How does an unschooler get into college for science?

It was easy for me to be anti-curriculum until my son announced he wants a Phd in science.

He goes back and forth. It’s been biology, then chemistry, then physics. And back again. But it’s always in an effort to learn everything he can about how the world works. Either where we come from or where we are or where we’re going. Or all of them.

I don’t really even know anything about science because before I was a militant anti-curricula homeschooler, I was an student who managed to flunk Honors Biology and then flunk Chemistry for Dumb Kids.

Once it became clear that my son was going to want to go to college to study science, I told him he needed to learn math. Neither of us had seen a reason to learn it prior to this. So he was the age of a sixth grader doing math at a fourth-grade level.

He is catching up. (He is using IXL for those of you who are looking for math curriculum that is self-paced that the parent does not have to think about.)

But I wonder what we are going to do about the science stuff. I bought him chemistry books and biology books and he’s read everything I can find that is not at a high school level. So he seems to be doing fine. I can’t be sure though.

But then I read about the Maker Movement. And how parents are adapting it as STEM curriculum. The idea that you can make everything is a little insipid to me. I mean, if you make a canoe do you have to make the tree? And if you make the tree do you have to make the ax you cut it down with? But whatever. It’s like religion. Everyone’s an inconsistent thinker. It’s inherent to thinking itself. So fine, I’ll let it go.

My inconsistent thinking is that I am easing my son into a curriculum, but on the way I read that The White House is promoting the Maker Movement as a way to infuse schools with learning  that matters to kids. And now I’m thinking my son should just read what he wants to read and do what he wants to do and he will achieve something great that way.

At one point he spent months parenting an abandoned calf (and a kitten who lapped up lost milk). Another time he mixed animals from two goat herds to make his own, custom herd.

And found that convincing a mom goat to adopt another goat’s baby was no small task.

The Maker Movement succeeds precisely because the hands-on projects are not been attached to any curricula; kids are just making whatever they want to make. And colleges are rewarding those kids for their efforts. My son has seen enough videos from Neil Tyson to know that science is about questions and observation. And good scientists set up good scenarios for observation.

But will my son be prepared for college if I let his interests guide what he learns about science? And is it still unschooling if my son is learning the national math curriculum? The most scary thing about unschooling is that it’s essentially an experiment because you don’t know what your kid will decide to do. I’m just hoping that colleges love the experimentation of unschooling kids as much as they love the experimentation of Maker Movement kids.

70 replies
  1. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    We’ve been using Khan Academy for math. It’s great because when my kids get stuck on a problem or encounter something new, there’s always a video right there on the page that explains it to them.

    But I’m definitely interested to see what IXL offers. Thanks for mentioning.

  2. Molly Hoffman
    Molly Hoffman says:

    Have you looked at Life Of Fred math? It is different, self directed, and written as a funny story. The later books incorporate Physics, Biology, & Economics.

  3. MichaelG
    MichaelG says:

    You might want to read How I Learned by Shamus Young. It’s a self-published autobiography of a computer programmer who did not get along well in the school system.

    On the one hand, computer programming is the easiest of the STEM fields to get into — you don’t need a lab, and you can pick it up as you go, building things right from the start. Also, kids can get started on a career at any age.

    On the other hand, this is a bit of a horror story about conventional schooling. A little guidance from someone who knew what they were doing would have helped enormously.

    The Maker movement isn’t really about doing everything from scratch. It’s about building things. The process of building is similar at any level, whether you are putting together something out of prebuilt parts, or doing it yourself. The point is to realize you don’t have to take what they give you. You can create something new.

  4. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    I don’t know how much I’d worry about whether you’re doing pure unschooling with your son. He’s pointing himself in a direction where there are simply things he needs to learn. So you are turning to some defined curricula to make that happen. Big deal! As long as he keeps being interested in the material who cares?

  5. BenK
    BenK says:

    From a scientist, with PhD, etc, the path to becoming a scientist is not preferentially through the standardized math curriculum. There are several other ‘maths’ that are more important, depending on the field, and which can be self-taught once the need for them is recognized (i.e. encounter a problem and have the minimal awareness that the tool exists to solve it).

    Science, properly done, is taught through apprenticeship and, broadly speaking, is not taught well in any established curriculum. Finding an effective mentor early and maintaining that relationship as long as practical is the best strategy. It will also generally produce the kinds of outcomes (papers, presentations, awards – even grants) that can be recognized by admissions committees everywhere, even at the BA level, but especially at the PhD level.

    The most important thing to do is to find one or two working scientists, preferably at a relatively high level, who can think outside the box and help you grapple with the realities, just as for entrepreneurship you would want to have advisers who had established businesses themselves.

    The second most important thing is that science is amazingly diverse; a crude way of thinking about it – being a good astrophysicist means little about being a good particle physicist. Being a good immune cell biologist means little about being a good neuro cell biologist. You will tend to get good at what your mentor is good at; heritage is important in science.

    • Jen
      Jen says:

      “Science, properly done, is taught through apprenticeship and, broadly speaking, is not taught well in any established curriculum. Finding an effective mentor early and maintaining that relationship as long as practical is the best strategy. It will also generally produce the kinds of outcomes (papers, presentations, awards – even grants) that can be recognized by admissions committees everywhere, even at the BA level, but especially at the PhD level.”

      This, so much. A BS or BA in science at a basic level involves getting into school and taking the required classes. However, you’ll get out of it what you put into it and even if your interests change, you can usually work with that if you can hook up with mentors in your field of interest.

      I have a BS in biochem. I knew almost nothing about immunology when I graduated. However, after undergrad, I had the excellent fortune to work for several years under immunologists and in labs with projects focused on T cell-mediated immunology. Now I hold a Ph.D. in immunology from an excellent school and have published multiple papers on T cell biology.

