Sunday, 24 July 2016 18:09

Writing science so that children will understand it

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Writing Science In Children's Level Books

Ozodi Osuji

To me nothing is lovelier than reading to children before they go to bed. I love reading to kids; please, don't ask me why; all I know is that I simply love reading to children.

In my Igbo culture adults tell children stories. I was born in the city, Lagos, but at age eight lived with my grandmother in our village. In the evenings she would tell me and my cousins' stories. They were mostly animal stories. Those stories essentially conveyed our culture to us. Thus, a typical ten year old Igbo boy of my generation learned about our Igbo culture through hearing his grandparents tell him stories about our culture in the form of children's stories.

I live in the West and tell children stories about human culture by reading to them extant books for children. These books are useful and tell children a lot of things they need to know about human nature and how to live in society.

Recently, it occurred to me that there are no books that tell children about the nature of science in children's story form. May be such books exist but I have not seen them. I mean stories that essentially tell elementary school children about extant physics, chemistry, biology and earth science. Those subjects are obviously very technical but their essence can be conveyed to children in simple story forms.

As I began thinking about this issue it occurred to me that it is a great omission that such books do not exist, for children like hearing stories. If we could tell children the nature of science in simple story books they would be more able to pay attention to it when they get to secondary school and begin learning about science in earnest.

I recall my first year at secondary school.  In physics the teachers dived right into it, teaching it to us as if we already had some preparation to understand what they were talking about. We were thirteen year old boys and had no idea what science was all about and there we were and our physics teacher was talking about real physics.

Physics is divided into two sections, classical and new physics; classical physics is divided into five subject areas: motion, aka mechanics, heat, light, sound and electricity; new physics comprises of quantum mechanics and theory of relativity.

Well, on the first day of my physics class the physics master was talking about Isaac Newton's three laws of motion and gravitation.  What the hell was he talking about, I kept thinking to myself. What do I care about motion and the gravitation of objects in space?  I was simply not prepared to understand what the hell the man was talking about.

My chemistry master dived into talking about the nature of matter and atoms. Right from the first week he was talking about matter having three states: liquid, solid and gas...matter is now considered as having four states for plasma (nuclei without electrons attached to them) is considered a state of matter; the man went on and on talking about atoms having three particles: electrons, protons and neutrons etc. What the hell was this man talking about? For all I knew he was talking Greek.

I laid my head on my desk and tried to sleep. I was trying to escape from hearing a subject that I had no way of understanding.  So, right from the beginning our teachers made science so uninteresting and unnecessarily difficult for us to understand that many of us tuned science out.

Instead, I enjoyed reading novels. I would lie on my dormitory bed and read books by such English writers as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Dickens, Walter Scott, George Elliot, Jane Austin, Thomas Hardy, George Orwell and a whole host of others. I enjoyed history and of course read books on history.

But as we all know, we live in the age of science and every child ought to be helped to get interested in science. By science I mean physics, chemistry, biology and the other physical sciences and the language of science, mathematics (arithmetic, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, statistics, and calculus).

If a child goes through secondary school and is not interested in science he is simply not going to be a functional part of the scientific age we live in.

I believe that if science is well taught that average children will like it and do well in it. Of course, not all of us will become Nicolas Copernicus, Galileo, Isaac Newton, Eugene Huygens, Tyco Brahe, Johannes Kepler, Thomas Young, Charles Darwin, Mendel, Jenner, Alexander Flaming, Francis Crick, James Watson, Laplace, Lavoisier, Michael Faraday,  James Clark Maxwell, J.J. Thompson, Henry Becquerel, Marie and Pierre Curie, Ludwig Boltzmann, Max Plank, Albert Einstein, Ernest Rutherford, James Chadwick, Neils Bohr, Louis Broglie, Werner Heisenberg, Emil Schrodinger, Pauli, Dirac, Alexander Friedman, George  Lemaitre, George Gamow,  Enrico Fermi, Lise Meitner, James Wheeler,  Steven Weinberg,  Eugene Wigner, Hugh Everett, John Bell., Alan Aspect, Alan Goth and Stephen Hawkins  and the other giants of science. But with good teaching most children can become average in science and learn science.

I believe that to accomplish this objective we must find a way to present science as fun to children and the best way to do so is to write science as stories that parents read to their children or in books that children pick up and read before they get to secondary school.

I am not a science writer but here is how I would tell children about physics, chemistry and biology and earth science so that their attention is engaged. Once their attention is engaged then they can be taught science in a technical manner.

The below summary of science is meant to be understood by the typical twelve years old child; read it and have your children read it and discuss its content with your children; and do so in a playful manner. Science is fun, not the dreadfully difficult and boring subject adults make it out to be.

