There have been so many exciting scientific discoveries and breakthroughs in the past few years. Most recently, all the buzz is around the confirmation of gravitational waves, theorized by Einstein a century ago. The question for me as an educator is always how to share these important advances in science with students.
How does one explain a concept like gravitational waves to the very young? Particularly if you have to read several articles on it yourself to feel like you've grasped it?! Good news: you don't. No, I'm not saying that young children are not capable of learning difficult concepts, nor am I saying that science is not an important part of early childhood and elementary education. However, I am saying that what is more important when teaching kids in the years before middle school is laying a strong foundation in the sciences so that they can grasp all of these cool scientific advances when they read about them in their future textbooks.
(That said, if you live with, or teach a budding astrophysicist, there is no need to stifle their passion by not exploring these more complex concepts.)
When I was a science specialist for Preschool through 6th grade, I was often met with the incredulous response of "You teach 3 and 4 year olds science?!?" as if the idea of it was crazy. Yes, I do, and it's a lot of play and discovery. I think many people hear science and can only think of lab coats and Bunsen burners. When you teach at this level you are building the foundation that students will pull from in the more advanced years of their education. Science at this age has so much to do with forming kids' understanding of the world around them.
So let's unpack the discovery of gravitational waves for the little guys. What basic science concepts are inherent in this topic? How can we build on understanding as they continue their education?
Gravity: Young children do not feel the need to wait until science time to experiment, they are constantly experimenting. They've learned about gravity through learning to walk, building towers and knocking them down, building more towers and knocking them down...they might not have the vocabulary term for it, but they are already beginning to understand the concept of gravity. There is no reason not to introduce the vocabulary to go with their exploration.
Try some fun age-appropriate activities for exploring gravity:
- Gravity Science: A STEM Program for Preschoolers
- Little Bins for Little Hands: Preschool Science- Gravity
Use fiction books such as Sheep in a Jeep by Nancy Shaw and non-fiction stories like I Fall Down by Vicki Cobb to explore the concept further.
Space: Explore the objects of space, starting at this age with the planets and the sun. Developmentally the idea of scale is a difficult one at this age. However, you can begin to show that some planets and space objects are larger than others, laying the groundwork for when scale is more comprehensible.
Waves: Students may have experienced waves at the ocean, or in the bathtub. Introduce the idea that there are other types of waves, some that we can't see. At this age, use sound as an example. Although we may not be able to see sound waves as they move from an object to our ear, we can see vibrations.
One of my favorite fun and messy ways to "see" sound is to tap a tuning fork and then dip it in a basin of water. It will make fun splashes and ripples.
Check out these other ways of seeing and feeling sound on my Pinterest board, "Sound Science".
Gravity: Elementary students are better suited to begin to understand the concept of gravity beyond objects falling down. Try these gravity activities with elementary students.
Some elementary book suggestions for exploring gravity are Gravity by Jason Chin and Gravity is a Mystery by Franklyn M. Branley.
Space: This is the perfect age to begin building those to-scale solar system models on the playground. Students are better able to understand scale at this age (although it is still far from an easy concept!). They also love to learn about new things, so adding other space objects like asteroids, dwarf planets, etc. can be fun. You'll find seemingly infinite resources from NASA on their website.
Waves: You can now add light to your study of waves, in addition to sound (although those activities are still fun and useful here!) Try this activity, Big Wave, from the Center of Science and Industry to explore waves.
A great early elementary book for studying the properties of light waves and reflection is I See Myself by Vicki Cobb.
Einstein: Elementary is a great time for biographies. Inspire students with how Einstein's ideas and theories have held on and discoveries are still being made 100 years later. Try On a Beam of Light: A Story of Einstein by Jennifer Berne, and I Am Albert Einstein: Ordinary People Change the World by Brad Meltzer.
Middle School, High School and beyond
Gravitational Waves: At this point, students are poised to learn and understand current events like the confirmation of gravitational waves because of the strong background they've developed if they have been learning concepts like those we've outlined here.
Some excellent starting points to understand this idea:
- Science News for Students: Gravity Waves Detected at Last!
- Discovery News: What You Need to Know About Gravitational Waves
As well as this video brought to my attention by the author of the blog iGameMom.
Super Novas and Black Holes: Along with concepts like the Big Bang, pulsars and binary stars, super novas and black holes are not only interesting to study, but are applicable to the study of gravitational waves. Try these hands-on activities to further explore these concepts.
- Night Sky Network: A Universe Without Super Novae
- Night Sky Network: Exploring Black Holes and Gravity
- Night Sky Network: Black Holes- No Escape
Einstein: Some books for early middle school: Who Was Albert Einstein by Jess Brallier and Albert Einstein and Relativity for Kids: His Life and Ideas with 21 Activities and Thought Experiments by Jerome Pohlen.
Here's a bonus video, just because it's amazing: The Known Universe by the American Museum of Natural History