A new company called Mystery Science promises an approach to teaching science that inspires kids to truly understand and love the subject. I recently spoke with Keith Schacht, who co-founded the company with Doug Peltz, in order to learn more about their approach, how it’s different from the way science is usually taught today, and why he thinks it’s superior. —Daniel Wahl
Daniel Wahl: Why do children need to learn science? What’s in it for them?
Keith Schacht: Children need to learn science for the same reason they need to learn the other core subjects: to prepare them for life; to prepare them to achieve their values and be happy. Science education, as well as education in the other core subjects, prepares children by developing their ability to think. This means helping them gain lots of useful knowledge about the world and acquire proper habits of thinking. Science class is the “lots of useful knowledge” class for the physical world around them.
DW: How is science typically taught in grade schools today?
KS: When children reach 3rd or 4th grade, they often start to complain that science class is boring. Up until then science class meant keeping a pet lizard in the classroom, growing plants, and collecting leaves—all valuable experiences to have. But around 3rd grade, science classes begins to depart from the simple identification and classification of things and begins to deal with more abstract knowledge. Students are introduced to words like “energy” and “orbit,” as they approach middle school they label the parts of the cell and the layers of the Earth’s interior, and they memorize the steps of photosynthesis. The ability to parrot definitions and label diagrams is treated as scientific understanding, but this “knowledge” is disconnected from the world around them. “How do we know there is a molten core in the middle of the Earth?” is not a question that will be answered. Students are rarely, if ever, presented for evidence to support the conclusions they spend time memorizing. Assertions are treated as true because the teacher says they are true. Is it any wonder that the belief in creationism is on the rise?
DW: What kind of understanding or lack thereof is the result? And what does this mean for the future of a child who is taught science in this way?
KS: After a few years of learning scientific words instead of learning about the world, most kids conclude that science is esoteric and boring. By the time they graduate high school, they have spent 1,000 hours in science classes. Yet most adults lack even a basic understanding of the physical world they live in. They don’t know how the lock works they put their key into every day. They don’t know whether their grandmother who has pancreatic cancer is going to die—they wonder, “What is the pancreas? Can you live without one?” They have no idea why it’s cold on top of mountains and how to reconcile that with the vague awareness that hot air rises. Yet as children become adults they will have to decide whether to vaccinate their children, diagnose why their internet connection has stopped working at home, and determine what kind of diet they should eat. They are ill equipped to take actions like these.
DW: What is the Mystery Science method of teaching science? And why is it superior?
KS: Mystery Science departs from conventional science classes both in what is taught and in how it’s taught. Every scientific conclusion began as a mystery in the world—someone was surprised by something they experienced and they set out to discover the cause behind it. Conventional science classes mistakenly begin by asserting the conclusion without ever presenting the mystery that motivated it. They teach science backwards.
Every Mystery Science lesson begins by presenting students with a mystery. Students are guided to make observations and connections between what they’re observing to help them resolve the mystery. The “scientific conclusion” is the climax of this investigation—the solution to the mystery.
But we also don’t think that a scientific conclusion is intrinsically valuable to understand. One thousand hours may sound like a lot of time, but when you have 500 years of life-changing scientific discoveries to catch children up on you have to be highly selective in what you cover. We view children’s class time as sacred. Every lesson gives students knowledge and develops habits of thinking which have a clear usefulness to children’s life both now and when they become adults.
DW: I understand that Mystery Science will produce lessons that come with videos and a guide for teachers. What can you tell me about these lessons and how they will aid educators?
KS: Elementary teachers are expected to teach and be experts on every subject. Most elementary teachers do not have a background in science. Very often they dislike the subject or struggle to teach it. We’ve designed lessons that make it easy for someone without a background in science to guide students through a process of discovery. We provide teachers with everything they need to teach.
Each lesson is a mystery that begins with a one minute opening video. The teacher presses play on the video for the class and the video presents the mystery. We then provide the teacher with a couple of questions to ask aloud and lead the students in discussing and thinking about. When the class is ready, the teacher presses play on the next video and the mystery is taken further. We prepare about 20 minutes of video and discussion material for each lesson. This is all set up for a hands-on activity where students actually solve the mystery. To make doing the activity easy, we provide the teacher a complete list of inexpensive and easy-to-obtain supplies and step-by-step video instructions they can play for the class.