      Penelope, one thing I would recommend is that your son get research experience as early as possible. On a day-to-day basis, it is not always particularly exciting. Things fail more often than they succeed. The politics can be as ugly in science as in any other field. The current funding/tenure track situation in academia is bad enough that I made the decision to leave research after a post-doc fellowship and strike out as a freelancer in science publishing (something that would not have been possible in my field without the Ph.D.). It would benefit your son to get as broad a perspective as possible before he leaves undergrad.

      • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
        YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

        So I have really been thinking about this very topic that Penelope writes about, and it’s so awesome to have not just my husband, but so many other commenters here like you who seem to be engineers or scientists!

        Here is what I came to understand in my research to getting in to a top ten school for science (MIT, Caltech etc). You need your transcripts, as parents we are going to be the ones to put this stuff together. So starting around 8th grade document everything that our kids are doing, online classes, tutoring, extra-curricular etc etc and get that transcript help you need ahead of time so that you aren’t rushed into something senior year.

        You need your hook, which unschooling is already a great hook and has a compelling story. You need to be able to explain how you took advantage of this wonderful opportunity to admissions counselors through your essay.

        You need strong recommendations, since as the parent you cannot write your own child’s recommendations (drat!). So if your kid is doing internships or making friendships in the science community (and really he will need a mentor, check university there in Madison or whatever city you are living in).

        Then they need strong test scores. SAT ACT… this means really as unschoolers we can use WAY more time studying and practicing just for this one test to be sure to get the best scores possible.

        Really, I think the fact that Yefet is doing these biology experiments…or breeding goats, this shows his passion in the sciences and can also be used as a hook.

        Am I missing anything else? I’d love to know if anyone has anything to add.

        • Jen
          Jen says:

          Thing is, you don’t need to be in a top 10 school for undergrad. For grad school, yes, because that’s where the funding, state-of-the-art equipment, and name-brand recognition are. But I went to an unranked small private university for undergrad and did well (knowing all of my professors on a first-name basis was GREAT for networking), took entry-level research positions for a few years to build experience and further my network (which ended up getting me a post-doc), and got into a Top 10 med school Ph.D. program with full funding. Very few of the other grad students in my program attended Ivy League or big-name tech schools. In my experience, big fancy undergrad simply means big painful student debt, and research assistant/grad stipend/post-doc fellowship salaries are pretty low. Those of us who weren’t hindered by student debt had more options.

          • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
            YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

            Oh yes, this is excellent Jen! My sis-in-law is a phd/professor and went mostly the same route, but ended up with “soul-crushing” student loan debt from the phd program. I love your path to obtaining a phd. (This is one of the best comments for me personally.)

            My experience is with undergrad engineering degrees. If you want to go straight to industry, your undergrad matters a lot especially if you want to work at a “sexy” space industry company. If you don’t have top ten on your resume, you have to have patented something, or otherwise have something else awesome to make yourself stand out coming straight out of school, like inventing something. If you didn’t go to a top ten school you have to be in the top 1% of your field and be established already in the industry before they will even interview you.

        • ChemProf
          ChemProf says:

          Yes, another voice saying you don’t need a top 10 school in science for undergrad. I am a professor in Chemistry at a third-tier liberal arts college that specializes in helping transfers finish their degree. My own degrees were from Harvey Mudd College (i.e. top flight liberal arts school but not top 10), and I got a much better undergrad experience than my colleagues at research universities, and went to to get my Ph.D. at UC Berkeley.

          One option I have seen work for homeschoolers is to start at a community college as early as is feasible, taking a class or two at a time, then transfer to a four year school. To be competitive, you do need really good grades from a lower ranked school, and good test scores, but I’ve sent students to Ph.D. programs at Berkeley, Stanford, Yale, and UCSF in the last few years.

          Plus, with good test scores, lower ranked schools may offer substantial merit aid, which can make them a better bet financially.

          • Penelope Trunk
            Penelope Trunk says:

            Thanks so much for weighing in on this topic. I really appreciate getting to hear a range of ideas.


    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Thanks so much for this response, Ben. I am thinking now that there should be a resource like this for every profession — how can a kid get involved in profession x. But then, I think about it and I think probably it’s the same advice for any profession – get a mentor. And I think if a kid approached me and the kid were dedicated and hardworking and smart about becoming a writer I’d be happy to help the kid. So this must be true across the board – we are all happy to help kids, but it’s hard to find the kids who are really going to work hard at something.

      Kids need to find what they are really interested in so that it’s something they can work hard in because the hard work and diligence in itself is a differentiator.


      • Mark W.
        Mark W. says:

        “It was easy for me to be anti-curriculum until my son announced he wants a Phd in science.”

        Your son wants a Phd in science. I find this goal rather curious. When I went to college for science, it wasn’t for a certain degree level. I went to college with the goal of learning enough to understand my chosen field of study and then enter the workforce. My degree was oriented towards research and development and my first job was in R &D with mostly development work and some research. The Phd’s in our department and corporate headquarters did the vast share of the research. However, Phd’s are not only limited to research responsibilities as I can remember one Phd that worked and reported to the manufacturing department. I’m wondering if the maker movement is more suitable and oriented to a development engineer role. That’s not to say an aspiring research Phd wouldn’t benefit from the maker movement. It’s to say the research Phd is more interested in solving science problems from a more theoretical perspective. I’m wondering if your son is more of a hands-on or theoretical type of scientist. I also wonder if the Phd goal was derived from your brother recently getting a science Phd.
        You can do your son a lot of good in his science endeavors by mentoring him to improve his writing and vocabulary skills. These skills are crucial and will set him apart from other scientists with equal scientific skills. The skill to clearly understand scientific principles requires good reading comprehension. Communication skills (verbal and writing) are very important for speaking and publishing. Maybe it would serve him to work on a blog to establish a network and hone his skills as a scientist.

