14 Homeschool Science Mistakes & How to Avoid Them

As homeschooling parents we give our children so many advantages as they move into the middle and upper grades and then to college. But, I believe there is one area where we can significantly improve the way we prepare them. That area is science.

Having taught science to several thousand homeschooling and college students over the past 25+ years, several things stand out to me. I’ve put together a list of 14 concrete steps we can take to better prepare our budding scientists.

Mistake #1 – Not starting to formally teach science early enough.

Start formally teaching science by the sixth grade. Students need the development that happens in those three years (sixth, seventh, and eighth grade) to prepare them for high school level science.

Mistake #2 – Generalizing the names for, and thus the way we teach, science. Call it Biology, Chemistry, Physics, etc. and not “General Science”, “Physical Science”, etc., even in the young grades. Doing this virtually eliminates the intimidation that comes with “Physics” etc in the high school years and clarifies what you’re teaching in the middle grades.

For example, at College Prep Science, rather than a homeschool year of “Physical Science,” we teach a semester of “Pre-Physics” and a semester of “Pre-Chemistry.” Rather than a homeschool year of “Life Science,” we teach a semester of “Pre-Biology” and a semester of “Pre-Anatomy and Physiology.”

Mistake #3 – Not doing enough testing.

Testing in the sciences prepares our students for the rigors of high school level science, college science, standardized testing, and assures that they are learning the material and that they are learning how to take tests. Of course it should be age appropriate but we should be testing.

Mistake #4 – Not doing timed tests.

I know that very few homeschooling families give their students timed tests and I think we are doing them a disservice. Gently beginning timed science tests in the middle grades gives students confidence, eliminates the anxiety associated with timed tests, and trains them to do well on standardized tests and on timed tests in college.

Start gently in the middle grades and slowly progress from there. For example, if you’re giving a student a 15 question test that you think will take them about 10 minutes to complete, tell them they have 25 minutes to take it. When they finish with plenty of time to spare it gives them confidence and relieves anxiety. The amount of extra time you give can be altered as they get older. Students actually do better on timed tests because they are focused on the test – knowing they have to work steadily. I always tell students, “If you are prepared and work steadily you will have plenty of time to finish this test.”

Mistake #5 – Teaching science year-round.

I know that many parents are proponents of year-round school (no summer break), but I believe it’s actually counter-productive. From experience with thousands of students I believe that students need to know they can work hard for a prescribed period of time and then have a total break from classes for two or three months.

Mistake #6 – Not starting the high school sciences early enough.

I know it’s easy to put off starting the high school sciences, but it’s important, especially if the students may be a college science major. Critical decisions should be made going into 8th grade. The critical factor is being ready for standardized testing and being able to fit in the needed sciences in the high school years. High school Biology should be taken in the 9th grade for most students and in the 8th grade for capable students who will likely be science majors.

Mistake #7 – Not beginning to take the ACT early enough.

Success on this standardized test is critical for college admissions and plays a direct role in how much financial aid a student will receive. Taking these tests twice per year beginning in 8th grade gives students experience and confidence which enables them to do well when they take this test for the final time in the spring of 11th grade. See my separate article on this topic.

Mistake #8 – Not specifically preparing to take the “Science Reasoning” section of the ACT. Homeschooled students score lower on this section of the ACT than on any other section. This is a section of the ACT that can be quite intimidating but can be mastered with preparation. It’s especially important if you are planning on a science major in college. See my separate article on this topic.

Mistake #9 – Not training students to meet deadlines.

As homeschoolers in general, this is a critical weakness and I think it’s even more important that we address this in the sciences. Beginning in the middle school grades, give your students firm deadlines that need to be met for assignments, tests, papers, etc. and stick to them. Besides being good training for academics, it’s just good life training too.

Mistake #10 – Not training students to write good lab reports.

As a college professor, I saw the pain of students who came in as science majors without good lab report writing skills and experience. Students get better at this with experience – there’s no substitute for that. Lab reports are simply the written summary of the scientific method. It takes lots of practice to develop the skill needed to do well on these.

Mistake #11 – Not creating a lab manual for every science class.

