How to get kids interested in science

There are a number of ways for parents to foster aninterest in science in their children, writes Elaine Yau

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 November, 2012, 10:18am

A hinge that serves as a doorstop; a grooved widget to squeeze the last drop out of a tube of toothpaste; and a solar-powered device that fends off pigeons. Lau Sai-chong and Sherry Wu Yeuk-sze's home is filled with contraptions that their two teenage sons invented.

"Whenever they encounter a problem, they like to devise something to solve it," says Lau, the vice-principal of a secondary school. "Once, the entire family went away on a short trip and there was no one to feed the turtle, which would have gone hungry for a week. So my son, Laurence, made an automatic feeding machine which releases fish food into the tank at fixed intervals."

At 14, Laurence Lau Chun-hei is already a budding inventor with two patents to his name, one for a cutter that protects the user from hurting himself and another for the door hinge. His brother, Calvin Lau Ching-hei, 12, invented the tube squeezer.

Their father, who teaches liberal studies, attributes their ingenuity to a simple upbringing that pushed them to make their own entertainment. "The boys only get toys once a year on their birthdays. This has made them treasure their toys. While other children throw away old playthings, they take apart broken toys and make new ones with the components."

Promoting interest in science and scientific learning has long been a concern of education officials. But while many schools have set up robotics labs and planetariums, youngsters' interest in science often wanes as they progress through school. At university, students in business programmes far exceed those opting for the sciences.

So what are the chances of Hong Kong raising another scientist such as Charles Kao Kuen, who won a Nobel physics prize for his work on fibre optics? Or someone like Craig Venter, the entrepreneurial US biologist who led one of the first ventures to map the human genome? Science education experts say parents have an important role to play in cultivating children's interest in the wonders of the world around them.

"Every child is born to be creative," says Jimmy Wong Kam-yiu, director of the Hong Kong New Generation Cultural Association's Science Innovation Centre. "But the creativity often declines as they grow older. Their innate interest in exploring the world is diminished by school demands and parental control. If parents can create an environment that can nurture children's curiosity from birth, the creative sparks will blossom into a lifelong quest for knowledge."

Wong, a science teacher before he was recruited to run the centre, says Hong Kong students are good at absorbing information, but often lack the adventurous spirit and curiosity that leads to new discoveries. "Hong Kong students score well in international maths and scientific assessments. But teachers here are often too busy covering the syllabus to encourage children to conduct their own experiments," he explains.

"Some schools don't even have time for hands-on experiments, and show videos instead. Parents can make up for that by encouraging children to pursue experiments at home," Wong says. "It's important for parents to expose children to fields other than those that they themselves have interest in. Children should try all kinds of things to find their true calling."

Award-winning scientist Rossa Chiu Wai-kwun heartily endorses this ethos. Whatever the field, she says, it's about getting youngsters to develop inquiring minds. With her seven-year-old twin daughters, she says, one way is to avoid giving instant answers to questions.

"Both of them are interested in natural phenomena. They ask me why people cry and smile, for instance. I am glad they ask so many questions. The first step to developing critical thinking is to ask plenty of whys," says Chiu, a professor of chemical pathology at Chinese University.

"Instead of answering them out of hand, I will prod them to guess. From their deduction, which is usually a simple answer, I will guide them to think deeper. For example, they ask me why some classmates are taller than them. They guess that the bigger stature is the result of consuming more food and better nutrition. Then I ask why better nutrition will make a person taller.

"There's no need to do it in a deliberate way. Once you get used to these back-and-forth exchanges, they come up naturally in daily communication."

Lau often joins his sons in dismantling toys, clocks and other devices. "They have enjoyed taking things apart since they were very little, so I set aside time to do it with them. Along the way, I explain the functions of the components. We will reassemble the part or create new things from the odds and ends. When friends buy them presents, I ask them to avoid ready-made toys. I prefer things like Lego," he says.

While parents such as Lau may be familiar with electronics and machinery, others might be at a loss over how to encourage children to explore a subject that they find intimidating themselves.

But as Wong sees it, even if parents are unfamiliar with some scientific concepts, they can encourage their children to explore what lies behind everyday phenomena. A roller-coaster ride can be a good opportunity to point out concepts such as Newton's laws of motion and gravity, for instance. "Once their curiosity is piqued, they will take the initiative to find out the reasons themselves once they get older," Wong says.

Chau Sau-man, a chemistry teacher at Yan Chai Hospital Lim Por Yen Secondary School, finds some girls are intimidated by science subjects because they tend to equate it with maths. But science actually starts with observing the world around us and trying to understand what lies behind various phenomena. Calculation constitutes only a part of it, she says.

Even simple television health segments can offer useful explanations, she says, citing how a doctor illustrated his talk about the effect of soda drinks on teeth by dunking them in glasses of soda and vinegar. It showed they have a similarly corrosive effect on tooth enamel because both contain acids. "If children know science is related to them in all aspects of life, they will become motivated to explore it more deeply," Chau says.

The kitchen is a good place for parents to explore ideas about the physical world with their children, says Jacqueline Harmar, head of Renaissance College's science and social studies programme. "As they cook together, they can see what happens when things are heated, and then cool. Much science can be applied in cooking, which can help them develop an understanding of the world," says Harmar.

Making chocolate crispies cake, for example, could be a process of exploring what happens when different materials get hot. Should you use a plastic, glass or metal bowl to melt chocolate? "The glass or metal bowl conducts heat. Children will learn that they will burn themselves if they pick it up. Parents can talk about all that before cooking," Harmar explains.

As students advance through school, science competitions and other programmes can greatly enrich their inquiries. The Science Innovation Centre, which was set up in 2006 to help nurture budding scientists, runs a successful mentorship programme that pairs students with academics.

"They have the chance to go into the lab to conduct research with professors. Under such tutelage, a girl's research on how drinking Chinese tea can help ward off cancer won the top prize in the Hong Kong Youth Science and Technology Innovation Competition in 2010," Wong says.

Since 2004, they have also been sending students to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, organised by the US Society for Science and the Public. "More than 20 Nobel laureates were previous winners of the fair. It's important for local students to meet with brilliant young minds from around the world," Wong says.

Lau also goes out of his way to enrol his children in local and international science competitions. "Although we have to pay the airfares, the chance to be challenged in an international arena can open their horizons," he says.

elaine.yau@scmp.com