  6. Jessica
    Jessica says:

    I was a typical humanities student, hated math, English major until my sophomore year in college. I switched to neuroscience and did just fine, good GPA, and went on to a PhD program in neuro. Your son is bright and interested and will do fine if he has a passion for it.

    (Even though it was in the hard sciences, grad school was a waste of time for me and I Mastered out to be a SAHM. Your blog helped me feel validated with my “crazy” decision!)

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      Hi Jessica, what a fascinating story! (Are you the same Jessica that uses a lowercase jessica that lives in Manhattan? )

  7. karelys
    karelys says:

    If it makes you feel any better, regular school is an experiment too! It’s trying out the same thing on many different scenarios and see what comes of it. It’s a weird experiment really. Like trying to get the same results no matter the factors thrown into the study.

    Anyway, I would’ve never guess you’d be so hanged up on whether or not something is unschooling or not. The point of unschooling, as I understood it long ago, is the freedom to be a self-directed learner whatever the tools or vehicle you take to get there. So if your son and yourself pick up a curriculum as a vehicle to get you somewhere I think that’s fine. He picked it. He’ll wrestle with the things he dislikes about it for the things he loves. And that’s the huge difference between compulsory curriculum versus self-directed learning. It’s possible that he will weed out whatever he can possible weed out that he hates and replace it with what works for him. You wouldn’t be able to do that in school.

    You are a high achiever. Would you be okay if your kids decided to not do anything deemed great in life by our societal standards? would you be okay if your son went on in life to tinker with different breeds of goats, farming stuff, music, science, etc. But none of it amount to anything worth the adulation of the public that is so narrow in its idea of success and so jaded at this point by the grand success of others?

    I have a hard time accepting that for myself. You know, just being a person. Someone good and happy but with zero trophies of any sort on my mantel.

    I think I am more accepting of the idea that my son will go on to become no one special except to me and his loved ones. I am more accepting of anyone deciding to do that except me.

    And it’s ridiculous. Because I’ve been granted the grand fortune of being happy without the prerequisite of being “someone” or great at anything other than making those around me happy and loved. And even at that sometimes I suck.

  8. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    I think it’s still ok to call it unschooling even if you use a formal nationalized standard for math. I’m sure some people would disagree, but whatever, call it eclectic homeschooling then. I use a set math curricula that goes all the way to Calculus, but I don’t force or plan lessons. When my oldest wants to do math… she does so much math that she goes through an entire years worth of lessons in a month then takes a LONG break and moves to the next level… she doesn’t lose anything in this process and it isn’t forced. I don’t say, “ok time for math today” or anything like that. But does the fact that I use a textbook make me not an unschooler? Seriously? Fine, I refuse to belong to or to be associated with anything that’s so rigid and tight with its system of rules.

    For your son, you are totally doing the right thing. He needs to know math, not just because it’s required material, but because it helps the mind think in different processes that are required to be in science. IXL or whatever, as long as he enjoys it and has the flexibility to move at his own pace is great.

    I have been missing the goat photos lately! So adorable!

    • DB
      DB says:

      I love this! I think math is wonderful, and the worst part is when a bad teacher makes kids doubt themselves or hate it. Learning it in a supportive way would be delightful. I had several terrible math teachers in school who got me confused and off track. Then a wonderful teacher in high school – with him Calculus made such perfect sense it was actually fun to do.

      • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
        YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

        That is precisely why getting a customized education through homeschooling is so much more beneficial.

        When I was in 8th grade I had to take a battery of exams to place me in classes at the exclusive private high school I went to. It put me in Algebra 1… totally bypassing pre-algebra. I remember being totally out of my element my freshmen year of high school, then algebra took a nosedive… the teacher expected us to already know algebra and to just complete assignments after his 5 minute lecture explaining it. That worked fine until I had to use a graphing calculator and had never used one before, yet I was supposed to know how to plug in all the functions. There was no time for me to properly learn this part, because in a class of 25 we had to move on to the next assignments.

        If I had been homeschooled with a customized education, I could have spent the proper amount of time figuring out the calculator before struggling my way through… not sure how I got a B in that class. I guess that my “guessed” answers were correct on the tests… besides being in a snobby school, I had the added pressure of feeling lost in a subject that I loved trying to maintain high grades and figuring out a way to fit in with people who had no depth.

        Anyway, I still say what I’m doing is unschooling. :)

  9. Liz Ness
    Liz Ness says:

    Experiencing science–having a hands-on experience and a chance to apply what you learn–is essential, I think, to cultivate an understanding of science (as well as engineering and design). But, how do you create this context when you’re a home school parent?

    Well, when we (my husband and I) were kids, we played at science and engineering and grew up to be engineers. And, that’s what we strive to do for our home schooled son–supply him with a context in which he can play (safely, of course).

    (NOTE: Check out Stuart Brown’s story about JPL and Nate Jones and how hands-on play was a key component to later engineering success: — we totally resonate with that story.)

    Anyhow, if you can, supply your son with kits–let him play (but, play safe–some things can be a bit dangerous). As a place to start, check out Delta Education’s kits. They are a great way to experience concepts in a applied fashion:

    FYI: For our own home school efforts, we’re not as interested in following the curriculum part of the kits (or doing the journal work) as we are in reading through the lessons and doing the follow up activities. For us, the goal is to experience the concept and consider wider applications of it; to use what is learned as a starting point for reflection, as fuel for developing questions, and as a launch point for future investigations.

