's about all they'll understand. Probably not even that.
    • by MoOsEb0y (2177)
      I beg to differ. At age 4, I was quite capable of understanding concepts such as memory, sentence structure, and scientific method. The only thing I truly lacked in that time frame was experience. I wouldn't consider myself representative of all humans, but it's certainly possible. Children are much smarter than typical adults give them credit for. With regards to the sibling post about jello, I'd say that most children are limited not by their mental capacities, but by social order in what is considered "c
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by markov_chain (202465)
        My dad is a jet propulsion scientist. When I was 4, he had a hard time explaining what he did until he showed me the Navier-Stokes equation. Then I was enlightened :)
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by Timesprout (579035)

        I beg to differ. At age 4, I was quite capable of understanding concepts such as memory, sentence structure, and scientific method.
        Perhaps because it's a well known fact that Mooses develop faster than humans.
      • by Coryoth (254751) on Saturday May 19, 2007 @03:17PM (#19192521) Homepage Journal
        I think it's great that you understood so much at such a very young age. The issue of what children understand and their cognitive development has been studied however, and I hate to break it to you, but you would appear to be an exceptional case. Skim through the Wikipedia article on Theory of Cognitive Development [wikipedia.org] and you'll get the idea. At 4 most children are still developing a basic cognitive grasp of the world.

        Let me stress (again) that this doesn't mean you can't teach children of that age valuable lessons about science, it just means you have to be careful with your goals. You can lecture the kids on the scientific method, and they'll repeat it back to you beautifully (kids of that age are incredible sponges for information), but that won't mean they'll understand it. I think you'll hve greater impact by playing to their understanding than their remarkable ability to absorb facts. Teaching them that there is more to the world than what their senses tell them, by demonstrating to them (via nice practical demonstrations that they can take part in) that their senses can be easily fooled, is a very valuable lesson. If that goes well you can cover more.

        By all means don't underestimate kids, but overestimating their understanding will be at least as bad. At that age (and with the sort of time frame we're talking about) it is far better to give them questions that they can think about and explore themselves than answers which they may or may not understand.
      • I guess it's a different experience for everyone, which is why it's worth taking the individual into account. I can't remember a thing before the age of 5, but I know I was already programming by then (to be honest, it's quite creepy that my first memories include already being computer proficient..) I guess this means younger kids can learn, but the skills picked up will become more innate than factually memorable.
  • Focusing on the hypothetical roots of the scientific process may help. Kids know all about imagination, you could help them understand the basics of how their daydreams could change the world using your research as an example of how a dream gets refined into reality.

    It would help if you prepared some funny examples of hair-brained failures that eventually led to workable concepts... something like the (now) comical early attempts at flying vehicles that helped refine the field and lead to the first viable
  • by bill_mcgonigle (4333) * on Saturday May 19, 2007 @02:42PM (#19192215) Homepage Journal
    My daughter will be four in a couple months. She understands quite a bit conceptually - how our bodies work (most organs, muscles, bones, red vs. white blood cells), how the Moon was created, what the atmosphere is like on Venus, why we see the moon in different phases (use balls and flashlights!), why the sky is blue, how trees reproduce, why magnets attract (as much as I do anyway...), why balloons go up, why pancakes rise, and lots more.

    But, she's just learning basic addition and subtraction now, so I'm not even bothering with conceptual models of chemistry, physics, etc. I also don't think she gets how far it is to her grandmother's house, much less what a light-year is.

    These are a few guidelines I find useful:
    • relate everything to something they know, and use every opportunity of something unexplained to learn about science
    • describe the idea science - how we can test whether an apple will always fall downwards, vs. how we can test if Uncle Steve is an angel now (the study of the natural vs. supernatural)
    • start basic and teach in little pieces over time - they all build on each other.
    • If they don't get it you haven't broken it down enough - you may find yourself not fully comprehending a subject when you try to teach it
    • Be patient
    • Don't ever say, "because that's how it is."
    • "I don't know," is a great answer
    • "Let's look it up," is even better.

    Because of the building-blocks nature of science, I'm not sure how much you can teach to an entire group of kids who may be at square-1, but you can start with square 1. Maybe make them aware of their physical presence. Have them notice that they feel something when you flip them over. Play a movie for them with lots of motion while they're standing up and have them notice that they sway side-to-side.

    Perhaps the greatest realization is that those first basic concepts are just as important as understanding the curvature of space in a warped fifth-dimension string theory, because you can't get anywhere without any of the underlying layers. And the sooner you start, while the brain is making connections like mad, the better off they're going to be later in life.

