Dear Dr. Universe: Does science get harder every year or is that just me? -Keegun, 13, WA

Dear Keegun,

We’ve got about three pounds of brain in our heads that help us look for answers and solve all kinds of problems. But it isn’t always easy. Sometimes an experiment doesn’t go the way I expect or I get stuck on a particularly tricky science question.

I bet lots of other people sitting in their science classes have asked your question. It actually reminds me of something that Sir Isaac Newton said: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Of course, he wasn’t actually standing on anyone’s shoulders. But if he was, he would have been able to see further than he could on his own. And by taking advantage of what other people have learned, or what you already know, you’ll be able to learn more and understand more of the world around you.

If we traveled back in time to learn the science lessons students got during Newton’s life, they would be really different from what we learn now or what kids will learn in the future. We depend on the big and important ideas of people who came before us. We build on their knowledge.

Each of us builds on our own knowledge, too, said my friend Andy Cavagnetto. He’s a scientist at Washington State University and researches how students learn science.

It’s true—the things we learn at school can get more complicated each year. In pretty much all subjects, what you learn in fifth grade will be harder than what you learn in kindergarten.

Cavagnetto asked several first and second graders he knows about your question and they thought science does get a bit harder. But each person’s experience is a little different from everyone else’s. Cavagnetto told me about how we use our schema (pronounced ski-ma)—or what we already know—when we learn new things. It’s kind of like a big file cabinet in our brains. We use what we already have in the files to build up our new knowledge.

Maybe you have read a book, seen a movie, or visited a place that helps you connect to a new topic in science. Perhaps you see a puddle on the playground and later notice that it dried up. In class, you learn about the water cycle. You find out the puddle evaporated. You now know water is cycling through our planet, and you start to make big connections to the little puddle.

You make these connections stronger as you practice and study new things. You’re right, though—it’s not always easy to do. Learning new things can be a challenge, but I bet you’re up for it.

Use your schema. Remember that you can make connections to science every day. Keep your ears and eyes out for science all around you.

Don’t be afraid to fail or to look for solutions. Find giants. Stand on their shoulders. And remember that questions are sometimes even more important than their answers. So keep asking great questions. After all, the more you know, the more you realize how much there is to discover.

Sincerely,
Dr. Universe