    Have a great time exploring!

  10. Jennifer Hanes
    Jennifer Hanes says:

    Despite being a physician, married to a PhD chemist, I am not the best math teacher for our child. However, I found a resource that seems wonderful and it is FREE (read: tax payer funded). is a private company that partners with a school district in the state, so your child can “homeschool” but yet have a public school transcript. They still get the massive benefits of being home but without the downsides of a brick and mortar school. Math and science are cumulative and setting a good foundation is key. We have only started the enrollment process, but I am intrigued by the concept.

  11. Megan
    Megan says:

    I have a BS in a hard science, before chucking it for finance. Your son needs to be ready to do science at the undergraduate level. He needs to have the math skills, understand research principles and core sciences. I’d take a look a the AP exams for bio, chem and physics to know what he needs to know and then design from there.

    There were a handful of homeschoolers who started the program. None of them finished, either because they didn’t have the math and couldn’t catch up, or because they couldn’t work in research groups. He’ll probably need a math tutor at some point. That’s pretty easy.

    BenK is dead on.

    What will be harder is making sure he knows how to collaborate. The solo scientist is a myth – research is done by teams of people. If he really wants it, you will need to look for university level research programs. I have unschooling friend who can’t understand that her kid’s ability to lecture on his topics of choice does not mean he can work in groups. (He can’t).

    • redrock
      redrock says:

      yes, indeed – ability to work in groups and discuss results and science is critical. Resilience is the core ability in science, not giving up if it does not work. And science is not learned by dabbling in one or another topic for a few weeks but has a continuity to it – your knowledge builds over time. However, it is very rare that a high school student will do real useful research – mostly because good research requires a firm grasp of the science. It is not stirring stuff in a few test tubes and heating things for a prescribed time, which are the tasks 98% of HS students will do in a university lab. However, it is great to see labs and talk to scientists at open house days or other opportunities as a start.

      • Penelope Trunk
        Penelope Trunk says:

        This is my favorite comment from you, redrock. And it’s so interesting coming from you – because I never thought of science as an act of resilience, but now that you say it, I get it. Also, though, you comment on this blog so often even though you disagree with much of what I write. To me, that is resilience as well :)


        • redrock
          redrock says:

          that is also part of science – to be able to disagree and make arguments :-)

          but really – if you give up the first time things don’t work, then you will never get anywhere in science, not in experiment nor in theory. Actually I think resilience is the key ability of a scientist, and it the most fun – try to find other ways and ideas.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      I think you’ve provided some great insights here. Since collaboration is a transferable skill I seriously recommend all homeschoolers find a way to have their child participate in activities that require collaboration.

      For my kids, it’s taking professional acting classes… collaboration with other actors in a scene is key. For Zehavi, being part of a youth orchestra gives him that experience. It could be a lego class, rocketry etc where collaboration is required to meet a goal.

      Once this skill is developed, in theory, it should be able to transfer over to academic pursuits.

  12. JLD
    JLD says:

    I find it fascinating that PT’s posts about college are so polarized: A) College is a waste of time, and B) How to get my homeschooler into college. This was my first year homeschooling which I fell into as I watched my children devolve during their time in public school. My faith in public school as an educational resource is nonexistent. My faith in college as a guarantee to financial success and personal achievement is likewise absent. Not sure if this is due to my joy with homeschooling, or my personal experience as a college graduate in the 1990’s. I try to forecast the future and predict what a college education will look like in a decade and what the value could be for the majority of teenagers heading off to higher education. The idea of apprenticeship and mentors has huge appeal for me; hope this path is part of our future.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Yeah. I know. It’s hard for me to keep all these ideas coming from one, single head :)

      I do think college is a waste of time for most people. For what I did with my life college was mostly just a way for me to be incompetent with dating… and a slew of other things as well, come to think of it.

      But for science and math careers, I do think you need to go to college. If nothing else, so much of that STEM world is about funding, and you can’t get funding without a degree.

      So now that I have a kid who wants to do research, I have to focus on how to get into college. I don’t know what I’d do with a kid who wanted to go to college for humanities. Luckily, though, I don’t have that situation, so I can keep saying that college is a waste of time for most people.


      • Hannah
        Hannah says:

        +1 on science careers are about funding.

        My husband tried to make a go of a career without an advanced degree, and he hopped from failing companies to start ups for seven years before finally going back to school to get a PhD in the very specific area he wants to research.

        From his perspective, the only paths to get funding to do research (For the purpose of gaining patents) are:

        1. Be a lucky genius. Not just smart, and not just hardworking, not just good social skills. A genius who happens to be born into excellent connections might happen to get funding for their awesome ideas.

        2. Prove yourself by getting patents for large companies (think 3M or other such companies) before gaining funding for your own company (requires at least a masters to get into R&D engineering positions, even with connections and experience)
        (only requires average business savvy and average ideas).

        3. Have ideas that don’t require $8 Million dollar tools to build a prototype (think Google or other computer based innovations) (or build said prototypes while in Grad School and you have access to $8 Million dollar equipment) (only requires good ideas, and the intelligence to let someone else sell your ideas to investors).

        • BenK
          BenK says:

          It is helpful to think of graduate school as the only ‘free funding’ you will likely get – though a postdoc might also count. I don’t know who doesn’t get a stipend for a PhD; there should be no way to have personal debt increase during graduate school in the sciences.

          If you choose wisely, you will pick a lab that lets you pursue the research you already want to do – and it will be funded by the institution training grants + adviser’s research grants. This is your opportunity, your launch pad. Work hard.