    Oh, and make it fun. Science is a kick.
    • She understands quite a bit conceptually - how our bodies work (most organs, muscles, bones, red vs. white blood cells), how the Moon was created, what the atmosphere is like on Venus, why we see the moon in different phases (use balls and flashlights!), why the sky is blue, how trees reproduce, why magnets attract (as much as I do anyway...), why balloons go up, why pancakes rise, and lots more.


      I'm starting to worry here that your daughter understands more than me.
  • be careful (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Janek Kozicki (722688) on Saturday May 19, 2007 @02:43PM (#19192221) Journal
    I remember reading an article about demographic problems in germany. People have a very small amount of kids, and due to this problem they have unreasonably high expectations about their kids. It is frequent to hire a private teacher to work with the kid, to find many extra exercises for them like swimming, studying foreign languages (even at the age of 3!), etc.

    The problem arising from that is a very high psychological stress the kid must cope with. High expectations from their parents cause headaches and other health problems, especially when a kid fails at some task. Give a kid free time.

    In fact at that age all kid's time must be a free time. Your job is to find a method to put fun into a learning. Small kids decide what they want to do with their free time only directed by their enthusiasm at some activity. When you find yourself trying to convince him to do something you have already failed. You can only show your own enthusiasm, and show how fun it is. It's in fact easy to convince a kid when you are enthusiastic yourself (which is not frequent with teachers who are bored with their job). But when you see that the kid loses an interest you must immediatly stop.

    And expect nothing! If you will expect that the kid will be successfull at anything you will only increase the stress level.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by hyfe (641811)

      High expectations from their parents cause headaches and other health problems, especially when a kid fails at some task. Give a kid free time.

      I'm Norwegian, and I've travelled a fair bit, and my experience is that 'utterly insane parents with ridicilous expactations' are a largely American phenomena (and interestingly enough, the Swizz too). Here in Norway we do have some failed soccer-players wanting their sons to be the best, but what comes off here as utterly insane seems mainstream over at your side o

      • From what I've heard being a good soccer player has nothing to do with any innate talent and everything to do with having the right birthdate so that you're at the maximum age when you sign up for junior soccer leagues, making it seem like you have more innate talent because you're bigger and stronger.
        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by hyfe (641811)
          Wow. You've heard very, very wrong then. That statement is very wrong on many levels.

          Either way, soccer has very little to do with physical size, and alot to do with technique, balance and how well you read/understand the play. As far as depth goes, it's the most complicated sport I've ever played (complicated as in doing it, not complicated as in the manager does decisions, or you have to remember xxx formations).

          • by jabuzz (182671)
            Something like 70% of English born "soccer" aka football players in the English Premier League where born between September and December. That is *WAY* out from what you might expect if your age when you sign up to a junior team had no bearing on how successful you might be. The start date for the school year in England is September, making a September born child the oldest in the class and statistically bigger and stronger.

            While conceptually you are correct, reality gets in the way. So for example being ab
            • by hyfe (641811)

              Something like 70% of English born "soccer" aka football players in the English Premier League where born between September and December.

              Well, I'm just plainly not going to believe that untill I see a source.. and even if it is correct, I'd still be vary of drawing conclusions from it, English football is rather savage compared to just about everybody else.

              Either way, schools don't have football teams.

              If you look at the hand size of goal keepers in the Premiership it is substantially above average. Please

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by lawpoop (604919)
        I've spent a year in Finland, and, as an American, I have to agree with you. Although the 'competitive kid' culture varies by region, it is an American phenomenon. I think it also has to do with our competitive corporate culture ( I've heard that Europeans companies think that American companies are dysfunctional workplaces ) and our 15 minutes of fame syndrome. There seems to be a culture of mental illness in our country, and our institutions are generated by it and also feed back into it.
    • by epee1221 (873140)

      It is frequent to hire a private teacher to work with the kid, to find many extra exercises for them like swimming, studying foreign languages (even at the age of 3!), etc.
      When do you think is a better time to start?

      In fact at that age all kid's time must be a free time. Your job is to find a method to put fun into a learning.
      This sounds exactly like my memories of kindergarten.
    • I don't live in Germany, but my son speaks a little German, and can swim, and he's not quite 3. He learned to swim out of fun mostly - he loves water so we spend a lot of time in the pool. I speak a little German round the place (oddly enough, not the rude words either) and he's picked up a few phrases and understands them.

