Speaking the language of science if you are not a scientist

We all do science every day, so let’s talk about it too!

Photo: Norm Lownds, MSU.
Photo: Norm Lownds, MSU.

When asked to describe the language or words used in science, many children and adults say it is hard. The words are unfamiliar, long and often confusing. Some say it is like a foreign language, one they don’t really know and are not comfortable using. Often, the words used in science are very different from the words people use every day.

However, because science is “asking questions and discovering answers,” things that we do every day, it would seem science language should use words that make sense to most people, words we understand. This is especially important for kids. While it is cool to learn new scientific words, too many new words can quickly overwhelm kids and cause them to lose interest.

So, as we “ask questions and discover answers” every day, how can we all speak the language of science?

Imagine you picked a leaf off a tree and ask, “What is the name of this tree?” To discover the answer, you will want to examine the leaf and carefully describe it. In your description, you are trying to draw or paint a picture using words. You want to create a picture in your mind of the thing you are looking at, a picture you will be able to remember and mean something to you. Therefore, the words must be words you are familiar with and use.

Your description might begin with a description of the leaf shape. The words plant scientists use to describe the shape of a leaf include oval, lanceolate, obovate, elliptical, spatulate, cordate, oblanceolate, obcordate, oblong, linear, peltate, cuneate, reniform and hastate. Very few of these are words that most of us use in our every day conversations.

You might also describe the edge of the leaf. Words plant scientists use to describe the edge (margin) of a leaf include crenate, sinuate, incised, undulate, lobed, entire, serrate, serrulate, doubly serrate, dentate and the list goes on. Once again, most of these are words that are not part of most people’s daily vocabulary.

So, how do we speak this language of science? How do we create a meaningful word picture? First, start with what you know and words you use. When you are working with kids, encourage them to use their own vocabulary to describe things. Use and write down terms that make sense to them.

Kids will describe the shape of a leaf as: It looks like a little Christmas tree, a triangle, a fan or a blob. These are all words children use every day, words they understand and paint a picture of something they have seen and touched. They connect to these words. These words are part of their world and using them to describe a leaf now makes that leaf shape part of their world. Encourage children to make science language their own words.

When describing the edge (margin) of the leaf, children might say it looks sharp like a saw, lumpy, smooth, twisted or even like stair steps. All these descriptions are great and should be written down. These are words children use all the time, are connected to and understand.

Another example is to describe the shape of a climbing vine. It wraps around the post and creates a spiral. The word spiral, however, is not generally part of a child’s vocabulary. Instead, they might describe the twisting as the shape of a slinky. Exactly! What a great description, using words we all understand and painting a word picture that we can all relate to. This is science language, a language we all speak.

Using words that are part of our everyday vocabulary as part of science doesn’t mean we don’t use the correct technical terminology. Instead, it means that we only use it when it is appropriate. We build our knowledge and vocabulary until we understand the “science words” and are able to use the proper scientific terminology.

If you are an adult mentor to kids, be sure you know or can access the “scientific” term, but use your best judgement as to whether to add that to what they are doing. Maybe it is best to integrate the specific terms (words) when your students are a year or two older.

Science is asking questions and discovering answers, and the language should be the words we use every day. As you engage in science every day and as you mentor children, use every day words. As you learn more, build new vocabulary on what you already know; in other words, “spiral” your learning and language and enjoy the discoveries you make!

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