Science isn’t just a body of knowledge — it’s a way of acquiring scientific concepts and principles, and the best middle school programs get students interested in investigating the world around them. As children learn facts and vocabulary, they develop the ability to ask scientific questions, plan experiments to answer these questions, and develop reasonable explanations based on their observations.

Quality middle school science is more important than ever, as the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) showed eighth-graders’ science scores stagnating on a national average and declining by 12th grade.

Science standards vary widely from state to state and school to school, but the thinking skills taught by science are universal. The topics below are examples taken from several states and therefore merely guidelines. To see how your child’s schoolwork compares, check out your state’s science standards.

What does good science instruction look like?

An international video study of eighth-grade science teaching practices in the United States found key differences between our country and nations that performed better on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study test (TIMSS) in 1999.

The good news is that U.S. students are engaged in a variety of science activities — hands-on experiments, class discussions, and independent reading and writing. The bad? These activities aren’t necessarily linked to larger science ideas, and content is typically organized as discrete bits of information.

The study found that lessons in Australia and Japan, for example, focused on a small number of core ideas and engaged students in hands-on activities to explore and reinforce those ideas. In the United States, by contrast, students worked on activities designed to be fun and engaging.

In one lesson on building rockets described in the report, an eighth-grade teacher spent 10 minutes collecting permission slips for a field trip and talking about unrelated topics. Then the students got out their rockets and directions for building them and worked on them for 25 minutes, consulting with the teacher and classmates for help. There was no mention of any science ideas during the lesson.

What is taught in science?

State science standards vary widely, and when a panel of scientists reviewed them for the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, they gave nearly half the states Ds or Fs.

Generally speaking, most middle school science classes cover the following topics:

Physical science

Students of physical science brush up on the laws of motion, force, speed, and the transfer of energy. Middle-schoolers should understand the effect of friction on objects, as well as the difference between friction and inertia. In science class, kids have the opportunity to learn about the properties of a range of materials, studying size, weight, and shape. Middle school students should conduct experiments, use tools to gather and organize data, and learn how to make graphs to present their findings.

Life science

The life sciences include everything from the human body to ecology. With so many topics, at any given time students in middle school might be immersed in studying a particular insect, or observing a terrarium or aquarium to learn about ecosystems. Junior life scientists also learn about plants, including the basic processes, like photosynthesis, that allow them to thrive.

Earth and space science

Middle school earth science lessons begin with a look at how the earth was formed. Kids should learn about the earth’s orbit around the sun as well as the moon’s orbit around the earth. Parents should help their children make connections between orbits and time. Kids should understand that a year is the length of time it takes the earth to orbit the sun and a day is based on how long it takes for the earth to make one rotation on its axis.

Teachers often include a geology lesson that focuses on a single point of interest like the Grand Canyon. By studying the Grand Canyon, for example, students can follow in the footsteps of professional scientists, learning to read geologic lessons in the rock and discern the effect erosion has on the earth’s natural features.

Science and technology

Many middle schools emphasize the relationship between science and technology. To help them make the right connections, science teachers lead children in a variety of activities. These technology-focused activities might include a study of bridge design or a discussion about robots’ value to society. Lessons should give special attention to the way science and technology can be used to solve human problems and meet human needs.

Scientific inquiry

While studying science, your child will also be learning about the process of scientific inquiry — how to ask incisive questions, design experiments, gather evidence, formulate answers, and communicate the results. It’s not uncommon for students’ ideas and misconceptions to be challenged or changed.

By contrasting and comparing, students hone their critical thinking skills, analyzing errors and making summaries of what they’ve learned. Many other soft skills should grow and develop while studying science. For example, students might begin to learn the importance of recording their observations or recognize the limitations their own memories.

Using math skills in science

Rock solid math skills are crucial to success in science. Whether students are being asked to create a new calendar for an imaginary world or calculating sea rise from an arctic ice melt-off, they’ll use a wide variety of math skills involving basic arithmetic, geometry, and pre-algebra.

Creating graphs and tables, measuring to scale, calculating ratios, determining weight, distance, and volume – all these are math skills needed for science.

How can you help?

Children learn through hands-on activities. By questioning, seeking answers, gathering evidence, and recording results, middle-schoolers can build on their natural curiosity. But it’s important to make sure that activities are connected to a scientific idea or concept. In addition to guiding the learning process, you can help your child develop enthusiasm — all that’s required is your own interest and excitement in the project.

At home

  • You may not realize you already have a science lab in your home — your kitchen! Everything about cooking has to do with science, including how heating food can change states of matter. For more food science ideas, check out The Exploratorium‘s list of kid-safe experiments.
  • Take a weekend field trip. Zoos, aquariums, planetariums, nature preserves, and tech museums offer various programs and events for the younger set.
  • Science fairs, whether local or national, are a wonderful way to help your middle-schooler tackle scientific concepts with a hands-on project. Science Buddies is an online science mentoring organization that can help your child find fairs and create a project for competition.

At school

  • Ask the teacher or principal what key concepts are taught in science class and how hands-on activities and experiments are connected to those concepts. TryScience has a list of 10 questions parents should ask their child’s school as well as links to other resources that will help you understand what is and is not offered through the school.
  • Ask the principal about the training of the school’s science teachers. Research shows that the best science teachers have a science background. How is the principal trying to attract such teachers? What professional development opportunities are available to teachers to increase their knowledge? Are there ways for teachers to collaborate with more experienced colleagues to plan lessons or improve their teaching strategies?
  • Does your school lack equipment because of funds? Organizations such as RAFT in San Jose, Calif., offer kits, equipment, and help with teacher development through donations and partnerships with tech companies. Check with your local science center to see if there are similar organizations or related companies in your area.
  • Volunteer to assist with classroom activities such as special projects and field trips or offer to lead a lesson yourself if you have a background in science or technology.

Preparing for high school science

The foundation students build in middle school will support them throughout their education. By the end of middle school, students should be familiar with the language of science and have a grasp of its basic concepts.

For example, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District in North Carolina lists these concepts:

  • Cellular structure and theory
  • Skeletal, muscular and other human body systems
  • Heredity and genetics
  • Population dynamics
  • Diversity and adaptations of organisms
  • Change over time of life and form
  • Structure of the earth system
  • Earth in the universe
  • Transfer of energy
  • Motion and forces
  • Properties of matter
  • Flow of matter and energy

Middle school is often the time when students embrace or abandon their natural curiosity about science. Students who choose to pursue that interest might turn science into a career or simply use their new knowledge to gain a better understanding of the world. Either way, parental involvement is key to kids’ success.

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