      Oddly enough he is very good at giving the impression of understanding without actually understanding at all.
    • by zobier (585066)
      I remember reading that children perform better when you expect more of them. I'm not saying that being a push, over-expectant parent is a good thing but neither is the current dumbing down of our education system.
    • by bungo (50628)
      problem they have unreasonably high expectations about their kids. It is frequent to hire a private teacher to work with the kid, to find many extra exercises for them like swimming, studying foreign languages (even at the age of 3!), etc.

      My son is 3 1/2, he is fluent in French, English and understands some Dutch. He has gone swimming once a
      week for the last 2 years and loves it - he make us take him extra times on the weekend or Friday
      night as well.

      We don't take up much of his free time at all. We have
  • by TubeSteak (669689) on Saturday May 19, 2007 @02:46PM (#19192251) Journal
    ...a 3-6 year old child is still learning how to read and write (and everything else) at a very basic level.

    I wouldn't expect them to learn much from a field trip. The best you can hope for is that some of them will say "wow, this stuff is cool" and might pursue it later in life.

    IMO, hype up all the cool 'fun' stuff now, because that will stick in their minds. Then, in a few years, try to have another field trip when they'll be able to understand more about what they're seeing.

    If you really want to figure out an educational plan, take the teacher(s) on a tour first & ask them to help you relate it to the kids.

    P.S. The comprehension abilities between a 3 yr old and a 6 yr old are wildly different.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    According to developmental psychologists (starting with Piaget [1]) they don't get a whole load of essential stuff like conservation of volume, trains of events logical connection etc. There's no way that they get statistics, etc. All you could hope would be that they'd have fun exploring the world in a way which facilitates the development of those genetically programmed abilities, so possibly something like a Montessori (AMI, not Froebel or any of that non-tested, hippy touchy-feely stuff) environment w
    • by crush (19364)
      I forgot to add, that Montessori doesn't necessarily focus on science per se, it just tries to provide equipment that is to some extent designed and tested with the idea of making it easy for the child to develop the innate abilities that they're exploring at whatever developmental stage they're at. It's great. Having seen it in action for a few years I'd really recommend it. I do repeat my caution about Froebel and "London Montessori" as being of an inferior type compared to AMI Montessori though.
  • by Requiem Aristos (152789) on Saturday May 19, 2007 @02:50PM (#19192289)
    Realize that terms like "vestibulo-ocular reflex" exist only to permit one person in the field to concisely convey mutually understood concepts to another person in the same field. Using specialized terms will save you perhaps a dozen words at the expense of being understood.

    For a small child, they'll be able to understand that they know when they are moving, and in what direction, and they might even be able to tell you how they [think] they know that. If you have models of the canals in the inner ear, (I'm imagining tubes filled with coloured dye) you can provide an excellent demonstration that they should easily understand.

    (BTW, I agree with Janek Kozicki's comment on high expections. While I was able to understand fairly advanced concepts at a young age, it wasn't because I was under pressure. My environment simply encouraged it; one family friend was a physics professor, another let me help out at the local natural history museum, etc.)
    • by TimToady (52230) on Saturday May 19, 2007 @03:04PM (#19192433)
      A good exercise would be to translate what you want to say into words of one syllable. "How do you know where you are?" and so on...

      And if you can't translate it into words of one syllable, you probably don't really understand it yourself. :-)

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by asninn (1071320)
        Hey, this is German we're talking about. "Monosyllabic German" is a contradiction in terms. :)
      • "I make models on the compu--"
        "I make pict--"
        "I draw on the Compu--"
        "I make stuff for the screen in your room which is bright and shows films which you watch. I put the stuff in the frame on top of each other with math. I make the fake stuff look real and not stand out from the rest of the real stuff in the frame." *Blank stare*
        "I make cool spaceship battles like in star wars." *whheeeeee!*

        Let's not forget "Gameboy" is two syllables. Computer is three syllables. Mac is one. Which is a 5 year old more lik
      • That would work maybe in English speaking countries, but not in Germany. We love big words down here, and, in the good tradition of gnomis/A-Team engineering, when we only have a bucket of small words, we get out our toolbox and build a huge word out of it.

