Friday, July 11, 2014

In Search of a Science Curriculum



We have enjoyed Sonlight for Alexa’s preschool and early pre-kindergarten, but we have decided that this will be our last year using Sonlight. There are several reasons for that decision, and I won’t get into them right now. I only mention it because if we were sticking with Sonlight, I would not now be in the process of researching and choosing curriculum for Alexa’s kindergarten year. (Yes, I know that won’t begin until fall 2015, over a year from now. However, next year will be fully occupied with our move. I need to be prepared with research before we arrive in the United States for home leave, during which time I hope to attend a homeschool convention and visit several libraries and bookstores, armed with the research that I’m beginning now so that I have an idea of what I want to see in person before I buy.)

Within the last week, after way too much research, a good bit of discussion, and some serious stress on my part, we chose a science curriculum. In this post, I’m going to review what we were looking for, describe the most appealing* options we considered, and finally, tell you what we chose. If you’re not interested in homeschooling or in science curriculum, you may not wish to read further.



OUR PERFECT SCIENCE CURRICULUM
 
In a perfect world, I would find the perfect science curriculum. (Spoiler: This is not a perfect world!) The curriculum would meet all of the following criteria:

  • Inexpensive
  • Involves a combination of textbooks, more interesting science-related books, and hands-on activities (demonstrations or experiments, nature walks, lap- or notebooking, and possibly workbooks). 
  • Complete and ready to go—all lesson plans, supplies, and books would arrive at my door neatly packaged in one big box.
  • Evolution and Old Earth assumptions would be taught explicitly, but ideally while recognizing that God set it all in motion or at the very least while refraining from disparaging religion. Bonus points for objectively presenting evidence for and against Old Earth and Young Earth viewpoints, as well as evolution, theistic evolution, and literal 7-day creationism. At the very least, the curriculum must not set up the false choice of “you can be a Christian or you can be a scientist, but you can’t be both.”
  • My preference: Rather than jumping around as most elementary “general science” courses do, the course would pick one area of science and cover it well. I would prefer a cycle of one year each of biology, earth and space science, chemistry, and physics.
  • Jeff’s preference, which I did not know until pretty late in my research: Rather than sticking with one topic for a full year, the curriculum would cover a variety of topics.

Do you notice all the contradictions? Inexpensive, yet including lots of moving parts and little to no planning on my part. Secular, yet religious or at least not hostile to religion. Covering one area in depth, yet covering all areas of science. That isn’t too much to ask, is it? (Spoiler alert: Turns out, it kind of is.)



OUR OPTIONS

Science in the … Series by Jay Wiles

  • First book: $39 from Berean Builders, with the option to buy a supply kit ($85) and a lapbook template ($18) from other vendors
  • Designed for grades K-6, with multiple ages able to use each book simultaneously
  • Presents science within a historical framework, with the first book an overview organized around the days of Creation, and following books focused on specific time frames. (Subsequent books cover the ancient world, the 16th and 17th centuries, the 18th century, and the 19th century).

I love the idea of this series. Each lesson is centered around a demonstration or experiment. The historical focus shows students that science is a process and demonstrates how scientific knowledge is built gradually over time, so even though it jumps from topic to topic, the organization should make sense.

However, there is one major problem with this curriculum: The author is an avowed Young Earth Creationist. He seems to be well respected by homeschoolers on both sides of this great divide, but even so, he does have a bias, and we believe it’s in the wrong direction. Reasons to Believe concludes in their review that this curriculum is not hostile to Old Earth theories, but neither is it compatible with them. If we believed in a young Earth, I would take a very close look at this curriculum—I took a pretty close look at it anyway!—but as it is, we had to move on.


Elemental Science (Classic Series) by Paige Hudson 

  • Preschool series (including kindergarten): two options, each $15 ebook or $27 print, with optional experiment kits ($38 or $42) from Elemental Science. Supporting books must be purchased separately from other sources, but there are not many and they are not expensive.
  • Traditional curriculum is available for preschool through grade 8, as well as online high school courses.
  • Each unit involves a demonstration or activity, text, narration, sketching, notebooking, and nature walks.
  • Preschool courses include a mix of topics; classic series follows with a year each of biology, earth and space science, chemistry, and physics.
  • The author is a Christian, but she uses materials that approach science from a secular view.