DW: Will future lessons refer back to earlier mysteries and the process of discovering the solutions—or will each lesson essentially be self-contained?
KS: Yes and yes. A helpful analogy to consider is how the episodes of a good television show fit together. Each episode is self-contained, but each episode builds on the previous and moves the arc of the season forward. Similarly, each Mystery Science lesson begins with a mystery that the students will resolve by the end of the lesson. But across the whole unit—which is a collection of roughly ten lessons—each lesson builds on the previous one.
DW: What kind of results have you seen so far?
KS: The single most important result that we are striving for is that children gain a real understanding of the world around them. During this past school year, twenty-five teachers taught their first Mystery Science unit. I’ll share some quotes from them talking about the results they saw:
“After starting Mystery Science, we had parent teacher conferences and a parent remarked that whatever I’m doing with science right now, it’s really engaging. Cody comes home and tells us what he’s learned and he makes us go outside every night and look at the moon and find the constellations.”
“This curriculum presents science in a way that makes my children think beyond just what is being taught. The way it uses visuals and sets up the mystery, everyone is still thinking about the concepts long after the lesson is done.”
“What struck me about this science program was that my son can explain things to me after the lessons are done—that’s not a given with most science classes. With these lessons the ideas sink into his head so he can really understand and explain them—the ideas are presented in an understandable concrete way. That’s a real strength of the program.”
DW: Regarding the economics of the project: Do you plan to market these lessons broadly and sell them to anyone, or are you aiming for a specific, narrower market first?
KS: We are creating this resource for elementary teachers in schools across America. There are about 100,000 elementary schools in this country. We are marketing to teachers at all these schools, both public and private.
We know of some homeschoolers who are using our lessons, and there are teachers outside of the United States as well who are interested. We are happy to sell Mystery Science to anyone who will find it valuable, but our initial focus is on elementary teachers in America.
DW: Do the lesson integrate with the curriculum mandated by Common Core—or, for homeschoolers, with textbooks such as Building Foundations of Scientific Understanding?
KS: Common Core is a set of new national standards for Mathematics and English Language Arts so it doesn’t have much to say about science. However, there is a parallel effort called the Next Generation Science Standards which aims to provide new national standards for science. Mystery Science aligns with and will greatly exceed both standards in the scope and depth of what students will learn.
Our program provides everything a teacher needs to teach science for the entire school year so additional textbooks are not needed, however it can also be used as a supplement to an existing textbook.
DW: How much of the curriculum do you hope to cover in the lessons?
KS: Within a few years we will provide a complete science curriculum for kindergarten through 8th grade.
DW: What’s in it for teachers, whether institutional or homeschoolers?
KS: Our tagline captures it quite well: we provide open-and-go lessons that inspire kids to love science. We are focused on making it incredibly easy for a teacher without a science background to not only teach science, but to captivate their students. These kids gain an appreciation for the power of the mind to discover causes behind what they see in the world all around them.
DW: How much will these lessons cost?
KS: It’s free to get started. Any elementary teacher may sign-up on www.mysteryscience.com to try out the program. After trying, if a teacher wants to continue then we have a yearly fee for the school. For this yearly fee every teacher in the school may use Mystery Science in their classroom. We are still finalizing the school pricing but it will be inexpensive. We are working with schools so that it is easy for the principal or PTA (Parent Teacher Association) to cover the cost out of their existing budgets.
DW: How can parents help ensure that more teachers have these lessons so that more kids have the Mystery Science experience?
KS: Parents should ask their child’s teacher three questions: what curriculum they currently use for science, if they like that curriculum, and if they’re interested in trying a free supplement called Mystery Science for their science lessons. Nearly every teacher we talk with is disappointed with the current science curriculum that they have. Parents can send me an email with what they learn (email@example.com) and I’ll send them a demonstration they can share with their teacher.