        We don't say "car", for example, we say, "Personenkraftwagen" (basically, "powered wagon for persons") or abbreviate it to PKW. But even if you abbreviate it, "Pe-Ka-Ve", is already 3 syllables. Buggerit. You can't explain cars in one syllable words down
    • by raddan (519638)
      On the other hand, kids are very good at "fast mapping", because nearly every conversation they have involves vocabulary that is new to them. That's not to say that a kid would understand, say, genetic inheritance, if you were to use the field's own terminology exclusively. But kids are very good at learning new vocabularly fast, so give them some pieces that they can chew on. They'll probably ask you what those words mean, on their own, and then you can give them some more.

      Vygotsky and others have th
    • by AtomicSnarl (549626) on Saturday May 19, 2007 @04:28PM (#19193027) Homepage
      "I study self-motion perception, from basic-science vestibular processing to the role of real-motion cues in flight simulation."

      Hi kids! I'm a scientist, and I get to help figure out why people don't just fall over. Everybody stand up. Now, stand on one foot! Good -- Your muscles help keep you up, but why don't you fall? That's part of what I work on. OK, sit down, and I need a volunteer...

      I study self-motion perception, from basic-science vestibular processing to the role of real-motion cues in flight simulation.

      Ok volunteer -- have you ever caught a ball? Well, step back a little bit, and try this (tosses brightly colored sponge). You caught it! Toss it back, go a little further, and I'll try again. (Tosses sponge again) Great! Now -- just how did you know to do that? One time you were close, then you were far away! What happened to make it work? That is part of what I study too!

      Who wants to pretend they're a tree? Stand up and hold out your arm! Wave arm with flappy winged bird doll. (Talk about flying birds coming in for a landing and not hitting the branch, or smacking into the tree.) Airplane pilots have to land their planes too, and not hit the ground too hard. I help figure out better ways to make that happen.

      Visual stimulation and silly setups lead into simple explanations that kids can understand because they were entertained and their curiosity aroused. If they're giggling, they're able to learn becaue they're paying attention!
  • Carl Fenman's dad won the nobel prize while Carl was still a little boy. He told me once that when he was little, when his friends said that their father's had "gone to work" he thought they meant their fathers did what his dad would do: make a cup of tea, sit down in the kitchen, and think.

    On the other hand, in some ways you have it easy: I have tried to explain to my kid that his dad is a Geschaeftsfuehrer...he cannot understand. Finally I gave up and told him I dig up the road and he seemed to find t
    • A grownup would never tell you to your face that he doesn't understand why you got that wonderful office just to sit around and chat with other managers and that this is actually supposedly work. :)
  • Many 4-year olds can actually grasp a lot. In that age they can understand more than you think and they absorb knowledge as a sponge, even if it's unwanted knowledge or not.

    Of course - they are better off learning concrete science than they are of abstract concepts, since abstract concepts almost always requires good understanding of the written word and mathematics.

    Any 4-year old should be able to grasp the use of a hammer and a crowbar, even if that may cause some interesting (or annoying) results.

  • Extrapolate from there.
  • It's all about fun (Score:5, Interesting)

    by raddan (519638) on Saturday May 19, 2007 @03:11PM (#19192473)
    I was fortunate enough to grow up with a father who worked in a very cool lab. My first memories, before anything else, are of being in the lab with my father, who was working on his Ph.D. thesis in Physics, and other grad students, post docs, professors, and machinists. I was exposed to lasers, metalworking machinery, liquid nitrogen (and, unfortunately, liquid nitrogen burns), specialized scientific instruments like the lab's interferometer (yes, they let me crawl around inside), and most importantly, computers. I was given ample time to play with the lab's PDP-11. I made large ASCII-art banners that I printed out on one of the DECWriters (BTW, a kid setting a machine like a daisy wheel printer in motion is sheer joy).

    I knew from an early age that I would not be happy doing anything else but using my brain for a living. Despite a momentary lapse in sanity and earning a Bachelor's in Philosophy, I am now working full time as a network engineer while I spend my nights working toward a Computer Science degree. People don't know where I get the energy to spend my evenings after a long day at work doing mathematics and programming, but I say this-- if you had had the opportunity to look through a periscope that your own father had built, or help your father set up a helium-neon laser in front of the rest of the Cub Scout troop, or any of the other countless cool things I was able to do because of science-- you'd have no end of enthusiasm for the pursuit of knowledge either.

    Just take your kids to work. Build rockets. Build anything with them, really. Anything but science or engineering simply will not be an option for their fervid minds.
  • by tverbeek (457094) on Saturday May 19, 2007 @03:21PM (#19192537) Homepage
    A scientist is someone who tries to learn things that nobody else knows yet. He tries things to see if they do what he thinks they'll do, and if they don't, he figures out why.