 I fell in love with this curriculum when I looked at the sample lessons available on the website. I’m not sure how rigorous it would be, but I am sure that Alexa and I would enjoy doing it, and at her age, it’s at least as important to inspire a love of science as it is to cram her head full of scientific facts and theories. This curriculum checks all of my boxes, and I was all set to use it … until Jeff surprised me with the revelation that he didn’t want each year to focus on a different subject. So I abandoned my obsession with Elemental Science and took a closer look at another option, one that I’d looked at superficially but not in depth because I was too caught up in this one to give it a chance.



  • Series of 3 books ($25-$35 each, or $10 each for Kindle), each of which provides lesson plans for 3 years (K-2, 3-5, and 6-8). Lab or other supplemental materials must be acquired elsewhere.
  • The curriculum weaves together four “threads”—Nature of Matter (Chemistry), Life Science, Physical Science, and Earth and Space Science—with the goal of helping students understand how science as a whole is interrelated.
  • Involves demonstrations and experiments, lapbooking for younger students, and notebooking for older students. Also includes a list of optional books for supplemental reading.
  • Completely secular.

When I first looked at this curriculum, I rejected it out of hand. There are very few things to make me run away from a curriculum as quickly as seeing on almost every review some variation of the statement, “This is no open-and-go curriculum. It requires a LOT of preparation from the teacher!” Consider that “complete and ready to go” box of mine not only not checked but turning red, flashing, and wailing an alarm!

However, I also saw that this curriculum has several users with extensive scientific training themselves, and they love these books. Their reviews say that it inspires students to think scientifically, not merely to memorize facts (though it requires that as well); that it presents high level concepts in ways that their young children understand and remember; and that they and their children love doing science with this curriculum. Frankly, I realized from my first look that this curriculum probably is the most comprehensive one available; I just didn’t care because I went into a mild panic at the very thought of using it.

Jeff, on the other hand, had no such reservations. He likes to say that all of science comes back to physics, and this curriculum may well agree. He recognized that this option would be more difficult for me, and he said we could use something else. I knew, though, that we wouldn’t agree on anything else—nothing else will provide the depth I want, the variety Jeff wants, the interconnectedness we both prefer, and Old Earth perspective we require. This one is the best choice for us. So I joined the Yahoo support group moderated by Dr. Nebel himself, asked a question or two on my homeschool forum, and ordered the first book.

I know it’s crazy early to be buying curriculum for fall 2015, but hey … that wailing siren in my head won’t be quiet until I’ve made at least a preliminary implementation plan, which I can’t do until I have the book. I need some mental peace and quiet, so I need that book, crazy early or not. In the meantime, if you notice me mumbling about threads and lesson order and supplemental reading and where I can buy magnet sets or microscopes, please just roll your eyes and look away. I’ll be ok, I promise.



*The less appealing options we considered included the following:

  •  NOEO Science—similar to Elemental Science, but it didn’t have a year for Earth and Space Science, and it didn’t have anything for kindergarten. If I hadn’t seen Elemental Science first, I would have considered NOEO more strongly.
  • Nancy Larson Science—a crazy expensive, all-inclusive program for grades K-4. Reviewers either love it or hate it. I suspect I would hate it, as I only got halfway through my perusal of the sample lesson before I had to stop. The extreme scriptedness of the lessons was annoying, but I could handle it. What I could not handle was the insultingly condescending tone of the script.
  • Real Science 4 Kids—a unit study approach, which would have gotten very expensive by requiring the purchase of 2-3 units per year. Reviews also lamented that it did not require much critical thinking, only fact memorization.
  • Christian Schools International—one of the few explicitly Christian options that teaches from an Old Earth viewpoint. Reasons to Believe has very positive things to say about its integration of faith and science, but it lacks depth and rigor and requires supplementation.
  • Houghton Mifflin Science Homeschool—reasonably priced secular option. Nothing stellar or horrible about it, other than that most of the best things about it are online, and I don’t want to have a problem doing a science lesson because the internet went out, or be required to complete the curriculum in one year or lose access to vital online content, or have problems using it because reviews said that it’s ridiculously difficult to set up the online access.
  • R.E.A.L. Science Odyssey—reasonably priced, secular program that objectively checks most of my boxes … I just wasn’t drawn to it and could not force myself to feel strongly one way or the other about it. I found part of the sample lesson annoyingly cutesy, but otherwise have no idea why it didn’t make my top picks list. I’m sure it’s great for some families, just not for ours.
  • Behold and See Science by Catholic Heritage Curricula—inexpensive, Christian worktext program that is not hostile to Old Earth or theistic evolution. However, it reportedly is light on content.