A lab manual is a collection of observations, data collection, and lab reports from a class. This gives students one place to neatly keep all of this information and gives them a sense of accomplishment. It’s impressive to have them lined-up on a shelf from all of their science classes. It’s also required by some states or umbrella groups for homeschoolers and some colleges want to see lab manuals as evidence of labs being completed.

Mistake #12 – Not encouraging exploration.

Encourage and give your students opportunities to be curious about God’s creation around them. Then, encourage them to experiment to answer questions about anything. This doesn’t have to be ground-breaking research but just simple things. Then, encourage them to write things down in a notebook. That may be the beginnings of a budding scientist at work.

Mistake #13 – Being squeamish on Creation.

Despite what you may hear in the media and elsewhere, God wrote the book on science. We need to boldly teach our students about God’s creation. Science and the world around us support biblical creation.

Mistake #14 – Not using graphing extensively.

Graphing, when done regularly through the middle and high school grades has a unique ability to develop critical thinking skills in students that not only benefit them in math, science, and academics in general, but also in life! We encourage families to have students construct one graph daily as part of their homeschooling day. They can graph anything. Let them run with it and you will be surprised at how creative they are. The resulting skills can be very, very beneficial.

Top 10 Popular Science Books

1. Annals of a Former World, by John McPhee

In patient, lyrical prose, McPhee takes the reader on a geologic journey through the United States. This volume was originally published as 4 books; each is centered on a road trip the author took with a geologist, observing the earth next to Eisenhower’s great US highways for clues into its geologic past. Annals has this–no borders, idealistic, On the Road for geologists kind of feel (though a bit more grown-up.) I pick up Annals every once in a while when im in a relaxed mood, when im looking for a good example of literary science writing. Highly recommended as a companion for camping trips, if you can fit it into your pack.

2. Surely You’re Joking, Mr, Feynman, by Richard Feynman

A string of excerpts from Feynman’s life/career, Surely You’re Joking is probably the popular science book I have read through the most times, not because it is short, but because it is at once compelling, understated, and full of indispensable scientific concepts. Richard Feynman has an uncanny ability to make physics easily digestible, his lectures are a testament to that and Surely You’re Joking is no exception. Feynman’s easy prose makes the reader feel like physics is understandable, as if he has laid out a diagram of the universe on his living room floor–no one is an outsider. It’s delightful. Feynman’s in my ‘top 5 people I would give my right pinky finger to meet’ category.

3. A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson

The second heavy volume on the list, A Short History is packed with nearly everything. It takes a look at the science behind a lot of things–beauty, cells, evolution, the universe. Bryson rejects the traditional notion of a ‘textbook’ with this book, making science seem relevant in our daily lives AND putting this knowledge in the context of the universe–in space and time. Capturing the detailed nooks where science is often concentrated AND eliciting the wonder of the wider perspective is an accomplishment–savor it wherever you can find it. Great in audio book format.

4. The Richness of Life, collection of essays by Stephen Jay Gould

The idiosyncratic Gould has written articles in Natural History and many other science magazines for decades and is one of the most widely read modern science writers. In this collection of articles, Gould’s highly intellectual, witty, and pin-accurate prose explains evolutionary theory, racism or baseball with a scientist’s eye, but in a way that engages the layman. Gould’s dedication to science shows in every piece. Delightful.

5. The Canon, by Natalie Angier

Someone at the New York Times science desk once told me–“Natalie Angier is the queen of metaphor.” I have to agree. The Canon is the best example of her witty prose winding the reader through simple scientific questions with difficult answers. In this book, Angier tackles what she has deemed the basic scientific concepts everyone should know: thinking scientifically, probabilities, calibration, physics, evolutionary biology, chemistry, molecular biology, astronomy and geology. Phew. I have to say–this could have been very text-book, but because of her writing style, is masterful. I actually have had many non-scientist friend recommend this to me, which is always a good sign.

