Mio Kawamura spends much of his free time differently than his elementary school classmates.
Instead of learning piano or English, or practicing popular sports like baseball and soccer, science lessons have become a hobby for this 8-year-old infatuated with the enigma of space.
“Science is fun,” said Mio, who hopes to become an astronomer. “Science isn’t difficult to me. In school, there’s no one I can talk to about science, but here my teacher listens to me anytime.”
The Tokyo second-grader was speaking about a science program that is growing increasingly popular among the relatively new types of extracurricular learning services cropping up.
Science Club Co., one of the largest science education providers, boasts about 10,000 students from preschool to junior high age at 22 locations in Tokyo and Kanagawa, Chiba, Saitama and Hyogo prefectures.
Its first classes opened in Tokyo with 20 to 30 elementary school students in 1992, driven by parent requests. That soared to 1,000 in 2002, 5,000 in 2006 and 10,000 in 2011.
Its lessons helped Mio, who first showed interest in space at the age of 2, deepen his interest in the universe.
His mother, Yoshie, said her only child is “busy reading books and watching science programs on TV,” adding she sometimes takes him to university lectures.
Science Club’s approach is starkly practical — a notion that has long been left behind by the education system.
On a Sunday afternoon this month, fifth-graders saw their teacher dissect a chicken for an anatomy lesson while second-graders flew hand-made balloons in a different classroom.
The atmosphere of the lessons is quite different from the classroom, where students usually listen to lectures and copy notes off the blackboard. They are encouraged to give their opinions and the teachers try to entertain them with tricks and jokes. There is always active dialogue.
“We are trying to make children feel the joy of learning, without giving them grades,” said Science Club Vice President Masashi Hironaga.
“People say it’s too early for preschoolers to take up science, but we believe the earlier, the better,” Hironaga said. “Our focus is to cultivate children’s sensitivity for the future, not their level of their understanding.”
Last year, Science Club student Sora Kawashima, then 8, won the education minister’s top award for his age group with a 48-page research paper on a shark tooth.
His work started with a shark tooth his parents bought him during a visit to a marine park in Miura, Kanagawa Prefecture. After weeks of research, the Tokyo boy guessed that the tooth had come from a blue shark and decided to ask the experts.
Sora interviewed a shark keeper at the park and wrote a letter to Kazuhiro Nakaya, a now-retired Hokkaido University professor who has published several books on sharks.
After Nakaya wrote him back with his analysis, all three were divided on the type of shark. Sora later decided the tooth came from a bull shark, like Nakaya said.
“Sora did a great job,” Nakaya said. “He only had one shark tooth but he wrote a lot. It’s extremely difficult to identify what kind of shark it is from one tooth.”
“I think I’m 90 percent right about that one, but not 100 percent. There are about 500 different kinds of sharks in the world. You have to see all kinds of elements to identify — whether it’s an upper tooth or a lower tooth, it’s a he or a she,” Nakaya said.
Last summer, Sora and his mom visited the retired professor in Hakodate.
“I tried to write a good paper after I got upset that my paper in the previous year only got an award given to all the applicants,” Sora said. “I just couldn’t move when I was informed that I won the top award.”
Critics say the popularity of these new programs is a wake-up call for the education system.
“It’s good to learn science from early ages,” Keio University professor and former Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Yoshihiro Katayama said.
“But it should be taught in regular schools if there are strong needs for such programs,” he said. Katayama is a member of a special panel studying the compulsory education system.
“The main focus of the current educational system is on English, math and Japanese,” he said, confirming that young students are moving away from science.
“We also have to shed more light on such subjects as music and the arts,” he said, explaining that singing in front of other people nurtures courage and art develops creativity.
Science Club, for its part, intends to stick with its original concept of making science accessible to children, despite pressure from some mothers who say it should be more aligned with what kids are studying at school.
“We have to determine whether an education system that puts too much emphasis on entrance exams is good for this country,” Hironaga said.
“A lot of leading Japanese companies have been outperformed by foreign rivals,” he said. “We’ll never have someone like Bill Gates unless we carry out educational reform. I hope Science Club will play a major role in Japan’s science education.”