CHEMISTRY

ENERGY AND MATTER

Everything in our universe is made of energy and matter; the two are the same thing in two different states. Energy is matter and matter is energy; you can convert one to the other. Albert Einstein taught us about this phenomenon through his famous equation: E=Mc2.

THE STATES OF MATTER: SOLIDS, GASES AND LIQUIDS (AND PLASMA)

Matter manifests in three (now four) states, namely, solids, gases and liquids. An illustration is wood. Wood is a solid.  That piece of wood can be burned. When you burn a piece of wood it is transformed to gas. The gas can be captured and cooled and it becomes liquid. Thus, the same wood can be in one of three states: solid, gas and liquid. Contemporary chemistry has decided that plasma is a state of matter.

Plasma exists where nuclei (protons and neutrons) and electrons are not attached to one another to form atoms. There are parts of space filled with unattached nuclei and electrons; the same holds true inside stars.

ATOMS AND ELEMENTS

Matter, whether it is in the form of solids, gases or liquids is composed of atoms.  There are 118 different kinds of atoms, that is, elements in the universe; 94 occur naturally and 24 are synthesized in laboratories.

Examples of different kinds of atoms are hydrogen, helium, lithium, Beryllium, Boron, Carbon, Nitrogen, Oxygen, Florine, and Nickel and so on.

THE STRUCTURE OF ATOMS AND ELEMENTS

An atom is composed of three particles: electrons, protons and neutrons (protons and neutrons are in the nucleus of the atom; electrons circle the nucleus).

THE NUMBER OF SUB-ATOMIC PARTICLES AN ATOM CONTAINS DIFFERENTIATES THE DIFFERENT ELEMENTS

The different elements are characterized by the number of sub-atomic particles each has. For example, hydrogen has one electron and one proton in its nucleus (some hydrogen atoms are isotopes because they contain neutrons, sometimes one or two neutrons; they are called deuterium and tritium; protium is the regular hydrogen). Helium contains two electrons, two protons and two neutrons; lithium contains three electrons, three protons and three neutrons; Beryllium contains four electrons, four protons and four neutrons; Boron contains five electrons, five protons and five neutrons; Carbon contains six electrons, six protons and six neutrons; Nitrogen contains seven electrons, seven protons and seven neutrons; oxygen contains eight electrons, eighth protons and eight neutrons; Florine contains nine electrons, nine protons and nine neutrons and Neon contains ten electrons, ten protons and ten neutrons....we can continue along this line until we reach the heaviest element on chemistry's periodic table,  Uranium which contains ninety two electrons, ninety two protons and one hundred and forty-six neutrons (because uranium contain more neutrons than protons it is an isotope; it is unstable and shaky; it decays into other types of elements. Marie Curie studied Uranium's nucleus and showed us the various elements it decays to).

ATOMIC NUMBER

Each element is given an atomic number. The atomic number of each element is determined by the number of protons it has in its nucleus.

Hydrogen contains only one proton so it has the atomic number one; helium contains two protons and is given the atomic number two...we go down the line until we reach uranium with 92 protons in its nucleus hence atomic number of 92 (and the synthesized 24 elements for a total of 118).

ATOMIC MASS

Each element has an atomic mass.  Protons and neutrons account for the atomic mass. Electrons have negligible mass and for all intents and purposes are not useful in determining the mass of the atom.

To determine the mass of an element, therefore, we add the number of protons and neutrons in its nucleus and the negligible mass of the electron that circles the nucleus.

Hydrogen has one proton and one electron; since the electron has negligible mass its atomic mass is 1.01.  Helium's atomic mass is the number of protons and neutrons added plus the negligible electron (2 protons added to two neutrons is 4).  We continue along this line of counting protons, neutrons and electrons until we get to uranium whose atomic mass is 238.3 (92 protons plus 146 neutrons plus .3 for the electrons).

MOLECULES, COMPOUNDS

In nature many elements combine with others to form molecules; molecules have sort of permanent states of existence (compounds are molecules that may have temporary existence).

For example, two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen combine to form water molecule (it can also be called compound).

VALENCE

When two or more elements combine they do so by exchanging the outer shells of their electrons. In the compound called water there are one electron in each hydrogen atom and eight electrons in each oxygen atom.

The electrons in elements with more than one electron are arranged in shells (levels) in the atom. In the formation of water the outer electron shells in oxygen combine with the sole electron in hydrogen. The manner in which atoms, elements exchange electrons to form compounds, molecules and chemical mixtures is called valence.

CHEMICAL MIXTURES

Chemical mixtures occur when we mix two or more elements (substances). In the case of water, it is a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen.