      • jessica
        jessica says:

        Well college is a waste of time for most when you go intending to find yourself and your passions. The goal of unschooling is to get on the right side of the learning curve, so if college becomes a necessity there is clear reasoning for attending.

        I think it’s great that your son is 12 and has a clear goal in mind. Most 12 year olds are not talking about pursuing higher education beyond following their parents sport teams of generation’s past universities.

        I think community college coursework would be a great place to start in a couple years.

  13. malaika
    malaika says:

    I stopped tuning into maths class in 10th grade.

    then, when I was 22, I took the GRE and scored in the top range PURELY based on Khan Academy for the maths section. It’s brilliant, and perfect for self-directed learners.

    there isn’t always a lot of respect for “makers” in the US. but where I live, in Germany, artisan skills and craftsmanship have always been highly valued, and Germany continues, unfailingly, to produce some of the world’s best engineers. same holds true for India, where I am from. the skill comes from the inspiration; “learned skills” are just nice to have :)

  14. Heather Bathon
    Heather Bathon says:

    Like some of the other posters here, my impression of unschooling is that the parent helps forward a child’s interest by whatever means available – mentors, formal curricula, field trips etc. If one of those doesn’t stick, move on to something else.
    The idea of a mentor working in the field taking on a protege as young as your son seems a bit of a stretch. (If anyone can pull it off though, you’re the one!)
    We use a lot of online curricula. Most of the companies offering classes have cottoned to the idea that people don’t want to commit to a year of their program up front and let you pay monthly.
    Although we’ve used IXL, what has been better for us is ALEKS. Although these are both supposed to be used independently by the student and are well set up to teach them, that has never worked for us. We’re still hand-holding through the hard stuff.
    I’ve read on many blogs that Time For Learning has a good online science offering.
    The bottom line is, why not include anything that helps a kid learn and grow, even if it is ‘schooly’?
    PS – how about having on hand a decent microscope, if you don’t already?

    • BenK
      BenK says:

      As a I microbiologist, I feel qualified to comment on the microscope. A microscope is a very specialized piece of hardware, ever more so, and is as likely to disappoint as inspire. They are cheaper than ever, but to do anything really interesting, you need the rest of the infrastructure around it. The hardest part to get – is scientific questions that can be answered with a (basic light) microscope. There are many tools which can be recommended – dissecting kit, for example, analytical balance, gel box – and they all create the same dilemmas. Only in a professional laboratory where people have assembled together, along with equipment and facilities, will a truly young investigator find the support required to start performing novel investigations.

      There are exceptions in computational sciences, including astronomy (that sometimes allows remote control of telescopes).

      If you are considering buying a microscope, to go full circle, let me know and I can help provide information about uses and necessary supporting equipment.

      • redrock
        redrock says:

        I don’t think we are talking groundbreaking publishable science here (yet) – but more a microscope for exploration. I had one as a kid and looked a everything I could get my hands on and enjoyed it greatly. Looked at cells, hair, plants and so on and learned a great deal , started reading books, thinking about anatomy and tissue. A simple microscope is a powerful and versatile tool to start exploring the world outside the range of your own senses. Although I did then study chemistry, did a PhD in physics and am now a professor in materials science – the microscope definitely got me started in thinking deeper about the world and how it is connected.

        • BenK
          BenK says:

          Though there are notable pitfalls (, there is no reason an early high school student can’t be doing publishable research and a middle school student can be learning to work on problems at the edge of the literature. It sounds like the microscope worked well for you – its certainly more accessible and intuitive than a fluorometer, for example – but it’s my thought that tools should follow questions and in too many ‘educational venues’ the tail wags the dog.

          When I taught biology lab at Yale, I designed a curriculum around microscopy and spectrophotometry; both transmission light measures, one imaging, one quantified. In my mind, though, the big lessons came from teaching how to use mathematical models in one case and to draw ‘what you see’ in the other. In that sense, the most important tools were pencil and paper.

          • redrock
            redrock says:

            the microscope was an example – not all equipment needs to be expensive and at the forefront of technology to be used to foster interest in science. However, it is extremely rare that a 14 year old is already capable to performing publishable research at the forefront of science. For the same reasons it is rare that a 14 year old is a master carpenter or a Pullitzer prize listed novelist – it takes time and effort to develop the skills. Sanding the wood for a chair is assisting the master carpenter but it does not make the 14 year old the master carpenter. Same for working in a lab- if the kid can operate a microscope or follow a procedure and carefully observe it does not mean they are already a fully developed scientist. Don’t get me wrong – I think it is never too early to start with science but this is different from cutting edge research.

          • Heather Bathon
            Heather Bathon says:

            How about the idea that maybe a microscope is just another way to let the world around you blow your ever lovin’ mind? (Your ever lovin’ fourteen year old mind.)
            Something good’s gotta come out of that.
            That’s what I’m talking about.


        • BenK
          BenK says:

          Because it is not possible to reply to your reply, I comment here. I agree, a 14 year old will participate in, rather than lead, groundbreaking research. However, this is very different than casual observation of nature or canned experiments. It is much better preparation for a career in science.

          Many professional scientists have told me that high school students, even college students, are not worth the time and effort, they cannot be productive, they are not mature enough or trained enough. I disagree. I disagree so strongly that I have worked with students at these levels to become primary co-authors on well-regarded, well-cited papers, and had undergrad co-authors on a paper in Science.

          Admittedly, they are not 14. A 14 year old would have to be special. As is every professional scientist, so…

  15. Jennifer B.
    Jennifer B. says:

    My daughter is reading this book this year for science, and loving it (she just turned 14, and our formal science has been spotty thus far as well, despite the fact that she craves it and reads whatever she can get her hands on) — it might be a good next read for your son.

