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Middle School Science

By Bill Pride
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #78, 2007.

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Bill Pride


The middle school grades (6-8) are possibly the most fulfilling to homeschool. You still have the freedom of elementary school, where everything is off the record for college, but your student has matured in his learning skills and mental ability to the point where you can begin to go beyond basic skills to specific subjects. It is also a time of transition from play to serious preparation for college and career in high school.

This is particularly true of science. Science in the elementary grades consists of "general science." You gather leaves and press them or trace them. You go on nature walks and try to identify trees and flowers, observe the insects in the grass, or gather rocks and maybe find some fossils. It's a time for mixing your own silly putty from kitchen materials or making vinegar and baking soda rockets. Elementary school is a time for observing and experiencing real things and learning the names of things.

Middle school science can be almost this flexible... or it can include college-level work. It's all up to you, perhaps far more than you realize.

For example, Littleton Public Schools in Colorado teaches life science, physical science, and earth science in grades 7, 8, and 9, but interleaves them so the student gets a little of each subject in each grade. The Virginia Department of Education recommends teaching life science in grade 7, physical science in grade 8, and earth science in grade 9. The Sage School in Foxboro, MA, teaches chemistry, biology, physical science, and earth science in each of four quarters over the three middle school years.

So different schools teach different subjects in different doses in different grades. Considering that the topics "life science," "physical science," and "earth/space sciences" each can include-or leave out-a huge variety of topics, it becomes clear that nobody has an exact prescription for middle school science.

The two things to remember about middle school science are:

  1. What you do in middle school will not be on your transcript for college.

  2. Nobody agrees on what middle school science SHOULD be.

Approaches

Here are five possible approaches to middle school science.

  1. Follow the college prep sequence. This is a nice, safe way that takes little preparation effort. In order to do this, just follow the science sequence in whatever curriculum you already use. For example, if you use BJU Press curriculum (bjupress.com), you would follow the sequence in their "Science for Homeschools" series. Grade 6 is general science. Grade 7 is life science. Grade 8 is earth/space science, and grade 9 is physical science. This is the sequence generally followed by public school textbook series for these years.

  2. Do a long-term project. This is a more demanding option than merely following a curriculum. You won't touch on as many subjects, but you will delve deeply into one area of study. Your project won't appear on your college transcript, unless you keep working at it in high school. But it may form the foundation for entering one of the major science competitions or science fairs later on.

    The goal of pursuing a long term project, besides the joy of the research itself, is to win scholarships and to get accepted at top schools. By "top schools" I mean the Ivies, MIT, Caltech, Stanford, and the like. The project can be a research project under the supervision of a high-school or college professor, a selective breeding project, an agricultural project, or whatever really interests your student.

    The Colfax children's goat breeding comes to mind as an example of this kind of science (as described in the book Homeschooling for Excellence). As the first homeschooler admitted to Harvard, Grant Colfax attributed his admission in large part to his work with goat genetics.

  3. Do science unit studies. This approach tries to provide relaxed, fun, yet information-filled science. Purchase science units or pick a list of middle-school science topics and design your own units.

    You could build units around a book series, such as Master Books' "Wonders of Creation" series (masterbooks.net): Astronomy, Fossil, Geology, Ocean, and Weather. Use the books as the kernel of each study. Don't forget to find and print out the free study guides on their website! Two other popular series you could use as the inspiration for your unit studies are the TOPS series (topscience.org) or the GEMS series (www.lawrencehallofscience.org). Or just pick your favorite topics and find out what you can at the library and online.

    As Mary Pride's Complete Guide to Getting Started in Homeschooling explains, a unit study starts with a topic that forms the central idea of the unit. You research what you can find on the topic. Then, being careful not to wander too far afield, you explore related topics.

    For example, a study on Weather, may naturally lead to a study of how heat is transferred, or of the water cycle. It may lead you to signing up to be a storm spotter or a water tester. You might want to get monthly temperature data or rainfall statistics for your town over the last hundred years, observe the seasonal cycles, and deduce if there has been any trend. After a month or month and a half, you would move on to a new topic.

  4. Teach non-high school topics. You could get radical and use the middle-school years for science enrichment. Try teaching topics you know you won't cover in high school. If your student can handle biology, chemistry, and physics without having to go through it three times-once in middle school, once in high school, and then again in college-you can use the middle-school years to pursue science topics not normally covered in high school.

    Instead of the normal potpourri of topics, you could try picking your own concentration, in an area of interest to you and/or your student. Some examples of concentrations we came up with for grades 6, 7, and 8 are:

    1. Engineering-electrical engineering (6), mechanical engineering (7), civil engineering and materials engineering (8).

    2. Earth and Space-Meteorology (6), Geology (7), Astronomy (8).

    3. Medical-Anatomy (6), First Aid/CPR/Life Saving (7), Herbology and vitamins (8).

    4. Outdoors-Agriculture (6), forestry and marine biology (7), zoology and botany (8).

    You aren't limited to this list, either. Feel free to invent your own sequence that fits your student's interests.

  5. Play and have fun. If you are not planning to continue past high school or you are planning to pursue a career or trade that does not require science, then you can have "just plain fun" with science in middle school.

    One way to do this is to explore science with experiment books or science kits.

    Former PHS columnist Janice van Cleave has come out with a couple of science experiment books each year for nearly three decades, so even with her books alone you have plenty to choose from. Jane Hoffman's "Backyard Scientist" books are another popular choice.

    For science kits you have hundreds of choices. Check out kits from Wild Goose, our Wiz kits, the McWizKids kits, science kits from Silver Dolphin, etc. Browse catalogs such as Timberdoodle or Edmund Scientifics. Or even check your local Radio Shack or electronics store. Enjoy!


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