Fostering Curiosity through Science Engagement
By Dr. Amanda Strawhacker & Dr. Amanda Sullivan
Young children are naturally curious about their world, constantly asking questions to seek information and understand new ideas. This instinctive thirst for knowledge is closely related to the important skill of intellectual curiosity, the drive to learn new things in order to figure out the answer to a question or learn how something works. If you didn’t catch our previous blog posts, you can read all about how intellectual curiosity is linked to K-12 academic achievement in areas like literacy development and critical thinking.
As educators, we love to see children showing that spark of discovery and joy of learning when they are deeply invested in figuring something out that interests them. This curiosity happens naturally, which is why researchers like Dr. Alison Gopnik argue that children start out as little scientists. At an early age, young learners use deep observations, make predictions, and repeat experiments many times to learn new things about the world around them – strategies as familiar in a first-grade classroom as a medical lab!
Science lovers can celebrate their love of seeking and exploring the unknown with children, knowing that they are also growing an important curiosity muscle that will serve children long into the future. But you don’t need test tubes and beakers to foster meaningful science engagement. Everyday life events, like a neighborhood walk, cooking dinner, and casual conversations with teachers and caregivers, can all spark scientific curiosity. Read on to learn how to organically support children’s natural curiosity, and build lifelong science skills in the process!
How Curiosity Supports Science Thinking
Research shows that curiosity and wonder are critical ingredients for growing scientists and citizens. Curiosity inspires us to learn and explore, and wonder is critical for helping us respect the limits of our own knowledge and find awe in new learning. Emotionally, curiosity also helps children cope with challenging learning experiences, since a curious person is more accepting of new information, even when it contradicts ideas and beliefs they may already have.
Neurologically speaking, curiosity helps to prepare the brain for learning, and it even makes learning more rewarding. Although curiosity is important to all kinds of active learning and problem solving, it is especially salient in science, a field dedicated to exploring and investigating the unknown. Curiosity can support scientific thinking by motivating information-seeking behavior, such as question-asking and observation, sparking children’s memories about past experiences and prior knowledge, and supporting deeper learning.
As education researcher Dr. Sophie von Strumm points out, “teachers have a great opportunity to inspire curiosity in their students, to make them engaged and independent learners.” So how exactly can we grow scientific curiosity in students? Researchers suggest encouraging children to take their time exploring and figuring things out, modeling curiosity for children, prompting children to engage in deeper questioning (e.g., “What questions do you have?”), and helping them tap into their creativity to “think outside the box” when exploring possible explanations for things.
Let’s take a look at specific strategies that can help children to wonder, explore, and ask questions to grow their science skills and practices!
Sparking Curiosity through Science: Research, Experimentation, and Observation
Science and curiosity both share a love of questions! Help children grow their scientific thinking skills by encouraging questions that focus on what we can observe, how things work, and why things happen the way they do. No question is too large or too small, and questions like, “Why is the ocean salty?” “How do airplanes fly?” and “Where do bunnies live in our neighborhood?” can all spark equally scientific explorations. If students need a little help thinking of questions to ask, the PebbleGo Curiosity Cards can help. This deck of cards provides 52 distinct questions to spark kids’ curiosity and encourage research and discovery (and hopefully, encourage them to think of questions of their own too).
Once you have a science question, you may still be unsure of how to help young children answer it. A great first step is to do a little research. Model how adults seek information when we want to learn something new by co-exploring libraries, encyclopedias, or online resources together with students. You can also empower children to search for information on their own by providing access to developmentally-appropriate reference tools. PebbleGo for K-2 students and PebbleGo Next for 3-5th graders both provide a safe, standards-aligned curricular content hub specifically designed for young learners. Children of all reading abilities can explore hundreds of science-themed nonfiction articles, all presented through a mix of written language with text highlighting, real-voice audio recordings, and visual images and videos.
Although they are naturally curious, children can be slow to change their beliefs and ideas about the world. One way to foster science curiosity and open-mindedness is through hands-on experimentation and first-hand observation. Traditional science activities offer great opportunities to foster wonder, like mixing vinegar and baking soda to create chemical reactions, exploring food coloring in different materials, or making slime out of household objects. Make sure to offer many opportunities to repeat and alter experiments. This keeps children’s curiosity engaged while also fostering science skills of seeking and evaluating evidence to form a new hypothesis.