    Also, I started reading a book that might interest you from the perspective of an unschooler. It is the autobiography of Alice Hamilton, and I started reading it because I am writing a textbook about industrial hygiene. Alice Hamilton, I learned in college, is “the mother of Industrial Hygiene” (most disciplines have a “father”) Turns out she was also the sister of Edith Hamilton, the classicist… and, they were unschooled. Their mother, she says, didn’t like the idea of sending them away from home from 9-4 every day. Their father didn’t like the school curriculum, thinking it overemphasized math and American history. So they just didn’t send their four daughters to school, letting them run around outdoors and read freely and learn languages until they went off to a finishing school for two years, came home, and decided what they wanted to do for “a career” (these were women in the 19th century!). Edith chose teaching, Alice chose medicine. You’d only need to read through chapter 2 to get the whole story of their education, and it’s worth reading.

    • MBL
      MBL says:

      Thanks! I just requested both books from the library.

      I also requested The Diamond Makers by Hazan as it looks interesting also.

      I’m thinking that Marie Curie should have kept abreast of Hamilton’s research in industrial toxicology given that, though contemporaries, Hamilton lived 35 years longer!

  16. Julia
    Julia says:

    The diversity of paths to any chosen destination extends well beyond childhood. Nothing your son does now makes a difference for whether or not he’ll be able to get a phd in science, or for which fields of science he should decide to pursue. You don’t have to go to MIT to get a PhD in science, the idea of alternative education and alternative ways of learning and pursuing and creating knowledge (scientific processes) go all the way through graduate school. There is something for every kind, even at that level. You don’t have to get a PhD to do scientific research. You don’t have to know when you finish your BA that you will pursue a PhD in science. Humanities majors go to medical school. I didn’t take any math after my sophomore year of high school, including zero math classes in college, and now have a phd and career in a math related field. It doesn’t matter, I make it work.

    Khan Academy, Maker movement, whatever. They are all trendy and irrelevant to the long run of your son’s education, while being potentially great tools if they are the tools that suit him.

  17. Tracy
    Tracy says:

    The maker mover is fascinating to me, the embodiment of self-directed learning. Especially because of how people are figuring out how to get their fun projects crowd-funded and actually make money of them too. It’s starting to have shades of a complete, no-permission-needed way to earn money while doing something fulfilling.

    On the other hand there is college… there seems to be something inevitable about the decision to do this – is there a blog post about that? Seems a shame for this story to end in sitting tests and working out hooks to do a degree… But hey, I’m not writing this story, just reading on intrigued, watching and waiting for the next chapter.

    • BenK
      BenK says:

      The idea of ‘hooks’ is indeed distasteful; and as an interviewer, I wouldn’t frame it that way. Kids who think that pointing out the rainbows and unicorns of their intentions will advance them are too numerous. On the other hand, singular atypical achievements pointing to individual motivation and a potential to take advantage of extraordinary resources – this isn’t a ‘hook.’ I’ve been that kid and I’ve sat in classes (or worked in lab) with those kids.

      Those students are not just doing ‘a degree.’ The number of environments that offer the freedom and scientific resources of a top university to participants at the late-teen/mid-twenties age group are … well… perhaps there aren’t any others.

  18. Commenter
    Commenter says:

    Here’s my two cents, for what it’s worth.

    I have a ten year old with ideas of wanting to work in a scientific field when he grows up. I also have sufficient connections in aerospace and biotech that if he graduated with qualifications he’d have interviews.

    I am happy to encourage my son’s interests in science. He has a good knack (read: persistence) for engineering. I have encouraged it by organizing a Lego Mindstorms group (I still think that’s an excellent system for kids), teaching an analog electronics class for his coop, and keeping him moving in his math studies. I expect him to begin code-based programming soon. I focus more on giving him tools for his own experimentation and creation than on teaching a set curriculum.

    On the other hand, I consider a ten year-old’s desire to work in science as a grown-up to be vague and premature. One of the only things I can feel certain about with regards to science is that the most important topics in science twenty years from now do not yet exist. There is little in my background or today’s textbooks that will really help with those topics.

    My son is an avid reader. He gets National Geographic and Scientific American, and reads them cover to cover. Developing topics in science are more likely to come to his attention through a magazine than through my antique education.

    The things I have to offer my son’s education are in the realm of the perennial. Matters outside science itself may be most important to his eventual success in a scientific (or non-scientific, as the case may be) field. As expressed above by others, a successful scientist must be able to write clearly and express himself; he must be able to network and work well in groups; he must be resilient and persistent in the face of failure.

    My son spends more time working on music than any other subject. I encourage that not because I think he’ll be a musical superstar, but because so many other things are going to change in the next twenty years, including his ambitions, that few other things are really worth spending that much time on now. Being able to sing and play beautifully will be a good part of any life he may have.

    I have also found many of the most intelligent people I’ve met working in the sciences to be musicians. Perhaps this is because many of the skills described as fundamental to scientific success – persistence, teamwork, expression – can be developed through music. I know that, for my wife, playing music with others is both a way to network and form relationships and a way to keep herself on an even keel while working really hard. It’s part of her balance, and part of her advancement. I expect the same to be true for my son.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      “I also have sufficient connections in aerospace and biotech that if he graduated with qualifications he’d have interviews.”

      Um, yeah, us too… Why do I keep forgetting about all our connections and instead keep obsessing about the details? We’re knee deep in the space industry with connections. We could easily arrange a high school level internship/mentorship if any of our kids express interest at that time. Thanks for the online backhand that I needed… ie perspective.

