Science Can Make Kids Feel Great!

kids having fun in science class

All of us have observed students who approach science tasks with eagerness and glee. Others, unfortunately, work half-heartedly or not at all, seeming to be bored and disinterested. Then, there are those who are unpleasant and disruptive. Children‘s affect, or feelings, have everything to do with how successful they will be in learning. How they feel about themselves, science as a subject, their teacher, and school in general will determine their success as learners.

How students feel directly determines their level of motivation to learn. Even the most talented students will not learn if they don‘t care to exert some effort. If students are to benefit from a science program, teachers must provide a learning environment that engages student affect and encourages engagement in science learning activities.

The Affective Domain of Science Education includes the sum of attitudes, feelings, values, and decisionmaking skills that comprise each human‘s view of the world (Yager and McCormack, 1989). In these times of increasingly complex social and political turmoil, environmental and energy problems, and general worry about the future, science programs need to address more than just information, processes, and thinking skills. Human feelings, decision-making skills, and values need to be addressed. Thus, this important domain includes:

• Developing positive attitudes toward science in general, science as a school subject, and positive attitudes toward oneself (an ―I can do it‖ attitude)

• Developing sensitivity to, and respect for, the feelings of other people and exploring human emotions and attitudes

• Expressing personal feelings in a constructive way

• Making decisions about personal values, social and environmental issues

• Overall – feeling the thrill of success! Some educational traditionalists believe that student affect, and thus motivation to learn, is a stable trait.

For instance, psychologist McClelland (1978) maintained that children‘s achievement motivation is an unchanging trait developed early in life as a consequence of interactions with parents. From this point of-view, teachers can do little to influence the affect and motivations levels of their charges. Happily, other psychologists conceive of affect and motivation as a set of conscious beliefs that can be primarily influenced by the amount of success and failure experienced in recent learning experiences.

Following this point of view, science teachers have considerable opportunity to enhance students‘ interest in science and their motivation to learn. Though parents are without a doubt influential on children‘s attitudes, teachers select which activities are engaged in and the emotional climate of the classroom. Successful science teachers are good at what they do because they are keenly aware of the need for positive affect in their classroom environments.

They keep tabs on student levels of self-confidence, expectations for success, interest, self-directedness, anxiety indicators, and fear of failure. All of these are indicators of classroom affect. Of course, the more positive the affect, the better learning commences. Reasons for learning, as deeply perceived by students, are key factors in determining general classroom affect. Researchers of student motivation classify the most basic perceived goals for impetus to learn to be of two basic types: extrinsic and intrinsic.

Extrinsic rewards include such things as good grades and social approval. Intrinsic rewards involve caring about a learning task because it is inherently interesting and engaging in it provides a sense of deeply personal mastery. Completion of the task is pleasing in itself, with no need for outside rewards such as gold star stickers, compliments, or being allowed to play on the school football squad.

Fortunately, the subject science is blessed with inherently engaging mysteries, challenges, and enticing tidbits that makes it perfect as a medium for intrinsically -motivated adventures. Science has fascinating organisms to observe performing exotic behaviors, materials that vibrantly change color, float or fly, objects that vibrate, move, spin and entertain in all sort of ways.

Teachers can introduce demonstrations of discrepant events that are seductive to the human senses and perplex curiosity to begin problem solving processes. Csikszentmihalyi (1990) applauds the intense involvement associated with complete intrinsic task involvement as flow. While experiencing flow, students can be so intensely attentive to a task as to lose awareness of time and space. Great artists and scientists, alike, report the experience of flow as they become engrossed in their work.

Highly successful creative people report experiencing a flow state while doing their best work (Nichols, 1983).Science teachers may have tremendous influence on children‘s learning goals, and possibility for achieving flow states. The teacher who stresses the inherent fascination of science, and deep learning rather than competition for external rewards, will achieve a positive affective classroom environment. In this desirable environment, encouragement of risk taking and personal satisfaction in learning will foster achievement and a generally happy state of affairs.

how to teach kids science

Encouraging a Positive Classroom Affect

• Build Students‘ Confidence: The main science teaching strategy today involves students in inquiry and problem-solving. This requires students to develop some confidence in their own abilities to ―see‖ problems, imagine solutions, and carry out experimental tests. Many kids come to us with a ―can‘t do it‖ attitude derived from previous negative socialization. They get discouraged and give up when confronted by a problem.

To counter this, teachers need to strive for situations wherein each student has opportunity to be successful at some level. Try to find learning tasks that have many different approaches to solution and in which students can be successful at many different levels. By becoming familiar with the skills of each student, you can find problem-solving roles for each student at levels where they are likely to experience success.

• Use Lots of Manipulatives: Students need to learn to independently manipulate objects in the process of problem-solving. In science, a plethora of objects can easily be provided – independent and group experiences with ―stuff‖ is great for building good attitudes. Clay, construction paper, batteries, bulbs, wooden sticks, gears, mirrors – the list of enticing objects is endless. Building simple inventions from the classroom junk box can be very good for improving sagging egos!

• Build on Student‘s Strengths: Just about everyone has something they really enjoy doing of something they are good at. Schedule a ―Me Day‖ period of time in your classroom program every week where different students get a chance to show off talents, collections, experiences, or whatever they would like top share with their classmates. It may be a pet, trip to Disneyland, musical talent, story, or piece of personal artwork that is ―shown off.‖ We all need to brag a little!

• Magic Trick or Joke of the Week: Have students sign up to present a magic trick or joke. Anything that gets them up and performing in front of the group can be self-enhancing.

• Use Lot‘s of Humor: One teacher I know arranges to have 3 minutes of upbeat music playing as students enter class in the morning. The Theme from Rocky or SpongeBob Squarepants might be playing, making a vibrant, somewhat humorous classroom atmosphere. Kids tend to mime the lyrics and move to the beat. Another science teacher puts on a ridiculous plastic banana nose occasionally while teaching, pretending nothing is there. Kids love it!

• Install a Bulletin Board for Positives: Create a bulletin board where students can contribute positive news clippings, great slogans, quotes, photos, and personal good news. Have Students Work in Cooperative Groups: Have clearly defined roles for each student capitalizing on their individual strengths look for ways to have individuals feel needed and important in the groups functioning in exploring science challenges.

• Keep a Prop-Box in Your Classroom: Find an old wooden chest and gradually fill it with odd props you can incorporate into lessons. Unusual hats, masks, noses, pointers, capes, and flea market rejects are good. Use these to add a bit of humor at appropriate points, and invite students to add to the collection and feel free to use items in their reports or other activities. Fun and humor build better attitudes!

• Be Upbeat and Dynamic: Model the behaviors you hope will rub off on students. Many of our most memorable teachers are half ―ham!‖ If you truly enjoy the science activities you conduct, so will students.


• Csikszentmihalvi, M. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Life Experience. HarperCollins Publishing Co. 1990.

• McClelland, D. ―Managing Motivation to Expand Human Freedom. American Psychologist 33, 201-210.

• Nicholls, J. ―Conception of Ability and Achievement Motivation: A Theory and its Implications for Education.‖ In S. Paris (Editor), Learning and Motivation in the Classroom. Erlbaum Publishers. Hillsdale, NJ. 211-237. 1983.

• Yager, R.E. and McCormack, A.J. ―Assessing Teaching/ Learning Successes in Multiple Domains of Science and Science Education.‖ Science Education 73(1), 45-48. 1989.