How to Teach Science

We’ll walk you through how to teach science including the elements of a science education and the order to teach in, then we recommend some books that take you there.

Science is the observation and study of the natural world, nothing more and nothing less.  Applied science then takes those observations and invents and creates things that make life better (or at least make money).

how to teach science

Elements of a Science Education

A good science education is a mixture of reading and learning about already discovered scientific principles and learning how new scientific principles and information are discovered (or old ones are refined or disproved).

Every modern school considers scientific experiments and demonstrations as essential to a science education.

So when designing or choosing a science program for your kids you need these elements:

  1. Lots of facts
  2. Demonstrations or “experiments” with instructions and a pre-determined outcome
  3. Chances to really do original experimentation and observation

Lots of Facts

Kids need to read and watch and listen and absorb all the things that have been discovered about our world so far. If you approach this right, your kids should love science.  Stick with nature documentaries, books that focus on a single topic (as opposed to text books), and videos and websites online that present information in an entertaining way.


Most schools and books (including Layers of Learning) call these “experiments”, but they aren’t really.  If you are following a recipe, you’re not experimenting.  Still these hands on encounters with science are essential for true understanding.  Being told that light consists of the entire visible spectrum, or even seeing an illustration in a book, can’t be compared to actually splitting a sunbeam into a rainbow with your own two hands.  Seeing the physical phenomenon of the universe will open your children’s eyes to seeing more of it, without the aid of books.

Experiments and Observations

Real scientists observe.  They see the world with fresh eyes.  They think. Kids who are fed information but never expected to discover will soon not be able to discover.  You can achieve original scientific thought by having your kids keep nature notebooks and drawing and writing and keeping records in them.  You can also leave them with a problem and then let them solve it themselves.

Last week we had a lesson about light in our homeschool.  We read some information about light and then I asked my kids what they thought would happen if a beam of light hit a mirror.  I didn’t give them answers.  I left them to think about it.  They designed experiments to find out.

how to teach science
My boys took a flashlight into our dark bathroom and bounced a beam of light off the mirror. They drew lines on a piece of paper to mark where the beam of light traveled to and from the mirror. Then they measured the angles with a protractor.

The first time I was asked to do original research was for a senior project in college.  I freaked out. No one had ever asked me to compile original information.  I had no idea where to begin.  I was a science major.  But I wasn’t a scientist. That one experience taught me that science has to be about creativity and thinking, not just about absorbing and regurgitating.

What to Learn

For convenience in designing an education, science is broken into branches: biology, chemistry, earth science, and physics.  In reality the natural world isn’t compartmentalized.  Birds rely on the earth, principles of physics, chemistry, and biology to live out their lives.  So does everything else.

This means that you can learn about scientific principles or topics in any order you want.  But there are still orders to learning that make sense.

How schools organize science

Schools usually teach science randomly in the early years.  Then in high school they teach biology first followed by chemistry.  “Smart” kids then take physics.  Some high schools offer other courses like astronomy, advanced chem, organic chem, or anatomy and physiology.  Earth science is considered a junior high topic if they teach it at all.

The most logical organization of science

The simplest of the sciences is physics which deals with motion and energy.  Physics is straightforward, mathematical, and everything else in the universe is based on and must obey the laws of motion and energy.

Next in complexity is chemistry.  Chemistry builds on the motion and energy in atoms to make up the stuff that the universe comprises, the elements.  Chemistry studies how those elements combine into compounds and mixtures and react one with another.

Then you take the stuff of chemistry and combine it into minerals, gases, compounds, and so forth to make up the non-living parts of the earth and other bodies in the universe.  This is earth science (which in spite of its name also includes the science of the stars and planets, etc).

Finally life depends on all these of these, physics, chemistry, and earth, to function and reproduce. It is impossible to understand life, biology, without also knowing something of physics, chemistry and the earth.

