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How to Make Science Fun for Kids

National TOY Challenge that makes science fun and interesting for kids

Here's the challenge: How do you bring science to life for kids so they don't lose interest? How do you show them that science is a dynamic, hand's on field and not just words in a book or chemicals to observe from behind safety glasses? Sally Ride Science™, an organization dedicated to promoting girls' interest and involvement in science, seems to have found the answer in TOY Challenge. Launched in 2002 for kids in grades five through eight, TOY Challenge is a national competition to design a toy or game. The idea, says spokesperson Toni DiMartino, is to engage middle school-age students, especially girls, in science and engineering and to inspire them to pursue careers in those fields.

Kaycee Johnsen, 12, of Huntington Beach, Calif., doesn't know if she's going to pursue a career in science, but she has loved the work she's done in two years competing in TOY Challenge. "It's different because you get to invent something that you are interested in," she says. "You get to do stuff instead of just listening to the teacher talk or trying to grow a plant like I have done every year since kindergarten."

Growing Interest in Science

It's no secret that kids lose interest in science once they get into middle school. In girls, this decline in interest – and in test scores – is even more pronounced. There are many reasons why this happens, but one that many organizations promoting science education are beginning to identify and address is the disconnect between science in the classroom and practical science applications.

Shannon McClintock, 15, of San Diego, Calif., won the grand prize in the 2004 Discovery Channel Young Scientist Challenge and became a poster girl of sorts for girls in science. She says that she didn't think she had any interest in science until she was required to compete in a school science fair. "I equated science with test tubes and not with things like structure and inventions," she says. "It was being put in a position where I had to use the scientific model in a real world situation that made me realize science is more than men in white suits with beakers."

Johnsen echoes McClintock's sentiments. "I never really thought that inventing a toy would be considered science," she says.

The Intangibles

Although the ideas that the kids bring to the TOY Challenge are amazingly sophisticated and extremely creative, what has struck DiMartino has been the way the kids work together to achieve their goals. "It's amazing that at such a young age they can form these very effective teams and are willing to step back as individuals and let others take their turn as team representatives," she says. "The focus is the science aspect and that's important, but to see them become team members and public speakers at a level that many adults never achieve is mind-boggling."

Alyssa Hansen, 12, of Irvine, Calif., discovered that learning about intangibles like teamwork was just as valuable as learning about science. "Competing in TOY Challenge showed me that science isn't something people typically do alone, she says. "Science is something people usually do as a group. Teamwork is really important."

Hands-on science with a specific goal also brings home other facts about science that can't be learned in the classroom, such as the value of persistence in the face of failure. Kara Pedersen, 12, of Santa Ana, Calif., found that the most difficult part of the process was simply coming up with something that hadn't yet been done. "I thought making up the toy was the hardest," she says. "We would come up with a good idea and then find out that it was already made. It took a long time for us to figure out our toy and how it was going to look."

Toys Challenge

Pedersen, Johnsen and Hansen were all members of the California Aquatics team – along with Brittany Carter, Amy Hansen, Nicholas Johnsen, Matt Johnston and Josh Nordstrom – which tied for first place, winning them a trip to Space Camp. In addition, Johnsen and Hansen had been on the previous year's winning team, Wave Riders, and had won action figures in their likeness.

TOY Challenge, which is also sponsored by Hasbro, Inc. and the Scientific Research Society, Sigma Xi, launches each year in September. Teams are comprised of three to six team members overseen by a coach who must be at least 18. At least half of the team members must be girls. Teams pay a $45 sign-up fee and are assigned a number. They have until early January to work on their preliminary ideas in three toy categories: Games that Teach, Games for the Family and Get out and Play.

Teams that are chosen to present their ideas at the national competition are notified in early March. The top 50 or 60 teams get a cash award to help them finance their trip to nationals. At the national competition, teams present their prototypes and explain their processes to the judges.

Alyssa Hansen, who has had experience in school science competitions, said her experience in the TOY Challenge finals was very different. "When I competed in the Science Fair, those judges were interested in the facts and figures, but not so much in things like ideas or thoughts," says Hansen. "In TOY Challenge, the judges care more about the actual toy and how you have overcome challenges using science. They care about your facts and figures, but your ideas and thoughts are important, too."

In trying to solve the dilemma of our children's declining interest and involvement in science, educators may want to examine competition models such as TOY Challenge and Discovery Channel Young Scientist Challenge. As these kids can testify, they don't shy away from being challenged by science, but they'll turn away when they aren't.

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