By Sean Carroll | June 15, 2007 12:12 pm

There’s a scene in Six Degrees of Separation, where the Donald Sutherland character tells some friends at a party:

I remembered asking my kids’ second-grade teacher:

“Why are all your students geniuses?”

Look at the first grade – blotches of green and black. The third grade – camouflage.

But your grade, the second grade…

Matisses, every one.

Like art, science relies on a combination of understanding and curiosity. As we gain wisdom and experience over time, we should be better able to understand what is going on; but with time can also come cynicism and boredom, especially if one’s exposure to the subject fails to convey the underlying mystery behind the essential grunt work. So there can be a point of diminishing returns.

In art, if John Guare’s judgment is to be trusted, that point often comes between second grade and third grade. What about science, you are no doubt wondering? Eli Lansey has done the research, and has the answer to your question: between fifth and sixth grade. The same set of cool physics demos, presented to each class, was met with dramatically different responses; excitement and independent investigation from the fifth graders, blase indifference from the sixth graders.

Like any good scientist, Eli also has a theory about why this is the case. What is more, he has data to back it up! I won’t give away the theory, but it was inspired by classroom poster presentations that looked like this:

the scientific method
Pretty good penmanship. Nothing to do with science. In fact, a pretty good approximation of horrid, soul-sucking antiscience. No wonder kids get turned off.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Society
  • Jeremy Chapman

    Not too long ago I reminisced about what I had learned in science classes prior to high school. The sad truth is that I couldn’t remember ever really learning anything worthwhile. The closest thing to the scientific method that was taught to middle school students was a template for a lab report (hypothesis, precedure, etc.). The rest of the time was filled with demos desperately designed to excite and motivate, and faux research which entailed looking things up in the textbooks (exactly like the poster in your post). It seems like those years in science class were more of a stall until students were developed enough to carry out real experiments. Is there a better way? Is it the mathematics that determines when a student is developed enough to carry out real science, or is it something else?

  • Ian B Gibson

    .Like any good scientist, Eli also has a theory about why this is the case.

    I think you mean hypothesis. I know I may be being a bit pedantic, but when scientists confuse the terms theory and hypothesis, it makes it easier for antiscience people to deliberately mislead the public. For instance: ‘evolution is just a theory’.

  • twaters

    I remember watching with envy some of the eighth graders making out every day before class when I got to the sixth grade…this kept me pretty unfocused on science, which seemed mostly all JASON project oriented in my day anyway.

  • Yvette

    In my school I remember 8th grade was Earth and Space, and 7th grade was biology, meaning 6th grade was technically “physics” but the most physicsy thing we did was build continuous vs parallel circuits. Seriously, I remember having to write a report on how a thermostat works, which was such a boring task that I made up my own explanation because I didn’t want to copy from the book.

    6th grade was also the year where the boredom made me slack off very seriously in that field, and I subsequently wasn’t allowed to enter science fair that year because of poor grades. It was five years before I entered another one again, for reasons that had nothing to do with the school system.

  • Jawfish

    My children’s excellent 5th grade teacher used to say,
    “All the girls get hormones for Christmas”

    As a parent I can only observe that there are good reasons school boards separate middle schools from elementary and high school. We were blessed with more than one teacher who had been an actual researcher. I think both kids are headed for science degrees in college.


  • Pyracantha

    In all your fervent wishes to attract American children to science and careers in science, I sense a divide or even a big chasm. You have fresh-minded, eager young folk fascinated with science and maybe even wanting to be professional scientists. And then, on the other end, I read one testimony after another from grown-up scientists bewailing the impossibility of anyone except a tiny sliver of the elite finding good jobs in science let alone the Nirvana of academic tenure. Why encourage children to go into a field where they will struggle mightily for twenty years and most likely not find rewarding work even with all their best and brightest efforts?

    Maybe young science aspirants shouldn’t read certain blogs (I don’t mean this one).

  • Sean

    It’s very difficult to get a job doing science, and we should be honest about that. But that’s no reason not to enjoy a lifelong love for and interest in the subject. Most people can only do one thing for a living, but are probably interested in all sorts of different things.

  • Yvette

    For Pyracantha-

    I’ve thought about this a little myself. Sean makes a good point, but I think the implications of the question are a bit more telling- namely, there is a perception by many that anyone who has a science degree but doesn’t actually get a tenured job has Failed. Most departments point to success by stating how their students have gone onto x graduate school or a postdoc at y, as if that is the pinnacle anyone could hope for.