  19. Commenter
    Commenter says:

    Oh, and to answer the questions.
    1. How does an unschooler get into college for science?

    I would recommend trying to meet what the target colleges say their requirements are. For example, one of my local universities says:

    “A strong academic foundation in high school both improves your odds of getting into MIT and will help you make the most of the Institute when you’re here. We recommend that your high school years include the following:

    One year of high school physics
    One year of high school chemistry
    One year of high school biology
    Math, through calculus
    Two years of a foreign language
    Four years of English
    Two years of history and/or social sciences”

    So if your child wanted to be accepted there, he would do well to try to present these experiences or accomplishments.

    2. But will my son be prepared for college if I let his interests guide what he learns about science?

    Yes, if he is rational. If he has a true interest in being admitted to a university to study science, he will learn what he needs to do, and then try to cover the requisite material for admission. Given that his time is his own as an unschooler, he shouldn’t have trouble doing that. He might want to make use of his local community college, because many high schools do not offer the courses (e.g. calculus) necessary to be admitted to a top university with a science focus.

    If this is still his intention two years from now (which I expect will be affected by his level of success with math in the next two years), he might want to draw up a four-year plan to meet the requirements he identifies.

    3. And is it still unschooling if my son is learning the national math curriculum?

    It’s still unschooling if _he’s_ doing it. It could still be unschooling if he had a full day of coursework, as long as it’s his choice. There’s nothing unfree about realizing that certain paths have requirements. What good would all this freedom be if your children didn’t develop the intelligence, self-reliance, and fortitude to identify and meet their goals?

  20. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I’ll echo here what other people have already said about an elite education at an elite school with a link to an article subtitled ‘The nation’s top colleges are turning our kids into zombies’ ( ). The author of the article taught at Yale from 1998 to 2008. It can be very high pressure and stressful for many students resulting in questionable results in the quest for a degree. If a top-ranked school is your goal, then you should be aware of the environment at these schools. It’s not the best form of education in my opinion.
    These two paragraphs are quoted from the article – “These enviable youngsters appear to be the winners in the race we have made of childhood. But the reality is very different, as I have witnessed in many of my own students and heard from the hundreds of young people whom I have spoken with on campuses or who have written to me over the last few years. Our system of elite education manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.”
    “When I speak of elite education, I mean prestigious institutions like Harvard or Stanford or Williams as well as the larger universe of second-tier selective schools, but I also mean everything that leads up to and away from them—the private and affluent public high schools; the ever-growing industry of tutors and consultants and test-prep courses; the admissions process itself, squatting like a dragon at the entrance to adulthood; the brand-name graduate schools and employment opportunities that come after the B.A.; and the parents and communities, largely upper-middle class, who push their children into the maw of this machine. In short, our entire system of elite education.”

    • BenK
      BenK says:

      I know this author is getting significant press, but I doubt the validity of his conclusions. There are plenty of issues with education in the nation, but his reactions do not present any sort of controlled observation, and reek of personal disappointments.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      Not every school ranked in the top ten is necessarily an elite ivy league. There are many state schools that consistently are ranked top ten. Some of those state schools get more grants than the private schools for research.

      • redrock
        redrock says:

        the answer, as so frequently, is: it depends. The super duper top ivy league schools for science and engineering are good at nearly everything, excellent in physics and biology and and and…. BUT there are many other schools which are exceptional in a specific field, maybe high energy physics or Materials Science at Ohio State. Careful selection is key – does the school offer what you are interested in (and I am mostly talking graduate level here) or not? For UG you need to choose a college which is reasonably strong in the area you feel is your future. We regularly are not able to admit students who had one physics class at their college and then want to go into Engineering Physics for Grad School – the recommendation is then that they need to spend a year to catch up in their physics and math otherwise they get eaten alive during their first grad school year (irrespective of motivation – the day has only 24 hours and the pace is fast).

        The only state school in the top ten list of colleges is… none. UC Berkeley is ranked #20 and University of Virginia at Charlottesville is ranked #2 in terms of “education for your money – best deal ranking”. However, all these rankings have to be taken with many grains of salt and are discussed controversially in many universities and colleges.

        With respect to research funding: it is one of the criteria used to rank graduate schools, and there is a significant correlation between ranking and research expenditures and money.

        • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
          YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

          If you are talking across the board I agree. Once you break it down by area of study, for instance, Berkeley is #3 for engineering.

          • redrock
            redrock says:

            yes, but that is what I am saying: a school does not have to be on the list of top 10 across the board in the US NEWs and World report rankings but can be superb in the area you are choosing.

  21. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I just came across this maker movement news on the cnet web site. GE Appliances and Local Motors have teamed up to build a small-batch manufacturing site named FirstBuild on the University of Louisville campus in Louisville, Ky. Also ” MakerBot, a leading name in desktop 3D printers, and TechShop, a collaborative studio where members can attend classes and design and build prototypes of their own imagining, are partnering with FirstBuild to lend resources and expertise to the fledgling microfactory initiative.” This link is dated 6/19/14 – and this link is the most recent news yesterday – .

  22. mBL
    mBL says:

    I just received the following information in an email through my local homeschool group. I find it pertinent in that it gives information regarding a homeschooling mother and son and path for a degree in the sciences. I do not know whether or not the son was homeschooled until college or what year he currently is. But I do find it interesting.