How Humans Observe

Perversely, as humans we learn about our world in exactly the opposite order to the most logical. Living things are most accessible, most interesting, and most familiar.  Next we learn about the non-living things we can see and touch and taste and smell.  Finally we start to wonder what all these things are made of and that leads us to chemistry.  Then at last we come right back to the fundamentals of motion and energy.

So I’m going to say it again.  It doesn’t really matter in what order you study science so long as you remember that the divisions between the branches are somewhat arbitrary and that the natural world is integrated and dependent on every other part to function. The other caveat is that you want to spend enough time in one area to reach some degree of depth.  If you move on too quickly you will never do more than skim the surface.

For example, stick with the study of the human body until you get though all the major systems, don’t flit from the heart to light to fossils, to the moon, to acids and bases willy nilly.

How Layers of Learning is organized

The way we decided to organize science was almost happenstance.  I, Michelle, was going to organize it more or less the way schools do, teaching each of the four branches in turn, one per year.  But Karen, a much more creative free-spirit type than myself, said she would get bored.  So we decided to put each of the four branches in each year of the curriculum.

This turned out to be a great decision.  What we did, almost by accident, integrated the four branches so that kids learn about every level of organization in the world all in the same year.  It allows us as humans to learn about what is most familiar, life and the earth, on the same level and at the same age as we are learning about the building blocks and rules of life and the earth, the things that allow it all to exist.

You can read more about the Layers of Learning curriculum and also specifically how we organized science.

How to Plan/Choose Your Own Science Curriculum

When I first started homeschooling my kids I used the DK Science Encyclopedia as my basic text. Then I added in the Janice Van Cleave experiment books.  I just wrote the page number for the Van Cleave experiments right on the appropriate page in the science encyclopedia.

Elementary Science

We did these steps:

  1. Read from the science encyclopedia.
  2. Did one or two experiments (these were really demonstrations or recipes, not experiments.)
  3. Then had the kids draw a picture of the experiment and write a few lines (with help when they were young) about what they learned.

We went through the science encyclopedia in order, which meant we did chemistry first, then physics, then earth science, then biology, because that’s the order in which the encyclopedia is organized.

(You can click on the books below to buy them on Amazon. These are affiliate links.)

It was a good system and I would do it again that way.  The only thing it was missing was the opportunity to do real experiments and observation. (Layers of Learning incorporates actual experimentation into the curriculum).

High School Science

And of course, it’s not adequate for high school.  I had planned to use the Apologia science books for high school. And I still really like them.  In fact my high schoolers read them along with the other things we do in science, but we don’t do the whole program.  Again, I like the integration of the four branches in each year and I like actual experimentation and observation as part of the curriculum.  So our core is the Layers of Learning program.  But if you want a more traditional approach to science (one that’s easier to put on the transcript) I recommend Apologia.

Unfortunately if you’re looking for something more secular (Apologia does not spout Bible verses or make everything about God, but they are Christian and they do teach that evolution is flawed) then your options are less good.  I recommend Khan Academy for the extremely thorough and well-explained information, but then you have to dig up the experimentation part of the curriculum.  You’ll have to search around on the internet for experiments that go with the information or find experiment books that can be done at home and are on a high school level.

Amazon also has a free Kindle series for science called CK-12.  It’s internet linked and has review question that would be easy to adapt into tests and quizzes, but no experiments.

Both Khan Academy and CK-12 are very textbooky, and pre-digested, though Khan Academy is much better because of the lecture format.  CK-12, however is probably more accessible for non-science types because it sticks to simpler information.

One Integrated Program

Layers of Learning integrates all four branches, demonstrations, internet linked lectures and videos and websites, plus actual observation and experimentation opportunities that will take your child from 1st grade up to graduation.

Try it Free

Layers of Learning Year One Unit OneYou can try Layers of Learning Year One Unit One for free and see what a Layers of Learning science unit looks like.  Sign up for our newsletter and you’ll receive Unit 1-1 in your inbox.

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