Covering the basics

January 24, 2011

Last week in a marathon debrief session after a school group program my coworkers and I were discussing the ecosystem science that we taught that day. We played a game at lunch that focused on the basic needs of all animals and plants – food, water, space and shelter. I mentioned that there is one more thing that all organisms need: the ability to reproduce, or a community of members of the same species. During a lengthy discussion about how to incorporate this into the game or another part of the day, during which the devil on my shoulder berated me for bringing this up when everyone was tired and ready to go home and the angel on the other shoulder kindly complimented my dedication the education of children, my boss mentioned that we didn’t need to complicate the science too much since we were just trying to get the idea across.

Of course, I then became a little huffy about science. Mainly because I had recently read an article about researchers at Michigan State University who found that the majority of college students in science classrooms do not understand the most fundamental laws of science including the conservation of matter and the carbon cycle. The researchers were concerned, quite legitimately in my opinion, that with the basics of science, students would fail to understand more complicated system-wide problems – namely global warming.

If we don’t teach the basics of science correctly, the foundations of children’s education will crumble when they try to understand the complicated layers of real world systems. I know that we teach children at Bohart one day of the year and they paying more attention to their skis and poles than the words from our mouths. However, if they take anything scientific from their day on the trails, shouldn’t we try to make it correct? Then if they hear it again in the classroom they might be more apt to remember it.

I also recently read an article about a science program at the artsy Bard College. The college is requiring all students to take an intensive science course over January term. The president of the college says, “The most terrifying problem in American university education is the profound lack of scientific literacy for the people we give diplomas to who are not scientists or engineers. The hidden Achilles’ heel is that while we’ve found ways to educate scientists in the humanities, the reverse has never really happened. Everybody knows this, but nobody wants to do anything about it.” I am sure there are many students in the program who are unhappy to have to learn about pathogens, but exposure to science may help them to make educated decisions on important environmental and health issues. As Frank Oppenheimer said, “There are many common bonds between science and art. They both begin with noticing and recording patterns – spatial patterns, patterns in time, patterns of process and behavior. They both elaborate, reformulate, and ultimately link together patterns, in nature and meaning, which initially appeared as unrelated. Both art and science are involved with order disorder transitions and the creation of tension and the relief of tension. Both endeavors are deeply rooted in culture and heritage; both expand our awareness and sensitivity to what is happening in nature, and in ourselves.”

As in the interconnected and diverse ecosystems that were the subject of the curriculum at Bohart, I think a diverse and connected mind has a better ability to handle new pressures than a brain that is focused entirely on one train of thought. The more connections we can establish and understand, as children learning about Rocky Mountain ecosystems, as art students learning about disease or as citizens trying to understand global warming, the better able we may be to overcome environmental, humanitarian and even personal obstacles.

Experimenting

November 28, 2010

On Friday afternoon I trudged through  3 feet of snow searching for animal signs with a 10 year old girl named Rabbit. No, she was not unfortunately named by her parents. I was teaching outdoor science to a bunch of 8-12 years olds at the Ski Fest in West Yellowstone and that morning we had all chosen animal names to use for the day. The theme of the day was animals in winter. Seriously, I love animals, I love winter and I love skiing so I was pretty jazzed.

As Rabbit and I (I picked the name Cougar for the day, completely forgetting the connotations that now go along with a woman named Cougar) made our way through the snow, we started talking about science and she told me:

“We haven’t done an experiment in science this year in school.”

Now my coworker told me to take this with a grain of salt because kids have selective memories of school and don’t always realize that experiments occur in the science classroom. First of all, I think that her statement both blatantly shows the universal habit of teachers to blindly defend one of their own, and is beyond the point, because if Rabbit, who was a very intelligent girl, couldn’t remember the experiment that occurred in the last 3 months then it probably wasn’t interesting and should not have been taught.

Rabbit’s statement struck me because it correlates so well with my experience in science in elementary and middle school. I had a great science teacher in 5th grade, but after that, I cannot remember much EXCEPT one time when we had to perform and present experiments in 7th grade science (positive) and many many times when we had to take of quizzes directly from the book (negative). Oh, I also remember reading in the science book that pulling is easier than pushing and the corresponding picture showed a girl pushing with all her might on a door clearly marked ‘pull’, which takes the believability of the textbook and throws it into a cesspool of muskrat droppings.

I realize teachers are pressured to teach curriculum based on testing standards. I also think it is clear that elementary science in the classroom could be made a hell of a lot more interesting by basing it on observing, hypothesizing and testing. In other words, teaching children science instead of only reading comprehension (which is also obviously, but not singly, important) during science class. All the scientific knowledge we as a species now have has been derived from a series of experiments. Doesn’t it make sense that personal knowledge could also form from a series of experiments?

I know there is a lot of pressure on teachers to teach their kids to perform well on tests, that things such as behavioral issues can get in the way of experimental science (which is part of why my middle school science education was less than thrilling) and that teachers teach their strongest subjects best.

I also know that there are good science teachers out there. I hope that Rabbit gets one some day soon so that the only experiment she does this year is not Fur, Fat and Feathers during lunch on the Friday of Thanksgiving vacation.