Imagine being on a beach, feeling the grit of sand between your toes and under your fingernails, as you fill a plastic bucket, warmed by the sun, with damp sand from where the foaming waves lap the shoreline. Maybe you have a plan for how you’ll build your sandcastle, decorated with twigs and seashells, surrounded by a moat you dug out as deep as you can go before the wet sand collapses in on itself.
If you can imagine that, you are a scientist.
Really, you ask? Playing on a beach and experiencing the quintessential summer activity of building a sandcastle, and you’re calling me a scientist? Yes, I am. And yes, you are.
There are opportunities for thinking scientifically and using science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics (STEAM) skills all around us. Many people think of scientists as people who all work in labs, but the truth is that scientific skills and thinking are present in the daily life of professionals and laypeople alike. When you engage in an activity like building a sandcastle, you use the practices of an engineer to help you identify a problem, brainstorm solutions, build a prototype, test and evaluate it, and redesign your product to solve your problem better.
So let’s live the life of an engineer and consider our sandcastle. What’s the problem we want to solve? We want to build the best sandcastle we can.
In the process of building a sandcastle, you might brainstorm and build a few designs, and they might collapse (whether due to wind, drying out, an unfortunate beach ball, or structural instability) before you reevaluate and think about what is working and what isn’t. Maybe you notice that the bucket you are using has a fluted design, so when you invert it as your mold, the base of the sandcastle pieces ends up being wider than the top, and it seems to stand up better that way. Maybe you realize that the dry sand near your towel cascades over itself and ends up more in your sandals than staying up as a castle, but when you get wet sand from the shoreline, it holds its shape better after it leaves your bucket. You redesign, and plan a castle that uses wet sand and a wide base, and before long, your castle starts to take shape.
Maybe you want to engage in other STEAM disciplines besides engineering. Your sandcastle can help with that, too. While you build and design, ask yourself some questions: why does the wet sand work better? What are the properties of sand and water that make them mix the way they do, or stick the way they do? How much water should be in the sand, and is it possible to have too much? Now you’re thinking like a scientist–not just identifying a problem and solution anymore, but also making observations and asking questions about your experiences, that you can then construct explanations to answer.
And sandcastle STEAM doesn’t end there–maybe you notice that, while your sandcastle has a strong structure, it doesn’t look the way you imagined. Maybe you look at it with an artistic eye and add accents from colorful shells or sea glass you scavenged, or maybe you add more towers to make it symmetrical and think about its balance mathematically. When you’re done, you want to share your masterpiece with people, so you pull out a camera and snap a picture.
As you enjoy your beach day, you can engage with each discipline of STEAM and train yourself to think like a scientist. Even if you don’t build a sandcastle, you can practice your skills: make observations about sensory information, like how the air smells and how the sand and sun feel, or how the waves and sea birds sound; notice kites flying nearby and consider how they defy gravity; wonder how the boats jetting by are able to float.
Notice and observe, ask and wonder, test and explain–these are the skills of scientists.
We don’t always recognize them in ourselves, or in our friends and family, but we all have the capacity to grow these skills, even from an early age. People tend not to believe in the genuine scientific abilities of young children, but research shows that exploratory play in youth is a strong indicator of scientific interest later in life (Bulunuz and Jarret, 2015, 156).
So encourage your young scientist, and foster your STEAM skills, in the play and activities you do every day. Why not start with something simple, like a sandcastle?
August 1 is National Sandcastle Day. Looking for your next big discovery? Learn more by visiting our website discoverymuseum.org or contacting firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bulunuz, M. and Jarret, O. (2015). Play as an Aspect of Interest Development in Science. In Renniger K., Neiswandt M., and Hidi S. (Eds.), Interest in Mathematics and Scientific Learning (pp. 153-172). Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1s474j0.