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How do we know when kids are ready to learn anything? Babies can learn how to use toilets, but most parents don’t introduce the concept until they’re well into toddlerhood. Fourth graders can master college-level biochemistry topics but most teachers don’t even consider trying to teach them. Life is full of examples like this. (I’ll focus on the biochemistry since this is a newsletter about schools, but email me if you want to talk more about babies using toilets!)

Daniel Fried is an assistant professor of chemistry at Saint Peter’s University in New Jersey. While pursuing his doctorate at Yale, he started to wonder whether some of the concepts he was learning could be taught to kids. Both of his parents are teachers and their fondness for young learners rubbed off. He designed some classes for a local museum while he was a grad student and he has since built out the concept into a 25-lesson curriculum for late elementary grades.

“When the kids are young, they’re highly motivated,” Fried said. “It’s easy to teach them. They pick up on the patterns so quickly. They appreciate everything.” High school and college kids, by contrast, take a lot more work to engage and tend to want to learn only what they need to pass a test, he said.

Fried has found getting children interested in biochemistry to be a breeze – especially when they hear they’ll soon be able to correct older siblings or cousins in high school or college. “The harder part is getting the adults on board to allow it to happen,” he said.

Jim McKowen heard Fried present at a conference a few years ago and liked the idea, but he was a math teacher at the time and couldn’t think of a way to bring it to his school. Now he’s the sixth-through-eighth grade STEAM teacher at Hopatcong Middle School in northern New Jersey, and he finds the biochemistry content to be a perfect follow-up to the fifth-grade introduction to atoms, cells and molecules. He teaches students about the periodic table and goes deeper into molecules, how they’re formed and how they behave. One lesson covers flavor molecules and students learn about how the molecular world connects to their everyday lives.

McKowen said students have followed up that lesson by scouring the ingredient labels on foods at home to identify chemicals that affect the flavors.

“A lot of the kids are showing a genuine interest in it and even doodling molecules after taking the class,” McKowen said. “Hopefully it does translate into a greater interest in science later in life and we start to see those results.”

That’s the ultimate goal for Fried and the small number of teachers and homeschooling parents who are using his curriculum so far. Fried has seen students of all ethnic groups and socioeconomic statuses get excited about biochemistry. Girls are as interested as boys. This is important. Low-income students, black students, Latino students and girls are often underestimated when it comes to their potential for success in STEM fields and all of them are underrepresented in many high-paying STEM jobs (though women dominate health-related STEM jobs and make up almost half of the people employed in the life sciences).

In Hopatcong, all of the sixth graders who have room in their electives schedule cycle through the class with McKowen. He sees it as an important way to keep girls, especially, interested in science long enough to consider it as a career option.

To even get here, though, McKowen had to fight the urge to think kids might not be ready for certain topics. He has made it a point to extend that perspective beyond biochemistry and avoid all-too-common assumptions.

“We do sell kids short sometimes,” he said.

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Future of Learning newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about education innovation. Subscribe today!

This story about biochemistry was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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