An Unschooling Way of High School Science

I hop from blog to blog, sampling a homeschooling science program here, and one there, and I become alarmed and a bit unsettled. The programs all look so impressive and detailed. I creep quietly back to my own little blog and our own little way of unschooling, and I hope no one asks me about my science program, because we don’t actually have one.

Now this doesn’t mean my children don’t learn about science. They do. They just don’t learn about it in a systematic, organised, scientific way.

I think about my own experiences learning science, both at school and at university. I was thoroughly science saturated. All I studied for one of my years at school was physics, biology and chemistry. I learnt my periodic table and all the equations to explain photosynthesis. I could classify a plant and work out the velocity of a speeding bullet. I could separate a concoction of chemicals and explain how DNA replicates.

Then I went to university and studied 3 years of botany, 2 of biochemistry and 1 of zoology. Each week I spent hours in the lab, or out in the field. The rest of the time I listened to lectures or had my nose in a book. I did my dissertation, and achieved honours. Yes, I was saturated with science.

When I finished my degree, I had years’ worth of books and papers to sort through. I took all my lecture and laboratory notes and threw them in the garbage bin. I’d memorised the notes long enough to pass the exams. I no longer saw a use for them. Years’ worth of work thrown away without any thought. I am rather horrified looking back at my 22 year old self. How could I have done that? Is that what education is about? We memorise a whole lot of facts and figures, take an exam and then forget?

I want my children’s experience of science to be different to mine. I want them to enjoy it without worrying if they are covering all the details. I want them to be exposed to science, to see the possibilities, to understand how fascinating the workings of our world are. But I don’t want them to memorise all the facts ‘just in case’ they might need them one day.

We learn a lot about science just from our everyday observations. It’s important we know how electricity works because we use it, and need to stay safe. We observe gravity and understand about such things as the laws of motion because we experience motion. We know a lot about the human body because we try to stay fit and healthy. But there is a lot of scientific information we can get on quite well without knowing.

I have forgotten the formula for glucose, and the equation showing how carbohydrates are broken down, during digestion. I can no longer recite my periodic table. I can no longer tell you which phylum a jellyfish belongs to. Does that matter? I don’t really think so. I certainly don’t feel at a disadvantage, because lots of scientific facts have seeped out of my memory.

Maybe after reading the above paragraphs, you have come to the conclusion, despite my reassurances to the contrary, my children don’t do much science. Actually Charlotte loves science. In particular, she loves chemistry. It’s one of her passions. She spends a lot of time reading and watching and playing around with chemistry.

Here are a few resources she likes dipping into…

Living books by chemist, Joe Schwarcz, on the science of everyday life.

The Joy of Chemistry: The Amazing Science of Familiar Things by Cathy Cobb (packed full of chemistry experiments that can be performed with easily available substances and equipment)

Charlotte’s eyes lit up when I mentioned buying a big chemistry kit.

Here’s a couple of books Charlotte might like to read:

Periodic Tales: A Cultural History of the Elements, from Arsenic to Zinc by Hugh Aldersey-Williams.

While I am writing, I keep hopping over to Amazon to check book titles and authors. And I keep forgetting to return to continue this post. I’ve been hopping from one book to another. There are so many interesting looking scientific living books to choose from. Now how will I prevent myself from buying them all?

So Charlotte has a great love for chemistry. Love is an excellent basis for studying any subject. But I can hear the questions: What if Charlotte wants to be a chemist? What if she wants to study chemistry at a tertiary level? She’ll hardly be prepared, having had such a hit and miss chemistry experience.

Firstly, I suspect Charlotte knows an awful lot about chemistry, far more than anyone imagines. A while ago, she dug out an old chemistry textbook from somewhere and got really excited. She uses it to look things up, things she doesn’t understand properly. (Though she’s never been tempted to answer the review questions at the end of each chapter!) But I agree, a day may come when she needs to know all those facts and figures necessary for answering the questions in the dreaded unavoidable examinations of university life.

Here’s my plan: if Charlotte wants to be a chemist, she can enrol in the Open Universities Introduction to Chemistry course:

This unit is intended for students who have not studied chemistry beyond Year 10 (third year West Australian secondary school) or equivalent, but have an interest in biological, environmental, veterinary, medical science or everyday applications of chemistry. This unit covers the atomic and molecular structure of matter, chemical symbols and equations, valency, states of matter, gas laws, simple reaction types, acids and bases, the mole concept, molarity, pH, titrations, chemical equilibrium, organic nomenclature and properties relating to organic functional groups

There’s also a General Physics and an Introduction to Health Sciences unit she could consider as well. Charlotte could choose any of these, or all of them, when it comes time to think about achieving her HSC alternative.

I remember Callum doing the Introduction to Health Science unit. With the results of this unit and 2 others, he was offered a place on the Bachelor of Nursing course of his choice.

So can science be learnt in an unschooling way? I believe so. And I find this very reassuring because there is no way I could write a science program like those I have observed online. Those mothers have talents well beyond mine. I am in awe of their organisational abilities. I know I can only do things the little way.

I have just had an additional thought: Charlotte might decide not to study science at a higher level at all, but instead follow in her big sister’s footsteps and study writing. Like Imogen, Charlotte has more than one big passion.

But just in case Charlotte really does want to become Charlotte the Chemist, I am sure her unschooling love of chemistry, together with an Open Universities unit, will prepare her just fine.Other posts about high school science:

Charlotte the Chemist
Entertaining Chemistry (with explosions!)
Love and Physics

PS I haven’t read the recommended books from cover-to-cover, so I can’t guarantee they are completely compatible with our Catholic beliefs and moral standards. Everyday chemistry could include such things as contraceptives. If in doubt, view first, or read aloud and skip over the not-so-good bits!

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  1. Reply

    Sue, I cannot tell you how much I appreciated reading this article at this moment. I will be emailing you later tonight (my time) with more of an explanation. I think I owe you an email anyway! God bless you. : )

    1. Reply


      It is always such a pleasure seeing you on my blog! I'm glad you found something helpful in my post. I'm really looking forward to hearing from you later, and hope all is well with you.

      God bless!

  2. Reply

    I enjoyed this post, Sue. I'm planning to come back and check out the resources– I love science books!

    1. Reply

      Thanks for reading my post, Willa! Have you got any favourite science books of your own? I love sharing book recommendations.

      God bless!

  3. Reply

    What a great blog post. Thank you!

    1. Reply


      I'm glad you enjoyed my post. Thank you so much for visiting my blog and stopping to say hello. I appreciate it!

  4. Reply

    Thank you so very very much for this post! I am so glad I found this site!

    1. Reply


      I'm so pleased you enjoyed my post. This afternoon, I put together a Start Here page. I hope it helps you as you're exploring my blog. Thank you for stopping by!

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