What can a 9 year old do to learn real biology?

I met some terrific families at the Marian Koshland Science Museum this weekend. Some kids and parents wanted to know about how to learn about computers and programming.  Others wanted to know more about biology. One parent emailed me later to ask about his 9-year old son who is especially interested in biology. We all want our kids to learn logic and thinking skills and we always do best if we can teach them to think about the topic they are interested in. It can be challenging to find things that are neat enough to interest our motivated kids but that are safe enough to let them do one their own.  I list some fun activities and cheap tools here, list some nice online sites and I also try to explain, in 9 year old terms, how studying any kind of science is practice for studying all kinds of science.  I gave my response this way:

If I were 9 years old–or if I had any time these days–I would look at the list of citizen science projects and jump into any I found interesting!  There are many projects. We need more information to answer some important questions.  You can help collect data for scientists who are trying to answer questions.  For example: What kind of insects live in your area? What kinds of invasive plants species? Are there more butterflies this year compared to last year?

Scientists need a few basic skills.  There are many ways to develop these basic skills. You can practice your basic skills on any of the citizen science project.

The basic skills that all scientists need are these:

1. Observation.  What does the plant or animal look like. Does every animal or plant of this look the same? Or do the females look different from the males? Do the young look different from the old?  Scientists call the study of the shape of plants and animals “morphology.”

2.  Hypothesis making.  Have you observed something interesting and you want to understand it better?  If so, you will investigate to find answers.  Scientists make hypothesis to guide their investigations. So perhaps you are studying the birds in your yard.  You may see some red birds.  You may wonder whether the red birds are always red.  Are they red in winter and summer? Are they red when they are young and old?  Are the females and the males both red?  For each of these questions you pick an answer that you think is correct. Your answer is your hypothesis.  Write your hypothesis in your lab notebook.  Write your reasons for believing this the correct hypothesis.  Also write down the reasons you think it may be wrong.  Write down what you will do to prove whether your hypothesis is correct.  One possible hypothesis is the “Red birds are only red when they are old.”

3.  Collect Evidence.  Part one: Other people’s work.  We need evidence to find out whether our hypothesis is correct. To find evidence, scientists always do these two things: 1. Read other people’s work.  2. Do your own work.  Always read other people’s work first.  Often they have an answer you can use.  After you have their work in your mind, reconsider your hypothesis.  Did you answer your question?  Do you have a new question?  Often, very often, someone has answered our question themselves.  Make a new hypothesis if you want to.  Write it down. Start again to collect evidence by reading other people’s work.

4.  Collect Evidence.  Part Two: Collect your own data.  Think first about what you want to have in the end.  Do you want a chart, a graph or an image to prove your hypothesis is correct?What is on the chart, what is in the image?  For example, can we take a picture of a red bird to prove our hypothesis?  Or do we need to compare young birds and old birds?  Do we need 5 birds or 50 birds?  Imagine what data you need to convince yourself and to convince other people that your hypothesis is correct.  After you have designed the data you think you will get, ask someone else to discuss your plan with you.  If is best to ask someone who knows about birds, or who has done similar data collection. Always start with a clear idea of how you will present your data in the end.  Finally, make your plans, write them down carefully in your notebook and start collecting data!

5.  Tell others about your work.  Scientists’ final step is to tell others about their hypothesis and to explain the evidence the read and they they gathered themselves.  Use the data you collected to make the chart, or create the images that you think will provide the evidence to prove your hypothesis right. Show your data to some others and ask them if it is clear. Write an introduction to the data that helps others understand.  Why is this data important, what should anyone care about the questions you are asking.  Then describe your data. Does the data prove your hypothesis?  Whether it does or does not, consider what questions remain.  What else do you need to know about this area?  What are the next questions to ask?

If you are interested in studying human cancer or if you are interested in studying stars in the sky, all of these skills are necessary.  You can practice these skills every day.

I hope you find some science projects you can join.  I also have some links to col things you can do at home: These cool things are cool, and you can do them even without making a hypothesis.  However, after you do them you might have some questions about how they work.  Then you can make some hypothesis and see if you can answer your own questions!

And remember, scientists NEVER work alone!  Do not do any experiments without your parents!

Silly/serious links for neat science “experiments” to do at home:


Doing biology online is also great, and Koshland has a great site: http://www.koshland-science-museum.org/explore-the-science/life-lab

iBiology is a fantastic collection of real discussions about molecular cell biology.  iBiology has a list of their Favorite Online Resources:
Science in the Classroom
Youreka Science
Khan Academy
TED Talks
HHMI Cool Science
National Association of Biology Teachers
Science/AAAS Educational Resources

Let me know what you find that you like!

Microscopes and Magnification:

Biology is often very small!  For an extremely motivated 9 year old biologist (or a teenager), I would buy a microscope.  10x magnification is enough to see mold, bacteria, bug parts, etc.  Microscopes for students (they are not cheap options, I would start with the thread counter!)  Microscopes are tricky to use: they have very short focal ranges: This means the thing you want to see must be in a very exact spot to see it: closer or farther from the lens will make the object blurry.  Only very patient people will enjoy using a microscope.

For a younger biologist or for a portable and simple solution to magnification, I buy thread counters:  They magnify 2.5 x and they have collapsable plastic stands that you can put over a bug to see it better. Here is a $5 thread counter that you can keep in your pocket for trips into the woods…  Because they are lower magnification, their focal distance is a little wider, making focusing easier.  Also, they are open to the daylight, meaning they do not need a light source.

This is a $15 magnifier designed for sodering… 10x magnification.  This is a neat techy looking thing with alligator clips.  Alligator clips always look cool.

Scientists who are interested in hearing from you:
The International Society of Tardigrade Hunters These people will use their powerful microscopes to look at any tardigrade you send them…  What is a tardigrade, you ask?  Well, go see for yourself!


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