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Published: Tuesday, September 29, 1998
Page#: D04

Washington Post

Math, Science, Technology & ‘Habits of Mind’

By Evelyn Porreca Vuko
Special to The Washington Post

Tuesday, September 29, 1998; Page D04

Newton’s in the kitchen putting crayons in the blender. He’s inventing a new color. Success, he believes, hinges on adding just the right amount of bright red oil-based house paint.

Teacher Says: Help Newton and other elementary-age kids develop a scientific habit of mind. It’s no astronomical job, but it does take letting go of all that negative trash you’ve heard all your life about science and math. It also means no more name-calling. Last, it means biting back the pat answers and, instead, asking the right questions.

"You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to think like one," says research astronomer and former astronaut George "Pinky" Nelson. He currently directs Project 2061, a nationwide science education reform initiative of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Mindful of all the scientific and technological changes kids will witness before the return of Halley’s Comet in the year 2061, Project 2061 aims to help all kids become "science literate." It takes not only knowledge and skills in math, science and technology, but essential "habits of mind."

The first step is to dump some old attitudes and habits, such as thinking math and science are so hard or that you can only do well if you have a certain "aptitude." Solar physicist Don Michels says American kids have heard that negative drill entirely too long, not only from parents and teachers but from classmates and friends. "By the time we're in sixth grade, we’ve already heard how hard physics is," says Michels, project scientist for the coronal imaging experiments on the recently recovered SOHO solar satellite. "If you’re told something is hard long enough, you’ll believe it. Actually there is a great deal of it that is very easily explained.

"In fact, physics can be fun," he says. "Billiards and sailboats are physics, even the colors of your shirt or the leaves on the trees. It’s all physics."

Gerry Wheeler says we need to stop the name-calling. "The mistake we make with kids is calling it ‘science,’" says Wheeler, president of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA). "It’s really just bringing nature into the home. It’s ice cubes and string telephones and wiggly worms. You don’t have to be a scientist to think like that; you don’t even have to be a scientist to do that," adds the nuclear physicist and former physics professor.

Then, bite back the pat answers in favor of asking the right questions. Rather than immediately correcting misconceptions, like Newton’s thinking that a blender is the perfect place to invent a new color, science teachers now are asking, "What makes you think that’s true?" says Bill McDonald, coordinator of elementary science at Montgomery County Public Schools. "Questioning allows the child to correct his own understanding by thinking about it again."

A scientific habit of mind is further stimulated by inviting theories. "Kids have to develop their own hunch about an idea," says Wheeler. He encourages parents and teachers to guide kids to think without worrying about correct answers. "Generate a joy about thinking," he says.

He suggests a game called, "What’s Out of Place?" Have kids observe their surroundings to see if something is not where it’s supposed to be; like a sneaker hanging from a telephone wire. Once an object is located, ask them questions like: How do you think it got there? How do you think you could get it down? Encourage theorizing outside the house and around the blender in the kitchen.

Becoming "science literate" also means helping kids learn to consider alternatives. Don Michels defines that as "putting ideas on a shelf with several other possibilities, then trying to weed one out from the other."

Julie Gause uses questions to help her students learn to test their options. "What would happen if you added just one blue crayon to the blender?" prompts Gause, fourth-grade teacher at Rockville’s Beall Elementary School. "What would happen if you added three crayons and no paint?"

Considering alternatives leads kids toward learning about the power of new evidence. "New evidence carries over to all disciplines," says McDonald. It changes science, math and technology, it changes history.

It also launches self-esteem to a higher orbit. There’s no more powerful booster rocket to Newton’s self-worth then when he’s asked, "What makes you think that’s true?" and he learns to respond, "Because I have the evidence to prove it."

Developing habits of mind essential for becoming "science literate" starts with dispelling past fears and changing old attitudes about math and science. It means answering with a question. It means treating math, science and technology as friendly resources that have the power to turn a crayon-grinding kid into a solar physicist who helps to recover a satellite behaving badly 1 million miles from Earth.

Coming Up: Scientific Habits of Mind, Part 2.

Contact Evelyn Vuko online at or write her at Style Plus, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.


"Every Child a Scientist: Achieving Scientific Literacy for All" (Center for Science, Mathematics and Engineering Education, $10). Order from National Academy Press online bookstore []. Helps parents and schools make the transition.

"Resources for Science Literacy: Professional Development" (Oxford University Press, $49.95). A CD-ROM including a science trade books database for teachers and parents. Order online [].

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

Vuko, E. 1998. Math, Science, Technology & Habits of Mind. The Washington Post.