Youngsters learn more about science online

How to keep boredom at bay and help youngsters learn more about science this summer

CorrespondentJune 6, 2011 

Debbi Knaus' son likes to perform brain surgery.

Miles also enjoys doing a little knee surgery and working with stem cells - and you'll catch him doing one of those things nearly every day this summer. It's a habit he started during the school year, something to grab his attention after he got home from school at Emma Conn Elementary School in Raleigh and before he called it a night.

One of the third-grader's favorite websites is - and his mother loves it, too, because he's feeding an interest in science every day.

Knaus - and parents and scientists nationwide - have turned to the Internet to help explain complex scientific topics and spark some excitement about a subject in which U.S. students are lagging.

A survey by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in 2009 showed that, among 15-year-olds in 33 of the world's developed nations, the U.S. ranked 21st in math (below average) and 13th in science (average). And according to National Science Teachers Association recommendations, if teachers don't engage students in science by seventh grade, students likely are lost to science careers forever.

Anne Jefferson teaches hydrogeology at UNC Charlotte. By college, she said, it's often too late for her to turn her students' hearts and minds toward science as a career.

She needs parents to get the love of science started, and she encourages them to use the Internet to help them.

"Parents are the single biggest influence in a kid's life till middle school," she said. "Show them how important science is by showing them how it's related to the world. This can help push the meter."

Knaus, a technical writer, tries to teach Miles, 8, and daughter Mazzi, 5, about science whenever the opportunity presents itself.

"Because science can describe anything around us," she said.

When the weather turns icy, she explains that the huge increase in auto accidents results from a change in the coefficient of friction on the road, and "friction is what keeps us on the Earth."

In other words - it's slippery out there.

The lesson doesn't have to be quite so technical. Kevin Zelnio, a research assistant at the Center for Marine Science at UNC Wilmington, often searches YouTube videos with his son.

They're not looking for what's gone viral.

"When he says he wants to see penguins, we use it as an inquiry tool," said Zelnio, who helped present a session called "Parenting With Science Online" at a science bloggers meeting in Research Triangle Park last winter.

Searching YouTube and Google Images is a good starting point, Jefferson said. Even when children are too young to read, you can show them pictures or mini-movies about the things that interest them.

Her daughter, 4-year-old Elisabeth, is starting to learn scientific inquiry as second nature. The two were reading something about elephants, and Elisabeth said she didn't think those animals had tusks. So Jefferson did an image search online so Elisabeth could see for herself.

One of Elisabeth's favorite science-related online games is at

In "Sink or Float," Cookie Monster drops things into a fish tank and tries to predict with friend Emma whether they will sink or float.

"She knows the term 'hypothesis' now," Jefferson said.

It's an easy experiment mother and daughter can re-create in the yard at home. They'll also head to the kitchen to mix substances together - the more food coloring, the better - and talk about what's going on.

Jefferson said she tries to forget about the mess the experiments might make and just let Elisabeth have fun.

"She's very into doing different experiments," she said. "It's more the encouraging of the scientific experimentation and talking about the process that's important."

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