    As for your job in particular, it sounds like you figure out how people can tell whether they're upside down, and whether you can trick them into thinking they are. Tell the kids you tried putting upside-down photos in front of people and that didn't fool them, so you're trying to figure out what would do it. See what they say about that. (Hint: every suggestion they give, no matter how ineffective you know it'll be... will be brilliant. Because as far as they know, no one's ever tried it, and they came up with it out of nothing but their own imagination.)
  • Let's try expanding on this by explaining

    1) that a scientist is a person who tries to figure things out. They are into figuring out problems.
    2) There are different kids of scientists.
    3) These Scientists are interested in different kinds of things
    4) Your interest is in how and why people feel things, such as hot cold dizzy, etc. You can use the ten dollar words, just explain them really clearly.
    5) Show and Explain a cool but simple magic trick showing on how you trick people. Explain the trick so
  • by melonman (608440) on Saturday May 19, 2007 @03:24PM (#19192557) Journal
    1: Explosions

    2: Loud explosions

    3: Loud explosions that make bright flashes

    4: Loud explosions that make bright flashes and make their sister scream

    5: Hot Wheels

    6: Very loud explosions

    It's all about motivation. Sell your kids on the possibility of making stuff happen, and when they grow up they'll do whatever it takes to understand how to make stuff happen. The trouble with most science teaching is that it's just too abstract. 4 year-olds are not good at abstract, and, actually, much the same is true of the rest of us.
  • Lemme tell you first of all that I had to look up a good deal of the stuff you said just to have a foggy idea what you might be doing. I dare say that a 4 year old's eyes would glaze over if you started something like this and he would at best interrupt you with a "what does this button do?".

    Forget anything abstract. Forget presentations, sheets of paper, drawings, schematics, and especially forget any kind of writing or numbers. Kids of that age are very tactile, give them something to touch and to "play"
  • My father was a chemist. He'd show all kinds of cool tricks: for example, he would let ground pepper float on water, then dip a matchstick treated with soap in it-- the pepper would run to the sides of the glass. This taught us something about surface tension. Likewise would the trick of sliding coins into a full glass of water until the water would rise above the level of the glass.

    When we had red cabbage for dinner, he always asked my mom to save some of the boiling water- then would show how vinegar woul
    • As the father of an inquisitive (in the scientific sense, not the 14th c. Catholic sense) 4.5 yr-old, I appreciate your post. But must argue that your last paragraph unfairly presents science as a mode of thinking in which people rightly allocate a brief period of attention, as though that choice were normal and correct. Why should the inquisitive, scientific mode of thought not be the predominant, normal one? Science is a tool we use to learn about the universe we live in -- this is a Good Thing (TM), rig
  • Math (Score:2, Interesting)

    by huckamania (533052)
    Some 4yos can understand and apply math. I have a nephew who is about 7 and doing algebra on his own. Who knows, he may be doing calculus and dumbing it down for the adults.

    I would bet that most 4yos understand the scientific method, even if they couldn't explain it. My daughter is 2 years 7 months and I can see the wheels turning in her mind. She has delaying her bed time down to a science. She has learned thru trial and error that being fussy at night results in her being put in bed. So she is e
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by tverbeek (457094)
      I'm sure your daughter is both smart and adorable, and will grow up to be a great {climatologist/homemaker/supermodel/general}. But I wouldn't assume that all of the behavior you describes reflects conscious analytical thinking. At least some of it can be explained by simple conditioning, and many of the more intelligent non-human mammals - e.g. my family's dog - exhibit similarly complex patterns.
  • by hey! (33014) on Saturday May 19, 2007 @05:42PM (#19193545) Homepage Journal
    Your father's job is proving what other people think is wrong.

    It is a hard job and very few people can do it. Fortunately, those can do it probably could do few other jobs.

    Sinerely

    Slashdot Reader
  • Lots of things (Score:3, Insightful)

    by rlp (11898) on Saturday May 19, 2007 @05:52PM (#19193647)
    1) If there's a local 'hands on' science museum - with demos, buttons to push etc., kids love that. A four year old may not understand everything, but will still learn a lot.
    2) Hiking - you can talk about biology, geological processes, etc.
    3) Visit the local zoo - discuss different animal species.
    4) A trip to the local airport, or (better yet) - an air and space museum.
    5) Legos and other 'construction' toys.
    6) Toy plastic dinosaurs and (if available) a visit to a natural history museum.
    7) Read bed time stories about science and exploration.
    8) Computer games and simulatation.
    9) Visit a planetarium or an observatory that has an open house.
    10) Enroll the kid in martial arts, so later when other kids call them a nerd, they can kick their ass. :-)
  • Summary (Score:3, Informative)

