How do you help make your children scientifically literate? I think the biggest thing you can do is encourage curiosity.

One way to encourage curiosity it is by answering their questions (and not saying: I am too busy, don’t bother me, don’t ask me?, stop asking why…). I know adults are busy and have all sorts of stuff we are trying to get done; and the question about why I need to wash my hands doesn’t seem worth answering. But I think anytime a kid is asking why is an opportunity to teach and encourage them to keep being curious.

It is very easy to shut off this curiosity, in our society anyway (we do it to the vast majority of people). The biggest difference I see between adults and kids is not maturity or responsibility but curiosity (or lack thereof in adults) and joy (versus adults who seem to be on valium all the time – maybe they are).

As they grow up kids will have lots of science and technology questions that you don’t know the answers to. If you want them to be curious and knowledgeable, put in the effort to find answers with them. You have to help them find the answers in a way that doesn’t turn them off. If you just say – go look it up yourself (which really they can do), maybe the 2% that are going to become scientists will. But most kids will just give up and turn off their curiosity a little bit more (until eventually it is almost gone and they are ready to fit into the adult world). Which is very sad.

Once you get them used to thinking and looking things up they will start to do this on their own. A lot of this just requires thinking (no need to look things up – once a certain base knowledge is achieved). But you need to set that pattern. And it would help if you were curious, thought and learned yourself.

Photo of kids intently studying on a Malaysian beach

My mom with a group of Malaysia kids apparently intent on learning something. I am there, but not visible in this photo. Photo by my father.

While walking in the park, see one of those things you are curious about and ask why does…? It is good to ask kids why and let them think about it and try and answer. Get them in the habit of asking why themselves. And in those cases when no-one knows, take some time and figure it out. Ask some questions (both for yourself – to guide your thinking – and to illustrate how to think about the question and figure things out). If you all can’t find an explanation yourselves, take some time to look it up. Then at dinner, tell everyone what you learned. This will be much more interesting to the kids than forcing them to elaborate on what they did today and help set the idea that curiosity is good and finding explanations is interesting.

It is fun as a kid if your parent is a scientist or engineer (my father was an engineering professor).

You often don’t notice traits about yourself. In the same what I know what red looks like to me, I figure we both see this red shirt you see the red that I do. But maybe you don’t. I tend to constantly be asking myself why. If I see something new (which is many, many times a day – unless I am trapped in some sad treadmill of sameness) I ask why is it that way and then try and answer. I think most of this goes on subconsciously or some barely conscious way. I actually had an example a few months ago when I was visiting home with my brother (who is pretty similar to me).

As we were driving, I had noticed some fairly tall poles that seemed to have really small solar panels on top. I then noticed they were space maybe 20 meters apart. Then saw that there seemed to be a asphalt path along the same line. I then decided, ok, they are probably solar panels to power a light for the path at night. Then my brother asked why are there those small solar panel on top of that pole?

A question like that, I hear maybe ever couple of years from an adult (probably less) – other than hearing myself ask it (to myself many times a day, but even to others fairly often). I would much rather ask some question that a person might give me some new insight on, or answer some question I haven’t figured out than discuss some new movie or what new gadget someone is thinking of getting, or what they are going to do this weekend… But I notice I am very much an outlier in this desire to have someone explain what they know to me.

Anyway, that interaction with my brother made me aware of something I wasn’t really very aware of. I wasn’t aware how much (many times a day) I am curious and trying to figure out an explanation. Normally I think this curiosity is in some barely aware state. It feels like, only if I don’t semi-consciously figure out the answer do I push it to the forefront of my brain and really concentrate on it.

My impression is most people don’t do this, but it is hard to know if that is true. I base this on

  1. how infrequently the questions are asked (but this is less than solid evidence)
  2. when I ask the question people normally have to think about it (they haven’t noticed, questioned and reach a satisfactory conclusion)
  3. when I directly ask people they don’t say they do (but my sample size for this is very small)

Related: Getting Kids to Rediscover the Great OutdoorsScience Toys You Can Make With Your KidsStoryCorps: Passion for Mechanical EngineeringNaturally Curious ChildrenWhat Kids can Learn With a Computer and CuriosityPlaying Dice and Children’s NumeracyWho Is Explaining Technology To Our KidsIllusion of Explanatory Depth (losing the desire for curiosity)