Building a Homeschooling Science Curriculum

For classical homeschoolers, locating high-quality education materials in languages, history, and literature is easy. I have agonized over what history series to use for an academic year because there are so many excellent alternatives and I passionately want them all.

But for mathematics and science… not so much. I think there are several reasons for this: (1) Parents with liberal arts backgrounds tend to emphasize other subjects over math and science because that’s their comfort zone. (2) Traditional schools do not become deeply invested in science until students are in late middle school, or even high school, age. This means there is no economic incentive for publishers to produce high-quality content in these subjects for younger children. (3) People in STEM-oriented pursuits tend not to go into education. There’s a lot more money to be made working for a tech company or Wall Street than in writing textbooks.

(Though the latter would not be a bad idea for STEM companies to invest in. Imagine if the folks at Google created a rigorous K-12 homeschooling / afterschooling program with all the bells and whistles their own technology platforms could provide. They could offer a certificate for having passed through it that would trump diplomas and they would have unparalleled intelligence into the pipeline of available talent. What a brilliant way to train future engineers… the next generation of Google. But I digress.)

Since we are a STEM-oriented household, this was very disappointing for us when we started homeschooling. Our daughter has grown up immersed in science-related hobbies. When it came time to sorting out her academic year, I had to go all the way up to 8th/9th grade materials to find any content whatsoever that our seven-year-old daughter would not find facile and tedious. She helped me build a massive telescope when she was five, so growing a seed in a sandwich bag was not exactly her idea of a fun science project.

While she is a gifted child intellectually, I don’t think this is an extraordinary problem. Most children in the United States can handle much more than what education standards prescribe these days. Kids are getting a better education on YouTube than in traditional classrooms because there are resources on YouTube that do not treat them like idiots (as the Common Core crowd does).

So what do you do when traditional options bite? For us, the answer has mostly been make a lot of trips to the library and build a science lab off of Amazon. While we have built an enormous home library, I have long given up trying to buy everything we want to read. There is just too, too much.

We pick some general topics to organize the academic year around. This year, for example, we are studying ecology, botany, and water and marine life. From there, we divide up our weeks into more specific subjects. One week, we will study relationships among animals in ecosystems. Another week, we will study pollution. And so on.

Once we have the topic, we treat the topic as one giant research project and scavenger hunt. We go to the library and check out as many books as possible on that topic and request more from other libraries if necessary. Everyone in our household has a library card and can check out up to 20 books. It is not uncommon for us to go to the library and come home with 40 books on ocean currents and oil spills or whatever we are studying that week. Then we read and discuss and write about several books a day.

I prioritize two kinds of science books: (1) books that have ideas about science projects or experiments, and (2) books that integrate math and technology into their discussions. You would be amazed at how many children’s / young adult nonfiction books there are with experiments on specific topics. We found an entire book devoted to experiments involving erosion. It was geektastic.

From there, we search out other resources that fit our topic. If we are studying oil spills, we would go to YouTube and Curiosity Stream for videos. We look for news articles online about current events. Ten years after an environmental disaster, what is life like in the region?

So how do you get the resources you need to do lab work with a child? Thanks to Amazon and Google, homeschoolers have a lot more resources than they did decades ago.

(Some of these resources add up in cost, but you are still spending nowhere near what private schools charge for tuition. This is my preferred metric on spending, and one of the big reasons we choose to homeschool. Tally up private school tuition for K-12 cumulatively and then consider what kind of garage science lab you can build with that money instead. If science brings your child great joy, this is a serious consideration.)

Amazon has a page for Carolina Biological Supply Company, which has a lot of the tools you need to build a biology lab. I have ordered a lot of stuff from this company, and it is wonderful. You can seriously order frogs and fetal pigs to dissect off of Amazon now. (Except for weeks afterward, my husband would tease me whenever an Amazon box landed on our doorstep. “Before I open this, are there going to be any dead animals in here?”)

Another awesome resource is the Home Science Tools website. They have lab kits for all ages and a tab with projects and experiments to try.

The American Academy of Mechanical Engineers has a wonderful series on How to Homeschool Engineering Students. That is part one and here is part two. There is also Teach Engineering K-12. We have a subscription to Kiwi Co.’s Tinker Crate series, which has been wonderful at E’s age. She has developed quite a love of engineering. (You will get some strange looks when your child starts going off on an adult about hydraulics, however. I suppose that is a measure of success.) And of course, there is Mindstorms.

For young coders, this a great YouTube channel, Coding Tech. We have started our daughter on a BitsBox subscription and (independently) coding some elementary games. (When your parents develop software for a living, computer science is an everyday subject in your house….)

Here is a list of 100 chemistry experiments for kids of all ages from The Homeschool Scientist.

Some universities have put together STEM-related content for home education. See Hofstra’s Center for STEM Research, MIT’s OpenCourseware, and Open Learning at Harvard.

We invested in a Curiosity Stream subscription and have not been disappointed. They have so many documentaries on so many subjects that you cannot find anywhere else. That app is a homeschooler’s dream.

I am okay with science education being more like drinking from an open fire hydrant than “be sure to underline keywords and answer the questions at the end of the chapter.” That is where passion and creativity and bona fide expertise come from. That is how you build a lifelong learner instead of someone who treats education as a means to an end. That is why we choose to homeschool in the first place.