Helping youth succeed in science – Part 2: Asking questions

Successful scientists ask questions. Are we preparing Michigan’s youth for success?

In 2011, the National Research Council released a report, “A Framework for K-12 Science Education.” Michigan State University Extension and Michigan 4-H are working to increase science literacy through the inclusion of the Scientific and Engineering Practices described in the framework – and you can too!

The Scientific and Engineering Practices outlines eight simple but powerful practices about how to engage youth in science and engineering to increase STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) literacy. The eight practices are:

  1. Asking questions (science) and defining problems (engineering).
  2. Developing and using models.
  3. Planning and carrying out investigations.
  4. Analyzing and interpreting data.
  5. Using mathematics and computational thinking.
  6. Constructing explanations and designing solutions.
  7. Engaging in argument from evidence.
  8. Obtaining, evaluating and communicating information.

This article will discuss the first practice, asking questions and defining problems.

Where have all the questions gone? Take a moment and think about the average 3-year-old. What is their favorite word? Why. “Why is the soap slippery, the sky blue, that man sleeping, the dog barking?” Now think about the average fifth grader in school when the teacher asks, “Any questions?” and there are none! As an adult working with youth, one of the most important things you can do is to reignite that curiosity in our youth. By asking questions and seeking answers, science has made many great advances.

You can engage youth in an exploration of their world through the use of thought provoking questions: questions without simple yes/no answers designed to engage youth in discussions or arguments. Questions like, can you make a square bubble? How does oxygen get in the water? What do you think would happen if rabbits stayed white in the summer? Using questions designed to help youth develop theories and explanations of their world as they explore it will increase their science literacy.

The use of questions is also important when defining problems (engineering). Questions are used in engineering to clearly define and understand the challenges connected to a problem so that a solution may be designed. What would happen if we changed this or that? Is there a stronger material we could use? Where do the materials come from? What is the cost of the materials? Where will the product be used? Who will use it? Will they be able to use it easily? How much will it cost to make the product?

Questions are a great way to engage youth in conversations about their world and in defining solutions to problems. Physicist Isidor Isaac Rabi stated, “My mother made me a scientist without ever intending to. Every other child after school is asked: So, what did you learn today? But not my mother, Izzy. She would say: Did you ask a good question today? That difference, asking good questions, made me become a scientist.”

This is Part 2 of a series of nine articles that will explore a variety of ways you can help youth engage in Scientific and Engineering Practices. Although the series will address individual practices, it is important to remember that as a whole they increase STEM literacy and like science itself, the individual practices do not function in a vacuum, but are intertwined with STEM exploration. To learn more about the Scientific and Engineering Practices, you can download a free copy of “A Framework for K-12 Science Education,” or Appendix F of the Next Generation Science Standards.

To learn more about helping youth succeed in science, read the other articles in this series listed below and explore the MSU Extension Science and Technology website.

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