    by CaptainCarrot (84625) on Saturday May 19, 2007 @06:27PM (#19193891)
    I think it should be easy to get kids to understand that a scientist's job is to find out about how the world works. Beyond that, the best advice you have received here is to 1) Show them in concrete terms what it is you investigate; 2) Avoid jargon, don't try to teach vocabulary, and express ideas in elementary terms; 3) Make it fun so as to engage them.
  • by ponos (122721) on Saturday May 19, 2007 @08:34PM (#19194569)
    You should only try to satisfy his natural curiosity, to the extent that he is actually interested. I don't think you should force advanced knowledge on a child of his age. Even if he manages to learn he will only have developed "rote" learning and (quite propably) a strong dislike for science, due to the pressure involved. Let him be what he wants to be and gently encourage him.
  • Children always ask questions. The job of a scientist is to answer questions to satisfy our curiosity. However, scientists like to answer questions in a specific way: By doing (experimenting). Philosophers also answer questions, but they do so by thinking, not by doing. Religious prophets answer questions as well, but only by using their imagination. You can explain your job AND the scientific method in this way. Ask your child what makes a piece of iron different from a cup of tea. Bring in some LEG
  • At least as much as a 60 year old.
  • by Anonymous Freak (16973) <prius DOT driver AT mac DOT com> on Saturday May 19, 2007 @10:11PM (#19195123) Journal
    Science is learning. It's that simple. Tell him that you spend your time learning about one specific subject; that you are trying to learn things that nobody else knows. That once YOU learn them, you help share that newfound knowledge with the world.

    That's what science is.
  • by CrankyOldBastard (945508) on Saturday May 19, 2007 @11:44PM (#19195589)
    Last week I was walking my 3 youngest children (ages 8, 6 and 4) to school, when the eldest of them ( my daughter) said "Dad, Elisha's Dad is a policeman!"

    The 6 year old then said "But our Dad's a scientist". The youngest then said "So you mix things together to make explosions then Dad?"

    I said "Some Scientists do that, but I don't. But all scientists ask questions, measure or count things, and then write about it".

    "Oh" he said. "so what do you do then?"

    "It's like this - see how the road is a bit slippery?" - it had just rained that morning. "I start by having an idea that might explain why the road is slippery. Maybe there's lots of tiny little slimy fish on a wet road, and that makes it slippery". He had been amazed by how slippery fish are just the week before.

    "That's silly Dad!" he retorted.

    "Well, let's see if we can find a way to check if that's why the road is slippery. What do cats do when there's a fish lying on the ground?"

    "They lick it" He said. suddenly looking very serious.

    "Is our cat licking the fish on the road? What about the cats that live in both houses next to ours?"

    He looked about. "No, I don't see any cats"

    "So if we counted the number of cats licking little tiny fish so small we can't see them we'd get the number zero."

    "Yes" he said.

    "And we all agree that if there were tiny slimy fish lying on the road making it slippery there would be at least one of the 3 cats licking them?"

    "Yes" he said.

    "So is it likely there are tiny slimy fish on the road making it slippery?"

    "No, there are no cats there".

    "So we decide that the fish idea isn't right. A scientist will then get another idea about why the road is slippery, and he thinks up a way to measure or count something to see if it's a good idea. We keep on going until we get an idea that we can't prove is wrong. That's what all scientists do, no matter what sort of science they study"

    He now has a fair understanding of the scientific method, and he knows that we have to measure (or count) things.
    • by hawkfish (8978)

      He now has a fair understanding of the scientific method, and he knows that we have to measure (or count) things.
      But most importantly, that it involves getting cats to lick things!
    • Now explain to me how pigs' bladders can be used to prevent earthquakes.
  • ... that you must work to earn a living.
  • Daddy is a secret agent, so it is too dangerous for you to come to work with me. You can also use related stories to explain some of that 'Overtime' to the wife.
  • I'm 28 and I don't get what it is that you do. Why don't you see if you can explain it to one of your neighbors first. There's all different levels of understanding, I mean if I were your neighbor and you said anything close to 'physicist' I would start the 'uh huh, ok' nodding ritual until you were done. Tell your son you measure things all day - I'm sure he'll see you for the exciting frat party you truly are.

    ---
    Frat party? [douginadress.com]

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