    The reason this is not a very fair thing to do is only 1/20 people with a physics degree, for example, actually go onto become tenured physics professors! Thus, you usually you don’t hear from those 19/20 people who didn’t have professorship as the final goal, whereas science professors give the perception that there’s no other loftier goal to achieve with a science degree (albeit they don’t deliberately try to do it… usually). Yet the science degree did come in handy to the writer with a science column, the engineer who designed a new part for his company, the lawyer with great logic and attention for detail…

    I guess my point is that one of the greatest PR mistakes of science is to keep giving the impression, intentionally or not, that being a scientist is the ultimate lofty goal involved. It’s not. Learning about science is about learning about how to solve problems and thinking about the world around you, and I’ve yet to hear of that being a detrimental skill to someone in the long run!

  • Count Iblis

    I agree with Yvette. I.m.o. we should teach a lot more science in primary and secondary education because it is useful even if you are not a scientist. Also, if a large fraction of the population has learned a lot about science, then that enables people to discuss problems in a more effective way.

    Science is also part of our culture, so even without these benefits it would be a good thing if people knew more about it.


    All children learn history in school. I’ve never heard people complaining about that on the gronds that most children won’t become historians.

    All children learn literature in school. I’ve never heard people complaining about that on the grounds that most children won’t become writers.

    All children learn about art in school. I’ve never heard people complaining about that on the gronds that most children won’t become artists.

    All children learn to sing in school. I’ve never heard people complaining about that on the gronds that most children won’t become singers.

  • Maynard Handley

    Hmm. Everything said so far assumes that most of humanity is interested in a scientific explanation of the world around them. We have vast amounts of evidence that this is not so, and precious little that it is.
    How about, before trying to fix whatever allegedly goes wrong in middle school, we prove that there is something “going wrong”.

    (1) I am not saying that kids don’t change in some way between the ages of 10 and 14, and between 14 and 18, and that part of that change includes their attitudes to science. I am asking whether that should be laid at the feet of school rather than simply being part of the way humans grow up.

    (2) I am not saying we simply accept an ignorant population. I would love for more citizens to understand science. But I believe in curing problems using the SCIENTIFIC method, ie first of all make sure you actually have the details correct rather than simply going on hunches and what your intuition and the zeitgeist tell you are plausible.

    (3) What exactly are we after?
    – Respect for science and scientists? I think we have this to about as good an extent as it’s reasonable to expect. Scientists may be viewed a certain way in popular culture, but then so are accountants, politicians, lawyers, janitors. Sure we’d all like more money spent on science but again, historically speaking, right now is pretty good. Not as good as the occasional year in the past, perhaps not great for any one particular field, but things could be far worse. For the most part Americans like the constant stream of goodies that technology provides them, and have not followed too aggressively the occasional political luddite who tries to get them riled about the size of the budget of NASA, NOAA, NHS etc.

    – Better understand of science? Sure, we all want that, but IMHO, if that’s ever going to happen, the issues lie elsewhere than what is being discussed here. In particular I’d argue (and will doubtless be crucified for this) that teaching the scientific method is actually the enemy here. If we want a population better capable of rudimentary understaning of important topics (what is DNA, what are GMOs, what is global warming) the scientific community need to agree on a basic corpus of knowledge, the equivalent of something like Hirsch’s _Cultural Literacy_ and then teach those facts as facts and stories — ie the same way something like history is taught. But that is not what happens now, and I don’t see things changing in the future.
    First there will be warfare between each science about what should be taught (is it, for example, essential for the purposes of an “educated citizenry” to teach the extent of the Milky Way and beyond that the universe?)
    Second each faction will insist that not only do their facts get taught, but they get taught in such a way as to train new little scientists. The chemists will insist that chemistry lessons include a substantial lab component, the biologists that it include dissection, the physicists that it include mathematical problems.

    And thus we see the essenential incoherence of this enterprise. Do we want to teach “science for citizens: a description of how the world works” or do we want to teach “science for young scientists: how to use a scalpel, a bunsen burner and elementary calculus”? If you refuse to accept this dichotomy, well, IMHO, you are the reason there is this problem in the first place.

    An anecdote: I was trained as a physicist, all the way to grad school and my MS. I remain fascinated by science, reading plenty of math, physics, geology, etc books for pleasure. For the past few years I’ve been reading a lot of biology which, let’s face it, is the happening science right now. But I hated biology in school, and dropped it from my courses as soon as I had the chance. Why? Not because I didn’t find the subject matter interesting but because I had zero interest in the “being trained as a biologist” material (microscopes, dissection, how to draw) that formed 50% of the class.

