It's a rainy afternoon at the Science Museum of Minnesota, and 21 parents who homeschool their children are trading guesses about what they might be doing with the licorice sticks and many-hued miniature marshmallows piled in front of them. They soon get their answer.
“You ready to make some 'DNA'?" shouts Sue Benson, director of education at the Cable Natural History Museum in Cable, Wisconsin.
As they work on building licorice stick and marshmallow models of a DNA molecule, one of the parents expresses concern: “How do you keep your kids from eating this science project?"
Benson shows them how the model can be used to illustrate transcription, the process of replicating the genetic information in DNA, and translation, the process of deciphering the replicated information to form the amino acids that make up a protein. The parents, from all over Wisconsin and Minnesota, chat as they string their DNA molecules together, swapping suggestions on how they might best organize and use the activity to help their children understand the basic—yet complex—concepts of molecular biology.
“Their enthusiasm sparked some great ideas,"says Benson. “They saw things that we instructors didn't." Rebecca Kilde, for example, suggested using only two colors of marshmallows with 5- and 6-year-olds, to further simplify the DNA model for them. The mother of three children, Kilde has been homeschooling her children for six years.
"We were attracted to the idea of homeschooling because it offered us the opportunity to create a stimulating, child-centered learning experience for our kids," she said. “It's working so well for us that we plan to continue."
Building a double helix made of candy is just one of several hands-on science activities the parents learn during an innovative two-day workshop called “Bringing Science Home," designed to help homeschooling parents teach inquiry-based science. Supported by a grant from HHMI, the workshop is intended to be a national model. It is a collaborative effort of four institutions, all HHMI science-education grantees: the Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico; the University of Utah Genetic Science Learning Center in Salt Lake City; the Science Museum of Minnesota; and the Cable Natural History Museum.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, 850,000 children are currently being schooled at home in the United States, up from 360,000 a decade ago. Surveys have shown that these children have an enormous need for hands-on science activities, said Benson. Most homeschooled students, she said, get their science from textbooks, which they often find boring and unclear.
Cindy White, a workshop participant from the small town of Rhinelander, Wisconsin, agrees. “I find it very difficult to present science to my kids in a way they enjoy," says the mother of 10, age two to 20. “Science is so dry to them." White and her husband decided to homeschool their children so they could learn at their own pace without social pressure to do better or to dumb down so other kids didn't call them “brains." Her oldest was homeschooled through high school, graduated a year early with six college credits already completed, and is about to receive his bachelor's degree and apply for graduate school.
White has tried several different science curricula to teach her children over the years, but found the materials disjointed as well as dull. “I think my kids would enjoy these kinds of activities," she says, pointing to her DNA model. “And once you get kids interested, they go on their own. You just want something to spark their interest."
Homeschooling parents often are isolated, both geographically and in terms of access to the resources they need to teach their children, notes Debra Felix, an HHMI precollege science education program officer. “Many of them don't have anybody to talk with about how or what they're teaching. I asked some of the parents where else they could go to take workshops like this one. They said, 'Nowhere.' That really surprised me."
Although some homeschooling families live in metropolitan areas with all the amenities of modern life, others live in rural communities or on farms where, often by choice, they do without many common conveniences. Devising science activities for such families can be a challenge. One of the activities taught at the workshop, for example, calls for a microwave oven—a kitchen appliance that two of the parents said they didn't own. After some discussion, they conclude that they could use a double boiler instead. “You really do have to tailor this kind of training to your audience," Felix remarks.
After participating in the workshop, the parents take what they've learned home to share with fellow homeschooling parents in their communities. “The beauty of this workshop is that it not only gives the parents activities, strategies, and resources to use in teaching science to their own kids, but it also gives them the skills to pass that knowledge along to other parents," says Felix.
The educators who designed “Bringing Science Home" hope that the workshop will become a national model. Already, the parent participants have trained 83 other parents, and four parents are team-teaching science at the Wisconsin Parents Association Conference for homeschool parents in May 2005.
The program's success will be evaluated on factors including how many other homeschooling parents are taught by the workshop participants and how often those parents access the program's Web site www.cablemuseum.org
, which offers a host of online science resources to the homeschooling community.
“The workshop was fantastic, and I can't wait to give my first class," one mother wrote to Benson. “…What you have done is phenomenal. Our young people are falling further behind in science, and sparking this interest in science is such a wonderful service." She added an enthusiastic postscript: “If you ever want to offer a class devoted to stem cells, cloning, nanotechnology, and microbiology, I'm in!"