Changes in the natural world can happen very slowly, so help children form observational habits to notice new findings over time. For example, you could check the same garden plot daily or weekly, or look at sidewalks before and after rainstorms to notice puddles. Collaborative activities where adults and students are both engaged in exploring the unknown are a great way to help children form positive early associations with curiosity and science investigation!
Practical Tips for Supporting Early Science Engagement & Curiosity
There are several ways that educators can stimulate children’s curiosity and foundational science skills at the same time. Here are a few different strategies to get you started:
Follow children’s lead when selecting questions to investigate
What are children asking questions about, observing, or imagining? These sources of natural curiosity are a great starting point to deeper science inquiry. Save time in class discussions to share ideas, plan special library and field trips for research, and lead activities related to your students’ science questions. Not sure where to start? Check out the science-themed Lesson Plans & Activities on PebbleGo!
Encourage children to consider many possible answers
Sometimes in science we only know part of the answer to a question, and we still need more information to fully understand our question. Create a culture that celebrates not knowing the answer and values asking authentic questions. You can model this by explaining what you do when you don’t know the answer to a question, how you seek more information, and how you identify what information you are still missing to form your idea. Encourage children to explore their own questions using digital resources like PebbleGo, or to gather their own evidence using observation and experimentation.
Use wonder to spark a science investigation
Some of the most useful science evidence comes when things happen unexpectedly! Invite children to think about surprising events, like power outages during a lightning storm, and use that to spark deeper investigations, like where electricity comes from. Serious scientific discoveries have happened purely by accident, such as the life-saving penicillin drug. Remember that no question is too big or too small for science inquiry!
Encourage repeated experiments and observations
Students may need to see or experience something many times before changing their minds about why or how it is happening. Skepticism is a good thing, but if students need help to reach an “Aha!” moment, you can support them by talking through counter-evidence together to build new ideas about scientific questions. Help children document their changing ideas with simple lab notebooks, images or sketches of observations, or using other anchor charts and worksheets to help children work the Claim, Evidence, Reasoning model of science inquiry.
Answer questions with more questions
Although it may sometimes feel easier to simply give the answer to a student’s question, you build a stronger foundation of their curiosity and science investigation skills if you start a discussion about their question and see what kind of ideas they already have about an idea. Try to use non-judgemental language, treat their ideas as valid hypotheses, and collaborate to consider what evidence might confirm or complicate their guess.
Use many sources of evidence to build hypotheses
Scientists know that one source of evidence may not be enough to say for sure that you’ve figured out the answer to a question. Encourage children to keep their questions in mind throughout the day – not just in science class! – and use all kinds of experiences, books, conversations, and articles to deepen their knowledge about their chosen topic. PebbleGo’s brand new “Read More” option can help by providing two read-aloud eBooks connected to each article in PebbleGo Science modules. These e-books will help support children’s intellectual curiosity, and might also inspire further questions about a related topic!
Want to learn more about supporting science inquiry and curiosity? Check out the following helpful resources:
- PebbleGo and PebbleGo Next (Need help getting started? Check out these YouTube tutorials)
- PebbleGo Curiosity Cards Download
- Picture-Perfect Science Lessons from NSTA Press (National Science Teachers Association)
- Inspiring Wonder Through Learning and Thinking TEDx Talk by Garfield Gini-Newman
- Turning Curiosity into Scientific Inquiry
- Top Apps, Games, and Websites for Scientific Inquiry from Common Sense Education
- Science Experiments for Kids from Science Kids
Did you know this is the fifth post in a series on intellectual curiosity? If you missed one of our past blog posts check them out for more resources and tips:
- Supporting Children’s Intellectual Curiosity: What it Is and Why It Matters
- Intellectual Curiosity & Critical Thinking
- Intellectual Curiosity & Academic Performance in K-5 and Beyond
- Supporting Early Literacy by Nurturing Children's Curiosity
Curious to learn more? Let us know what you want to see on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook using @CapstonePub and #PebbleGo and #PGCuriosity. Be sure to tag the authors of this blog post too!
Dr. Amanda Sullivan - Twitter @AASully, Instragram: @keikisullivan
Dr. Amanda Strawhacker - Twitter @ALStrawhacker, Instagram: @ALStrawhacker
Together: Twitter @theDrsAmanda