Young Children are Scientists
by Stephen Karmol
Sometimes I study mechanical and electrical engineering with young children. It’s an inquiry-based process where we share ideas, conduct experiments, and build theories by taking stuff apart and making new stuff together. I call it take-apart workshop. We might make robots. Don’t forget the glitter! It’s science.
Wait, but what is science? Here’s my working definition:
“On a deeper level, the scientist is involved in the process of inquiry—of raising and trying to answer questions about the world in which we live…
Science as we are defining it is thus quite broad; it involves experimentation, creativity, and problem solving, all of which come into play as children try to understand the world.” –Chaille and Britain, The Young Child as Scientist
To initiate this particular study I pose a question: what is electricity?
Everett: Electricity goes through wires.
Juni: Well, when the wires stop working the building stops working.
Stephen: What parts of the building stop working?
Juni: The lights…
Cypress: There’s also batteries. Wires give batteries electricity.
Avi: It can go in iPads for movies.
Everett: The Boneville Dam is where electricity comes from. I took a tour there once.
Stephen: How does the dam make electricity?
Everett: I don’t know…
Next, I invited the children to use black line pen and yellow marker to respond to the question: how does electricity work?
Ava drew a light-bulb and a battery.
Hailey drew a musical keyboard, a robot, a computer, a variety of batteries, and “the part that turns the heat up on an oven.”
Cypress drew electricity going through wires attached to a battery.
And then we got down to work.
The studio was bursting with energy: each new tiny screw removed was met with expressions of pride and accomplishment, every item opened met with cheers of excitement. Their exploration was social and collaborative and filled with problem solving and shared discovery: “hey come look at this!” and “can anyone help me with this?” and on and on. And then our hour was up. Nobody wanted to leave—everyone couldn’t wait to come back.
There are a great many awesome things that happen in take-apart workshop: young children excitedly engaging in the real work of engineers and scientists, developing their understanding together, is at its core. Children’s capacities as natural theory-builders are honored and supported.
This is foundational STEAM work that can be done in any and every preschool class-room. Grab some screwdrivers, an old VCR, some alligator clips and nine-volt batteries and dive in:
“I wonder what might happen if we…?”