    Intro into Rocket Science

    Description: In this class we will use model rocketry to explore the following scientific concepts: kinematics, vectors, projectile motion, Newton’s laws of motion, chemistry of combustion reactions, aerodynamics and stability, and even some basic trigonometry. The physics presented in this class uses geometry to convey the fundamental ideas of calculus in order for the students to understand not only the equations of motion but also how they are derived. In addition, each student will build and fly a model rocket kit, and design their own model rocket from scratch. In the process, they will also learn about the history of rocketry and rules to ensure a safe flight. Please note that XX is a regularly-scheduled rocket launch sponsored by XX High Powered Rocketry Club. Their launches are held on the second Saturday of each month near XX. Specific directions will be given in class.

    Instructors: XX has a M.S. degree in electrical engineering as well as B.S. degrees in electrical engineering and mathematics from Iowa State University. She was named ISU’s Outstanding Senior in Electrical Engineering in XX. She worked as an electrical engineer for 15 years before becoming a full-time homeschool parent. Early in her career she also taught Power Systems Analysis and Technical Calculus at XX . XX.’s appreciation of rocket science has been fostered by her son, XY, who is an avid rocketeer. At age 19, XY is the real expert in rocket design and construction. He received Junior Achievement awards from the XX High Powered Rocketry Club for 2008 and 2009. XY is majoring in Aerospace Engineering at the University of XX.

    Registration Fee: $300.00/student
    Level: age 12 and up
    Class Size: 5 -10 students
    Prerequisite: The physics presented in this class requires solid pre-algebra skills; however, basic algebra skills are desirable. Students also need the fine motor skills and maturity to work safely with an X-acto knife.
    Materials Fee: $80.00/student
    (Materials include a notebook, handouts, model rocket kit, rocket motors, igniters, and wadding for a kit flight plus body tube, nose cone, balsa, and other materials needed to build a scratch rocket.)
    Text Requirement: None; motivated students may enjoy The Handbook of Model Rocketry by G. Harry Stine or the movie October Sky.
    Total Class Fee: $380.00

    • redrock
      redrock says:

      I totally would have loved this class. But, with all the focus on hands on stuff, there are quite a few kids whose strength is on the more theoretical side – who don’t thrive on all the practical experience and building stuff, the kids (and adults) who prefer to explore and think with paper and pen. Yes, even world famous scientists still use paper and pen to think and plot out their work – they don’t start out with the super duper, game-like computer model but with tracing their thought on a notepad (in the broadest possible sense, writing on a computer is also included here). Some kids prefer this way of working, others prefer the hands on, building stuff approach, don’t forget them!

  23. Dale
    Dale says:

    A example of home schooled kids who got inot science programs is at:
    (He sells the cirriculaum he developed to educate his kids, the oldest have gone to college in the sciences).
    Although at 14 I wanted to be a historian; in high school switched to astronomy, heard there were no jobs in that field so got my BS, MS< and all but thesis in Physics, when the physics market collapsed; and wound up an Electronics engineer at NASA. (Our professional organization says my level is equivalent to full professor, and NASA means equivalent to prof at top university.

  24. Erika
    Erika says:

    I hadn’t learned a bit of science and was probably doing math at a 4th grade level when I started comminty college and became interested in science. I wasn’t sure if I could pass Biology 101, a prerequisite for a prerequisite for the classes I really wanted to take. I ended up studying nutrition at a private college and transferring into the biomolecular scince program at a large state university. If your unschooled son wants to go to college for science, he can do it!

  25. Holly Gates
    Holly Gates says:

    I went to a top tier engineering school (MIT). It was incredibly useful and I learned a lot that is highly relevant on a daily basis to my career as an electrical engineer. I think it was totally worth the money and time it took to go there. I did have a few brilliant friends in school who thought you could have got the same thing on your own without the tuition bill, but at least for me that would have been very difficult.

    I only got a BS, but much of the time that is plenty for engineering jobs and it has not impeded me in the least. Actually when I am looking to hire people to really design and build things, I am a little skeptical of a Phd electrical engineer. In most areas of science on the other hand, you really do need the PhD if you want to get beyond the lower rungs of the ladder. My wife has a BS in chemistry, and it was pretty clear that the main point of working as a BS chemist was as a prelude to grad school. One good thing about grad school for science and engineering is that usually you can get it paid for.

    On the Maker Movement:
    When thinking about making things, there is always a choice about how deep you are going to go. It is rewarding to participate at any point along the chain.

    For instance, lets say you want to make a marking knife for woodworking. Buying a commercial knife and learning to hone it is fun. You learn about sharpening methods, merits of different types of stones, aspects of different blade steels, and develop a useful physical skill. It is also fun to go another level down, maybe buying a knife kit and putting it together. The next level would be to buy tool steel, shape it how you want it, heat treat it, grind it, make a handle. And still more fun would be to smelt the metals, alloy the steel, and cut the tree for the handle. The deeper you go, the more you learn about the world and how it works, and at each level a whole new world of knowledge and contacts opens up. The tradeoff is investment in time, and the level your own skills and equipment can support. Maybe you want to use that marking knife to make a bookshelf and don’t want to spend 5 years with your books on the floor while you are working on the marking knife.

    I don’t think the Maker movement is about going as deep as possible on everything, just that making something, anything, is a worthwhile endeavor. It’s pretty easy to go through life in our society and not make anything, whether that be growing or cooking food, fixing tractors, or making industrial robots. Making things is personally rewarding, and provides a compelling context to learn. It also engenders a useful frame of mind, wherein you have confidence you can effect changes you want to see and do things yourself that you want to happen. If you don’t know about how to solve a problem or tackle a project, you can learn about it and dive in.

    As a dad of a homeschool family with kids of 3, 5, and 7, I also have some anxiety about how they are going to get into good colleges, and about how I am going to convince them this is a useful thing to pursue. We’ll figure it out as we go I guess.

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