Films that help parents bring science home to their children | Alom Shaha

Many home science demonstrations fail to convey crucial aspects of the subject. The Royal Institution's ExpeRimental films aim to change that

My parents didn't teach me anything about science. There were no doctors or engineers in my family, I never visited a science museum, looked through a telescope or played with dinosaur toys. I didn't have any of those cultural experiences that many self-confessed geeks say contributed to their love of science. My childhood was devoid of what some people are now calling "science capital", a concept analogous to cultural capital in that possessing it can promote social mobility beyond one's socioeconomic status.

Despite my lack of science capital, my secondary school science teachers were so good that I fell in love with the subject and have gone on to have a rewarding career as a science teacher and communicator. But not every child is as lucky as I was with my teachers, and many people can go through life without ever having the opportunity to engage with science. I'm not one of those people who think all children should be forced to study science until they're 18, but I do believe that a genuine appreciation of science can enrich one's life in ways that literature, music and art cannot.

While many parents read with their children at home and perhaps engage in arts and crafts activities, few have the confidence to carrying out science-based activities with their children. Keen parents can turn to books or the internet to help them find science activities to do with their children (you can find lots of websites that will tell you how to inflate a balloon using baking soda and vinegar and provide a scientific "explanation" of what happens). However, such resources are often limited because they neglect to emphasise some crucial aspects of doing science: looking closely at the world, asking questions, and actually experimenting by identifying variables and seeing what happens when you change them.

I'm hoping that "ExpeRimental", a project I've been working on with the Royal Institution, might be different. We have made a series of short films that show parents doing science-based activities with their children. Unlike many online videos purporting to show "science experiments you can do at home", our films, and the accompanying online resources, focus more on the approach to doing the activity, rather than on recreating a particular phenomenon and parroting its "explanation".

The emphasis in our films is on how to stimulate children's curiosity and encourage them to start thinking like scientists and engineers. The evidence from the feedback we've had so far is that parents don't just want information on "the science bit", but guidance on how to interact with children while doing the experiment or demonstration. It might seem obvious to some readers of this blog, but we've had parents tell us that it was only when they watched one of our films that they realised that talking and asking questions while doing a science activity were just as important as following the instructions for making a baking-soda volcano or launching a balloon-rocket.

The Royal Institution has a long history of making science accessible to the public. It is most famous for its Christmas Lectures and science communicators speak fondly of it as the home of the science demo. The Royal Institution is also the setting where 10 of the chemical elements and electromagnetic induction were discovered, so it can make a strong case for the bold claim on the sign outside its entrance that says "science lives here".

ExpeRimental has its own motto – "bringing science home" – and unlike lectures and other forms of science communication, which often treat the public as a passive audience, this project aims to encourage people to be active in their engagement with science.

We hope that the films and other resources we have created will help parents who lack confidence or expertise in science feel that they could try out a science-based activity, in much the same way that they might try an art or craft one. They are our small contribution to increasing the "science capital" of the people who watch our films and try out the activities. If we're successful, perhaps families around the country might feel that their home also merits a sign saying "science lives here".

ExpeRimental launches on 17 July with a new activity video and resources every Thursday throughout the summer holidays


Alom Shaha

The GuardianTramp

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