13 comments:

  1. You have the same preferences I have for science, and I have spent a LOT of time trying to find something that fits over the years. I never could find anything perfect, either. (I think I'm pickier about science b/c it's my thing.)
    In the end, I just decided to stick with Sonlight's science and supplement it with other stuff, because I love the Sonlight schedules. I'm not big into young earth creationism and Sonlight is fairly balanced in that regard, at least admitting that different Christians come to different conclusions but that doesn't make them not Christians.
    Most homeschoolers I know use Apologia though, which isn't balanced, as you mentioned. I still wish for something better every year, but I'm also not big into changing course. My kids love the Sonlight science books anyway, and I think after several years of using it, the subjects covered are pretty thorough. I love that they use a lot of Usborne books, which I trust for accurate science. (I don't always trust the young earth books for accurate science, I feel like I have to check absolutely everything to make sure my kids aren't learning something unscientific, and that gets old really fast.)
    I know I will have to discard some books, because Sonlight gets more into young earth science as they get older, and I even had to eliminate one of the books this year (on dinosaurs) and buy a national geographic book instead.
    However, all this to say that it was SO refreshing to read of another Christian who doesn't think you have to subscribe to those young earth theories to still love and obey God and be a valid Christian. You have NO idea how good that was for me to read! (Also good to know other people agonize over science curriculum too.) Elizabeth

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    1. Apologia, as highly recommended and widely used as it is, never really was one of the options for us. I wanted it to be--it would be so easy to do what everyone else is doing, wouldn't it? But, yeah ... I think Reasons to Believe reviews some of their stuff as not incompatible with OE views, but not much of it.

      There are more of us OE Christians than you'd think, though. We're just not as vocal about it in the face of all the outspoken YE proponents. My hope is that with the increase in people who are homeschooling for academic reasons--people who are secular or less fundamentalist Christians--that we'll see an increase in demand (and therefore supply) for OE homeschool science materials. I'm hoping that BFSU will get us to high school, and after that ... maybe we'll do Elemental's online stuff if nothing else has come along :)

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    2. I'm sorry, Elizabeth--I tried to approve this comment from my phone, but accidentally fat fingered it and hit "delete" instead of "publish." Here is Elizabeth's comment (copied from my email notification):

      It's really good to hear you say that about OE/YE stuff. Yes, you're right, not outspoken! In fact, I've never said that in any kind of public arena, this is the first time. But when I saw what you were saying, I was so relieved. It gave me courage. Never heard of Reasons to Believe though. Will have to check that out.
      Most of my background comes from John Clayton with Does God Exist? ministries. He's from my denominational background and has several degrees, and simply looks at the evidence. Used to be an atheist until the evidence convinced him otherwise. Used to hate organized religion until he met a group of loving Christians. I also like Peter Enns and Biologos.

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    3. I heard of Reasons to Believe when a Facebook friend posted a link to an article they'd published about Noah and the flood--they basically argued that the flood could have been geographically local while still being universal in impact (affecting all of humanity, but not all the earth), and that this scenario fit the scientific possibilities without compromising the integrity of Scripture. I don't typically spend a lot of time on their website, as I'm much less interested in working out all the details of the science/faith intersection now than I used to be, but once I saw that they reviewed science curriculum ... well, I couldn't ignore that resource :) I'll have to check out Clayton, Enns, and Biologos too. I have a feeling that as a home educator, I'll need to start paying more attention to that whole science/faith thing.