SOLVENT, SOLUTE AND SOLUTION

In combining elements to form chemical mixtures they are dissolved in certain mediums such as water. The medium is called solvent and what is dissolved in it is called solute. For example, water is a solvent; in it we can add sodium chloride (Na Cl are the solutes), table salt; that table salt would dissolve in the water (salt is soluble in water).

Not all substances are soluble in water; for example, if you pour sand (silicon) into a bucket full of water the sand would settle at the bottom of the bucket and not dissolve.

If you add salt into water the salt dissolves completely and becomes part of that water, the water thereafter is called solution.

PHYSICAL CHEMISTRY

Elements (atoms) occur in nature as physical phenomenon. Chemistry that is studied like a physicist would study it, look at matter, atoms and particles without bothering with mixtures is physical chemistry.

ORGANIC CHEMISTRY

Some elements combine to produce organic phenomenon. By organic is meant biological life forming, such as plants and animals.  Organic chemistry is the branch of chemistry that deals with the study of carbon and its compounds. Inorganic chemistry deals with the rest of the compounds.

Most organic states are combination of carbon and other elements such as hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen (and traces of others such as calcium, potassium, magnesium, phosphor, sodium, chlorine, iron, zinc, copper and so on).

The human body (and plants and animals) is composed of twenty six elements, primarily carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen and traces of 22 other elements such as iron, potassium, magnesium, phosphor, sodium, zinc, copper, calcium, chlorine and others.

THE UBIQUITY OF CHEMISTRY

The various elements exist either in single states or in combination with others (molecules). The understanding of how elements combine enables chemists to combine elements to come up with new products.

Medications, for example, are combinations of certain elements to form specific medications. Our household items like paints are combination of elements; in fact, many of the things we have around us were produced by chemists mixing many elements together or subtracting certain elements from others.

Our modern world is scarcely possible without the knowledge of chemistry.

PHYSICS

The word physics is synonymous with the word science. Greeks called the study of nature physics whereas Romans called the study of nature science. Thus, we can exchange the word physics for science.

Physics is the study of nature as it is, not as we want it to be; physics is an empirical science because it describes the world as it sees it and all of us following the scientific method can verify what it described; there is no room for belief in physics; what it says is either true or not true. Physics is considered the purest science, the king of the physical sciences.

Throughout human history human beings have tried to understand their world as it is not as they want it to be. If you go to any human group there are those whose activities can be considered scientific in the sense that they detached from their feelings and wishes and observe their surroundings in a dispassionate and objective manner.

In the Western world the attempt to understand nature on its own terms began with the Greeks. 2500 hundred years ago something happened in Athens, Greece. Men began using their minds and observations to understand their world as it is not as they wanted it to be.

Plato observed his world but did not like what he saw and used his mind to posit what seemed to him how the world should become. If he saw a human being tall or short, beautiful or ugly he imagined that there are ideal human beings, in spirit; Plato believed that there are architypes of what human beings ought to look like and behave like.

Ideals are wishes for there is no verification that they exist in nature. The idea of spirit is problematic for none of us has evidence that spirit exists. Thus, Plato is not a scientist in the sense that we now use the term.

Aristotle, Plato's student tried to discard with ideals and wishful thinking and described the world as he saw it. However, he did not quite separate his wishes from his descriptions. For example, he rationalized slavery and oppression of women based on his wishes not reality.  So, whereas we can call Aristotle an empiricist he was not a true scientist.

Democritus observed that matter can be reduced to what he believed is an absolute irreducible part and called that part atom.

Pythagoras and Ptolemy speculated on the nature of the universe; Ptolemaic astronomy is geocentric, that is, it believed that our earth is the center of the universe. That view of the universe was overthrown by Copernicus' heliocentric view of the universe that the sun is the center of our solar system.

The study of modern physics began with Nicolas Copernicus in 1543 AD when he used pure thinking to reach the conclusion that the sun is the center of (he said the universe, which is wrong) of our solar system.


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Ozodi Osuji Ph.D

Ozodi Thomas Osuji is from Imo State, Nigeria. He obtained his PhD from UCLA. He taught at a couple of Universities and decided to go back to school and study psychology. Thereafter, he worked in the mental health field and was the Executive Director of two mental health agencies. He subsequently left the mental health environment with the goal of being less influenced by others perspectives, so as to be able to think for himself and synthesize Western, Asian and African perspectives on phenomena. Dr Osuji’s goal is to provide us with a unique perspective, one that is not strictly Western or African but a synthesis of both. Dr Osuji teaches, writes and consults on leadership, management, politics, psychology and religions. Dr Osuji is married and has three children; he lives at Anchorage, Alaska, USA.

He can be reached at: ozodiosuji@gmail.com (907) 310-8176