6. Universe in a Teacup, by K.C. Cole

Where can you find a book that successfully intertwines the discipline of mathematics, with the concepts of truth and beauty? Universe is just such a book; K.C.’s most popular and in some ways seminal volume. Metaphors she uses pack a punch. Her prose style is somewhat poetic, and in Universe, she proves adept at explain things like chaos or phase transitions are illuminating–not just because you finally understand some science concept that always seem so obscure, but because Cole has also given the you a new way to think about mathematics and the world alongside your new understanding. (Full disclosure–Cole was my academic mentor)

7. The Code Book, by Simon Singh

Packed with information about the history of codes, how to break them, and who figured it all out, this book has a kind-of James Bond appeal. Various scientists and politicians have acted as code-makers and code-breakers from antiquity until modern day, and codes are increasingly important in computer technology and national security. The stories behind the codes are so fascinating i hardly even realized that i was learning about the mathematics of code theory in the process.

8. Enduring Love, by Ian McEwan

Ok, so not everyone would categorize this as a popular science book, but Ill include it anyway. Enduring Love is a fiction book, partially written from the perspective of a former scientist, but more importantly, it is a suspenseful story that lets the author’s attitudes towards life bleed through each and every page. Ian McEwan is a well-know rationalist who believes that science is just as much a part of culture as anything else–a position with which I very much empathize. This is a literary tale, sure, but McEwan manages to mention scientific ideas all over the place, integrating science and its ways of thinking into the lives of his complex characters and slowly revealing situations. It’s a page-turner.

9. The Double Helix, by James Watson

Though scientist James Watson doesn’t have a Stephen Jay Gould command of language and metaphor, The Double Helix still stands as an absolutely riveting account of the series of events that lead up to the discovery of DNA’s structure. In the book, scientists Watson, Crick, Maurice Wilkens, and Rosalind Franklin become fascinating characters in a race to figure out what DNA looks like at a molecular level. Each has their own motivations. Each has their own complications. All but Franklin eventually received a Nobel Prize for this work (she died before the award could include her.) A quick, easy read.

10. In the Shadow of Man, by Jane Goodall

A classic book–easy read, no jargon. Goodall’s observations of chimpanzee’s in the wild first brought to light one of man’s most recent ancestors–the chimpanzee. This book chronicles some of Goodall’s groundbreaking research through her own observations about chimp behavior. Once immersed in the book, I couldn’t help but think–we are all just apes, evolved from or related to one another. Puts things in perspective.

Homo Entropicus and the Human Condition

The collapsing of the 20th Century scientific science of life worldview is now obvious. That world-view, governed by Einstein’s ‘Premier law of all science’, the ‘Universal heat death Law’, now embraces life-science concepts based upon fractal logic. Life-science now extends to a fractal infinity, rather than obeying the concept that all life in the universe must be condemned to a universal heat death extinction. Nanotechnology has revealed the functioning of fractal logic within the DNA responding to evolutionary information that has written the obituary of the horrific sentence of continual chaos that has been imposed upon global society for centuries.

For example. quantum biology scientists, Casati, Guaneri and Maspero from the International Centre for the Study of Dynamical Systems, in Italy, have been researching fluctuations of survival probability in an open quantum system. Now that the newly emerging quantum biological life-science chemistry has been rigorously associated with the Platonic world-view philosophy, as published by the NASA High Energy Astrophysics Division Library, an ancient crude human survival map reveals itself. As ‘the human condition’ holds the survival blueprint for humanity, this article asks, can the ancient map play a role to help upgrade the fractal model for environmental survival into a new practical medical science?

Medical scientists Tambasco, Eliasziw and Magliocco, have applied fractal analysis to breast cancer, categorising patients according to a scale of low, intermediate and high fractal dimension. Their findings argued that such medical methodology was more relevant for survival than the methodology used by standard prognosticators. From this observation it can be reasoned that fractal logic is the key to human well being. A life-energy discovery, selected for reprinting in 1990 by the world’s largest technological research institute, Washington’s IEEE SPIE Milestone Series, fully endorses that proposal.