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    4. Hey, no problem on the lost comment! Like you mentioned in your comment, I'm also no longer obsessive about making all the scientific evidence perfectly match the Bible, because my faith is ok with a little mystery and unknown now.
      So while I still believe the Bible is the inspired word of God, and our highest authority (because quite honestly, if it's not, I'm not going to waste my time following ANY of it), and that His hand created everything from nothing, I also trust most peer-reviewed science (because I understand how rigorous the process is and what they do to scientists whose conclusions aren't backed by evidence, who interpreted their data incorrectly, or who just flat out designed their experiments wrong or fudged results). But I no longer get hung up when something doesn't match entirely, I just assume I must not be understanding something right -- either the science, or the Bible, or both. I just don't worry about it anymore. That's not the same as not caring or not thinking about it, but it is an easier way to live. Of course getting to that place took a lot of time, soul-searching, mental effort, and energy. It wasn't as easy as just writing this comment is now. :)
      So you're right when you say as a home educator you'll have to pay attention more, but you're also right in saying you don't need to know absolutely everything! Only God knows and understands everything. :) We can't, because we weren't there when He made everything, which again, just admitting my inabilities to know and understand everything is soothing to my soul.
      Thank you for sharing your perspectives on this and being willing to engage me, again, and again, in the comments. And I look forward to a day when simply asking the question of how old everything is, while still maintaining God created it all, doesn't automatically make you a heretic!

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    5. Well said, Elizabeth! It is very nice to find like-minded people--or maybe I should say, it's nice for like-minded people to reveal themselves. You're not the only one who's contacted me about this post and expressed delight in finding another OE homeschooler; you're just the only one who did it publicly!

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    6. Thanks for sharing about the private messages; it's very encouraging to know I'm not alone!

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  2. P.S. Even though I said I pretty much settled on Sonlight, I'm going to go explore this Elemental Science stuff anyway. (Like I said, I pretty much rethink it every year even though I don't change.) I've never heard of Elemental Science. You think it's good quality? (I'm not picky about spiral approach versus in-depth and I always like to have more reference books at home.)

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    1. I really don't know how rigorous Elemental Science is, but the sample lessons I looked at (primarily the two preschool ones) looked like something we'd just enjoy doing, while learning as well. There aren't a lot of books involved ... at least not in the preschool courses; I assume there are more in the grammar stage courses. It just looked to me like a good introduction to science, a way to learn and to enjoy learning. Also, the activities were related to the reading, which I understand is not always the case with Sonlight science.

      My obsession with this curriculum really boils down to one thing ... I think we'd really enjoy it. I feel like I'm outing myself here, because rigor and thoroughness and scientific thinking are supposed to be the important things, right? And I have no idea how well Elemental really accomplishes those things. But in these young years, I do believe that inspiring a love of science is the most important part, and I can see Lexa begging to do science with those Elemental lessons--and I can see me being happy to say yes.

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    2. Yeah it's hard to balance those! I want them to enjoy science like I do, and not squelch the curiosity, but I also want to be rigorous. I tend to think middle school is a good time for catching up on rigorousness if you haven't before, though. I mean, how much of elementary science do you remember? Me, not much! I am always looking for supplemental materials though. Thanks for the ideas.

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    3. My memories of elementary science pretty much boil down to: A flower has a stamen. And some other things. Oh, and "Man Very Early Made Jars Stand Up Nearly Perfectly," for remembering the planets' order. I'm sure there's more in there, but most of what I know about science, I remember being taught (or at least reviewed) in high school and college. So, yes, I'm with you there!

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  3. We're looking into homeschool curriculum right now ourselves and your thoughts on the various curriculum are helpful. I'd be very interested in your thoughts on WinterPromise. Have you looked into them as well? Cathy Duffy did a review on them as well: http://cathyduffyreviews.com/unit-studies/winterpromise.htm

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  4. Thanks for the comment, Bunny. I apologize for the delay in approving it; I was traveling and have had very limited internet access for the last few weeks.

    I have not looked into WinterPromise all that much. Honestly, just looking through the titles of the available themed years turns me off--not because there's anything inherently bad about the topics, but because I'm leaning toward a 4-year history cycle as described in The Well-Trained Mind, and the WP topics seem much more focused on American history than I want to be. I plan to use world history as our organizing theme, incorporating American history into that, but not focusing so much on American history to the exclusion of the rest of the world.

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