Maybe it’s the Bunsen burners or those life-size models of human intestines, but there's something about a science classroom that keeps most middle school kids riveted. And teachers want it that way. In fact, says the National Science Teacher’s Association (NSTA), these are critical years.

As a parent, you’re primed to help. It’s always wise to start with your state standards, which are available on the website for your department of education. States vary widely on the actual science topics covered in each grade. Even though topics vary, there's a core group of skills in every middle school science program, from sixth to eighth grades. Here's a sneak peek:

Scientific Inquiry: For most teachers, this is by far the most important reason to learn science. Good science classes, says the NSTA, create a “scientifically literate populace”—a society in which everyone is able to explore ideas, test them out, measure and evaluate results in a clear-minded way. For parents home can be a natural place to build science skills. Doing dishes? Try experimenting with concentrations of dish soap, or talk about the properties of the water dripping on to the floor. Emphasize processes: “If I do this, what happens next? How do we know that’s what caused it?”

Reading: Reading? In science? This may surprise you, but for many students reading and writing can be serious roadblocks in science. Educators call this “content area reading”, and it’s a big deal. Your kid needs to be able to delve into a dense text books and pull out the key information in a way that makes sense. It’s the difference between reading Harry Potter—always a gripping process—and being Hermione, hitting the books to understand and concoct just the right potions. It’s worth the effort, but to an impatient middle schooler, it may seem like torture. Encourage your child to start any reading assignment by previewing the charts, graphs, pictures, and headings, and invite him to predict for you what’s coming up. Then, and only then, should a kid jump into the dense main text.

Lab Work: Middle school is usually the first time your child will be asked to work in a dedicated lab space. What you’re most likely to see at home is the paper aftermath, as your child writes up results or does further homework calculations. This is a great time to talk about real life record-keeping and the reasons for precision. Kids also appreciate your help in keeping supplies on hand, such as colored pens, rulers, and pencils.

Note-Taking: Delightful as lab work may be, middle school teachers will usually break it up with lectures that explain what’s going on. Again, students have learned in elementary school how to listen to a teacher; but now the stakes are higher. Kids need to be able to take notes and collect and organize their materials. Ask your child (in a neutral, easygoing tone) if you can see some of the actual notes made in class. If your child is having trouble, you’ll know quickly: watch for empty pages, or scratchy, illegible ones. With large classes and complicated labs to set up, teachers may miss these problems—but for kids they can wreak havoc, especially when it’s time to study for tests.

If your child complains about science or seems consistently discouraged, don’t hesitate to contact the teacher. And finally, take time to revel in science at home and in the world. “Parents,” says the NSTA, “play an essential role.” Play with everyday objects, visit museums, subscribe to a science magazine, discover nature, and explore with your child the many web sites now offering science activities. And finally, don’t forget the natural world, where discoveries beckon. Whether you’re messing with worms or moaning over rainclouds, you can expect to have a lot of fun, too.