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In Defense of Sparkly Science

On the top corner of every sheet of math and science homework that my 7-year-old daughter brings home each week is a space to write her name. It doesn’t simply say “name” though. It says “scientist” or “mathematician.” My daughter’s teacher is big on giving the kids some control over their education. She wants them to identify as “scientists,” “mathematicians” and “authors.” She wants them in the driver’s seat. And it’s working.

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My daughter is a scientist. The top item on her Christmas list last year was a microscope, but not just any microscope, mind you. No, she wanted a purple and turquoise microscope kit with a pair of matching clear glasses because she’s a “fancy scientist.” She’s the kind of scientist who runs outside to dig up worms, roots and other things lurking in the mud to create her own slides to study, but she does it with a glittery tutu around her waist. Even math-loving scientists like a little glitz, you know.

That in mind, I’m always a bit discouraged when I see parents sucked into the pink versus blue rabbit hole when it comes to kids and science. The Carnegie Science Center recently made headlines when they offered a workshop for young girls titled “Science with a Sparkle” about healthy and beauty products. For the record, my daughter would jump at the chance to take a course with that description. Her latest quest when it comes to science experiments? “Mommy, you have to let me figure out how to make my own all-natural lip gloss for big girls so they don’t put chemicals on their lips!” Remind me to tell you about the all-natural perfume another time…

While I can certainly understand the frustration of the parent who posted the list of science courses for boy scouts versus the one sparkle course for girl scouts (can’t we offer all courses for both boys and girls, including the sparkly one?), I think the missing link is that we need to ask our daughters what excites them. Science is a broad topic. It can mean robotics and engineering, but it can also mean any other number of interesting topics. When The Carnegie Science Center offered robotics and engineering for girls in the past, kids didn’t sign up. They wanted to engage girls with something new and exciting because science isn’t just robotics and engineering.

It’s up to us to help nurture those passions so that our kids can thrive, even if that means things like sparkly science and purple microscopes.

While I believe there are a probably a number of boys who would enjoy that science of sparkle class and girls who would love to learn chemistry, I think we need to spend more time paying attention to the unique interests of our children. Our kids have big ideas and specific interests. Some love science, some can’t get enough math, some prefer to write, some love art, music and other creative outlets.

Our kids have passion. It’s up to us to help nurture those passions so that our kids can thrive, even if that means things like sparkly science and purple microscopes with matching glasses. What can we do?

1. Ask about their interests. I’m always amazed by how many parents seem to sign their kids up for enrichment activities without discussing those activities with their kids in advance.

Ask your kids what excites them. What do they love to do when they have free time? Do they love to cook? Find a cooking class (you might even find a “science of cooking” class). Do they love computers and video games? Think coding. Do they love gardening? Environmental science is fun. Are they artsy? Try out a few art programs to find the right fit.

2. Watch for clues. Some kids aren’t big talkers, but they always leave clues here and there. Tune into your kids when they’re home to get a better understanding of their unique interests.

Your little builder might not tell you that he’s trying to figure out what makes a tall building stand above the city without falling down, but the time he spends building those enormous (and slightly wobbly) buildings with anything he can find should clue you in about his particular interests.

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3. Prioritize unstructured time. If you want your kids to discover their passions and interests, you need to allow time for discovery. When kids are busy running from activity to activity, they don’t have time to consider their goals and interests.

Give them the gift of time and watch them find their way in this world in return.

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