    In summary:
    – I suspect the bulk of humanity has zero interest in science beyond the goodies it provides, and that to pretend otherwise is foolish. Accept this and concentrate on at least training these people not to politically meddle with the system.
    – Of the small fraction that are interested, what they are interested in is what science has learned about how the world works, not how to be a scientist of a particular type. Accepting this, and teaching most courses this way, with pre-scientist training being a very specialized and limited course will, IMHO, result in much better results all round.

  • Chris W.

    Regarding Sean’s comment (#7) — “But that’s no reason not to enjoy a lifelong love …”: I think nerd/geek stereotypes do a lot of damage here. Pursuing a career provides a social rationale for what might otherwise seem like aimless and somewhat eccentric curiosity to one’s peers. If one is lucky, one will have many peers with diverse interests and little or no embarrassment about their intellectual enthusiasms. Many (most?) people aren’t so lucky.

    Another version of this is the notion that when learning hard subject matter one should focus one’s time, energy, and commitment on those topics that are most clearly relevant to one’s anticipated career, or more generally, practical (remunerative *) ends. Doing otherwise is considered an unwise allocation of resources. Professional specialization exacerbates this; it tends to engender a complacent disregard for the unity and interconnectedness of knowledge and cross-disciplinary nature of much problem-solving.

    The best antidote to such prejudices is (1) caring more about the understanding and solution of problems than return on investment, and (2) understanding what a complicated, non-linear, and protracted process problem-solving can be, especially these days, when most of the open problems of real importance** are pretty damn hard.

    [* An American motto: If you’re so smart, how come you ain’t rich?]

    ** NOTE: Regarding the importance of working on “important” problems, Richard Feynman and Terence Tao (to take just two prominent examples) have warned against excessive preoccupation with working on big questions.

  • ike

    Yes – what’s wrong with this picture? Horrid, soul-sucking antiscience that deliberately misleads the public – that’s a bummer. Too bad that’s been the stock in trade of the public relations industry ever since ‘science’ became the new religion.

    There real problem here is what is known as Lysenkoism – scientists who put scientific accuracy in second place behind the need to conform to political reality and gain positions within the politicized scientific establishment.

    It’s going on at academic institutions all across this country, and is indeed a travesty. The massive efforts made to bury the science behind global warming are one example – other examples include physicists who pander to the military defense contractors, and chemists who do proprietary research for pharmaceutical corporations on the public dime.

    In an era when children are banned from playing with chemistry sets (due to ‘terrorism’ concerns?) it’s no surprise that the first step is “open the science book” (open the “holy book of science”?).

    The first step should be to go take a look at the world! “I was curious about rocks. So, I went out and gathered ten different kinds of rocks. I weighed them, measured their volume in water, and calculated their density.” That should be how science is taught to children.

    If the students are going to learn from a book, they should be summarizing what scientists had actually done: “I read what scientists had done with ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica. They measured CO2 and CH4 in the cores, and found that the warm periods were always associated with high levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This indicates that CO2 helps to warm the climate.”

    That’s science – the travesty in the image above is what a child who has been subjected to too much rote memorization by an authoritarian teacher will produce.

    It does seem that much modern “science education” is little more than rote memorization – no wonder the sixth graders are sick of it! Please, let’s let the kids have the chemistry sets back! Imagine an ‘art student’ whose sole education consisted of reading books on art history – but that is a good description of modern science education.

  • Eugene Wallingford

    I just posted a note on my blog yesterday about some work being done by Alan Kay, one of our most eminent computer scientists and a person deeply concerned with teaching math and science better, especially to young children. He expresses a lot of the same concerns you and your commenters express. His team is also doing some neat work in an attempt to redress the problem. You might want to check it out. His interest is very much in sync with physics and relatively advanced math.

  • Jennifer Ouellette

    “The first step should be to go take a look at the world! “I was curious about rocks. So, I went out and gathered ten different kinds of rocks. I weighed them, measured their volume in water, and calculated their density.” That should be how science is taught to children.”

    That’s precisely the point I was going to make, but Ike beat me to it. I’m way behind on reading the CV comment threads. :) Speaking as a non-scientist who nonetheless loved science until mid-high school, it’s definitely about letting kids actually DO stuff, i.e., exploring questions they already have using a scientific approach. Biology? We got to dissect things. Astronomy? We got to observe the night sky with a small telescope (plus, there’s a mythological tie-in with all the constellation names, and that appeals to humanities types like me). It was only when I took a chemistry class that was all about demos (we didn’t get to participate) and rote memorization that my interest completely waned. Demos are cool and have their place as a motivating factor, but they’re not a substitute for real hands-on exploration.


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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