Q: Our elementary school launched a science fair and I couldn't convince my third-grade son or fourth-grade daughter to enter. I want them to like science. Are science fairs old-fashioned?
A: Definitely not! Science fairs have increased, thanks to a national emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), but not all elementary schools are on board.
Many elementary teachers, charged with heavy reading and math teaching requirements, skimp on science. The U.S. Department of Education says that elementary students receive, on average, only 2.3 hours of science instruction per week, compared to three hours 20 years ago.
Want your kids to love science? Parents have to sow the seeds, and now's the time, says Bill Nye, television's "Science Guy."
"I can tell you as a guy who worked on airplanes, ships, oil wells, airborne electronics and even ballet shoes -- everyone who works on those things for a living got excited about science before he or she was 10 years old," he says.
Here's how to sow those science seeds:
-- Make informal science a priority. Kids who excel in science have parents who stimulate interest in exploration. They visit science institutions such as parks, aquariums, science centers and natural-history museums.
"They use the language and skills of science," says Nancy Bourne, an award-winning teacher at Beacon Cove Intermediate School in Jupiter, Fla. "Curiosity -- asking questions -- is at the heart of science. Every day there are hundreds of things to observe, inquire and make hypotheses about. Pick one and model scientific thinking: 'Let's observe these interesting clouds! Are they darker than those we saw yesterday? What direction are they coming from? What weather will they bring?'
"When you observe differences, record observations, make hypotheses and identify patterns, you help develop science skills."
-- Add a big dose of science to your media diet. "Subscribe to kids' science magazines and websites, and download science apps," says Bourne. "Ditch junk TV and choose instead the great science programming on TV and online, such as National Geographic, Discovery Channel and Bill Nye's 'Consider the Following' (billnye.com). Track progress of the Mars Rover, for example.
"For thrills, you can't beat Discovery Channel's groundbreaking footage of a giant squid, 'Monster Squid: The Giant Is Real,' airing this month. Follow up with the book 'Here There Be Monsters: The Legendary Kraken and the Giant Squid' (Houghton Mifflin, 2010) that weaves scientific discovery with historical accounts."
-- Incorporate science into family reading time. "There are hundreds of compelling science books," says science educator Sandra Markle, whose latest book, "Snow School" (Charlesbridge Publishing, 2013), shows how a mother snow leopard teaches her cubs to survive in their harsh home.
Books like these are fun to read aloud, and can be followed up with family activities, like those suggested on Markle's "Write On!" blog (sandra-markle.blogspot.com). Each year, the National Science Teachers Association publishes the year's best science books for young people. Go to nsta.org/publications.
-- Advocate for STEM excellence. Check out Change the Equation, a nonpartisan effort to promote STEM literacy. Find effective programs to improve STEM teaching at changetheequation.org.
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)