Excellence in science has always been a hallmark of the United States, resulting in inventions from the cotton gin to GPS technology. But with the rest of the world working hard to overtake us, the need for science education has never been more urgent. President Obama highlighted this sentiment during a radio address: “Today, more than ever before, science holds the key to our survival as a planet and our security and prosperity as a nation.”

So how can your student do his best in science? Maria Caryotakis has taught high school science for twenty years, from introductory courses to Honors Chemistry and Physics. The following is a list of strategies that she recommends for students who want to do well in her class:

Participate 100% in Class

Students think they can save time by using one class’s lecture time to prepare for a different class. For example, many students tune out during a science lesson so they can study the vocabulary for next period’s English quiz. But there’s never a better time to learn something than when a teacher is presents it; it takes twice as long to learn it at home on your own. When you’re following a lecture, it’s easy to stop and ask a question before you get lost. Plus, you’ll make a better impression on the teacher if she calls on you.

Accept That There Isn’t Always a Right Answer

Schools today teach that there’s always a right answer, one correct bubble to fill in on the scantron sheet. But in science, we don’t yet have all the answers. Sometimes the best we can do is to develop theories, so it’s important to be comfortable with complicated answers. During a lab, don’t be overly focused on getting the “expected” results; in science, any experiment that yields data is a viable experiment. In fact, some of the greatest discoveries of our time were born from “mistakes.”

Speak Up in Your Group

Much of science is done in the company of others, from lab work to group projects. It’s important to be heard within the group. If there’s a problem, staying quiet is the worst thing you can do. Make sure you understand what others are saying by rephrasing what you’ve heard. Don’t ignore problems with group dynamics: the group works too quickly, someone takes over as the de-facto leader, or a member doesn’t help at all. Try working it out, but if it doesn’t help, go to the teacher to voice your concerns. A good teacher will intervene in the group to improve the dynamics, or if that can’t work, should move you to a more compatible group. 

Take Good Notes

Science books cover vast amounts of information, and it can be hard to know where to focus. But each teacher has a specific subset of information that he feels is most important. The notes you take in class indicate what the teacher wants to emphasize, and what you should expect to see covered on tests and quizzes.

Investigate Multiple Sources

After a lecture that’s interesting (or confusing), it’s enlightening to seek out further information at home. The Internet is an incredible source of cutting-edge information and images. You can easily supplement your understanding with a couple of Yahoo searches.

Collect Visual Aids

A lot of science involves memorization, and it’s helpful to see visual prompts at home. From shower curtains with the periodic table of the elements to placemats that show the solar system, placing study aids around the house can be a huge help. You can also customize your studying by making a poster that highlights the facts you’ll need for your next test.

Figure Out “Why”

The human brain can only memorize so much. To facilitate understanding, it’s important to see how things fit together and to think of concrete examples. For instance, picturing the firing of a cannon can help us remember Newton’s Third Law (Whenever one object exerts a force on a second object, the second object exerts an equal and opposite force on the first.) A cannon is bigger than a cannonball, so the firing pushes the ball far away. But the ball exerts its own force on the cannon, making the cannon recoil a few inches.

Hone Your Math Skills

Science class depends on a solid understanding of how to do word problems: when to add or subtract, multiply or divide. Most students are able to collect numbers from their experiments, but have a harder time knowing what to do with those numbers. You should never try to waive the prerequisite math class for any given science course. Specifically, advanced science classes rely heavily on a solid understanding of algebra.

Be Familiar with the Metric System

Science uses metric measurements, which can be confusing for American students. Families can help by talking about metric units together. When you’re driving, convert from miles per hour to kilometers per hour (it’s in the dashboard.) Talk about centimeters and millimeters in addition to inches, and how much you’d all weigh in kilograms instead of pounds. When you go to the market, compare the size of liter bottles with gallons.

Have the Right Tools

Science relies on having good equipment. Buy whatever supplies the teacher requires. If there’s no list, a basic science supply list should include: colored pencils, a non-programmable calculator, metric ruler, and a small pair of scissors. 

Understanding science is critical in our technology-driven world. By following these tips, your student can maximize his chances of not only getting a good grade, but of understanding the concepts that will give him a better understanding of the natural world.