During the 1980s two mathematical life-science papers, from the Science-Art Research Centre of Australia, now considered to have been based upon fractal logic geometrical logic, demonstrated that seashell evolution was governed by new physics forces governing optimum biological growth and development through space-time. A peer review investigation over of the Centre’s claim that the 20th Century world-view had been based upon false physics assumptions, was undertaken in 1997 by the United Nations University Millennium Project, Australasian Node. In 2010, Dr Paul Wildman, the Chair to that investigation, stated in writing that the President of the Institute for Basic research in the USA had observed from the published discovery, that the 20th Century scientific world-view was unable to generate healthy biological growth and development simulations through space-time, which gives credence to the above mentioned medical life-science findings.

Fractal geometry, which evolved out of chaos theory, can be described as self similarity at infinite scales. It is a dynamical system that balances order with complexity. Without order, increasing complexity becomes chaotic and malfunctions. Disease can be considered to be an entropic human malfunction. By upgrading the original Platonic life-science guidance map,well-being, on the other hand, is our natural human condition.

The healthy human appears to reflect a fractal wholeness down to sub-atomic particle movement dimensions. Sir Isaac Newton’s unpublished heresy papers, discovered last century, expressed such a fractal world-view, in which a “more profound natural philosophy existed to balance the mechanical (entropic) description of the universe”, based upon the principles of particle movement. That world-view completely challenges the logic upholding the now obsoltete 20th Century world-view. The former, derived from the Platonic life-science world-view, is important. It is consistent with the new Platonic-Fullerene fractal life science Chemistry now emerging throughout the world, in particular as the forte of the University of Florence’s prize winning New Measurement of Humanity Renaissance Project chemistry.

The idea of a Life Force that extends to infinity, has been common to many cultures for millennia, as the source of energy that promotes health and well being. The Chinese call it Chi; in India it is referred to as Prana. Today it is called quantum bio-energy, the auric force field, vortex energy and in many other terms. In the world of physics it is known as scalar or subtle energy and has also been referred to as time-reversed waves, non-hertzian waves, longitudinal waves, scalar waves, or zero-point energy.

In answering our question, what role does fractal logic play in the human condition survival data, the answer can be considered to be that, fractal logic is crucial in order to effect healthy human survival futuristic progression. The sooner humanity embraces the importance of fractal logic in our lives, the more chance Homo Entropicus has of making it to the next evolutionary level.

Biology – Why Are Penguins Birds If They Can’t Fly?

Everyone knows what a bird is, right? If I ask my seven-year-old son what a bird is, he’ll respond with something like “a bird is an animal that has a spine, wings, two feet, hollow bones, and can fly.” Or, if her remembers the little military chant his dad made for him, he might say, “hollow bones and scaly feet, feathered wings and goes tweet tweet.”

Well, penguins can’t fly. They have wings, feathers, two feet, and a spine, and they swim well but they cannot fly. Ostriches can’t fly either, but both penguins and ostriches are considered birds. How is that possible? What’s the deal?

It’s all in the definition

There’s a difference between the common usage of the word “bird” and the scientific use of the word. The common definition is based on features of the animal you can see with your eyes and discern with your other senses like feathers, wings, number of legs, and being warm-blooded. My seven-year-old son knows the common definition of the word “bird.”

Scientists use a slightly different definition.

Evolutionary birds

The scientific taxonomy of birds is a bit different than common usage. The scientific groups are made based on fossil evidence and other biological evidence such as DNA and mitochondrial DNA when the DNA can be obtained. Birds are in the Domain Eukaryotes, the Phylum Chordata meaning vertebrates, and the Class Avians. Avians have descended from theropod dinosaurs. More specifically, birds have descended from Archaeopteryx, which existed in the late Jurassic period.

Many scientists think of birds as the only type of dinosaur that didn’t go extinct 65 million years ago. In fact, my daughter who is obsessed with dinosaurs, calls birds “tiny dinosaurs.”

Scientifically, birds today are descended from dinosaurs, have feathers, a beak with no teeth, and they lay eggs with hard shells. Birds have a high metabolic rate, meaning they need to eat a lot to maintain their body temperature. (Some refer to them as warm blooded.) They have a four-chambered heart (like mammals), and they have lightweight, strong skeletons. Most birds can fly, but flying isn’t a requirement to be a bird.

And that’s the crux of it. The scientific definition of “bird” does not require the ability to fly.