Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Holy Moley, Green Anole!

When did you first start learning science in school as a young child?

I don't recall ever having a science textbook in my hands during elementary school in the 1960s, despite this decade being the heyday of the Space Race after the 1957 launching of Sputnik.

Sure, we dabbled in science a little bit, at least in fifth and sixth grade, which was when I started public school.

I vaguely remember the eruption of Mt. Clay-and-Vinegar-and-Baking-Soda in the big sink of my sixth-grade classroom. A student had made it and brought it in as his science project, and I think the electrical circuit I built with my dad was part of this adventure, too.

As I recall, the teacher had told us all to go home and find a science project to do. I'm sure many a parent quaked then as they do today when the kid comes home and says it's time to get a trifold board because the science fair is coming up.

But my dad was an aeronautical engineer as well as a very capable carpenter, electrician, and fixer-of-things, so he was more than thrilled to throw himself into helping with this project.

I was in Catholic school for first grade through fourth grade, however, and there was even less science education going on. (Which is odd considering how Catholics are not biblical fundamentalists, and the Church, for example, doesn't reject the theory of evolution.)

My entire science education in those four years consisted of...a chameleon.

Yes. A single lizard. And actually, it wasn't even a chameleon. That's how poor our science education was. The little reptile was really a green anole--often called a chameleon in America, but a species distinction that would be pointed out by a teacher teaching science.

But the anole wasn't even used to do that. It just sat on a rock in a little terrarium for a month. Sometimes we were allowed to look at it. It looked back. Then it was given away to a lucky kid at the end of the month, and that was that for science.

Oh. Wait. No. I think the planting of the corn seeds must've been science, too.

We all brought in some dirt, put it in an empty half-pint milk container, stuck a corn seed in it, and set it on the window ledge.

Except for Bernadette.

Bernadette forgot dirt, so she used clay. Our seeds grew. Hers didn't. She looked ashamed and we glared at her as if she'd murdered a kitten.

Sum total of science learned in grades 1-4:

  1. Chameleon. 
  2. Grow plants in dirt, not clay.

It's a start.

This all changed when I entered the brand-spanking-new junior high school building constructed just an eight-minute walk from our house.

Thank you, Robert Bunsen!
Seventh-grade science and beyond was a dedicated class, held in spacious classrooms with long, sleek, black countertops equipped with sinks and glass jets (and Bunsen burners!).

We covered topics ranging from asteroids to zygotes. It was short on ecosystems, habitats, and animals, but otherwise absolutely, smashingly splendid.

Since those heady days (plus a few marvelous science classes in college, a training program to become a zoo docent, and a course for teachers of science taught at a local university), my acquaintance with science education lies mainly in writing books and articles on science topics for children, parents, and teachers.

Oh, that and helping my child with the dreaded trifold boards at science fairs.

Wiki commons photo
Watching my child learn science at school was an eye-opener, especially as I became curious about how science has been taught at the elementary level over the past hundred years or so.

If it barely ranked as a subject in my elementary school--a good public school on Long Island in a community packed with Grumman engineers--how was it treated in earlier decades?

For my daughter, science existed as a distinct school subject from her earliest elementary years. I still have one of her dedicated science notebooks buried around here in a box somewhere. I recall seeing little aquariums and terrariums sitting in the center of a cluster of kindergarten desks.

Nonfiction books are thriving in the elementary classroom. Kids are becoming citizen scientists. Science is properly part and parcel of their education and their lives.

Now, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) is the acronym of the day. With a daughter who's going into a technical vocational field, I'm pleased that kids are learning how science applies to everyday life and that it's not some arcane realm of little relevance to their lives.

But as a reader and writer with a great fondness for natural-history writing of the past that reveled in the sheer wonder of nature, I sometimes wonder if perhaps we might err too much on the side of emphasizing science's utility. As if we're hustling kids to hurry up and get past that fascinating mammoth diorama on the field trip because we have to catch the bus.

I don't know if this concern has any validity. I only started wondering about it several years ago as my child entered high school. We visited the school during an open-house event and marveled at the lab rooms, the equipment, the artifacts. We wished we were students again as we heard about the biotech and maritime academies.

But when we asked one teacher about the biotech program, he resolutely refused to answer specific questions.

Arms crossed, looking across the room without making eye contact, he maintained that he taught science and taught kids to be interested in and thrilled by science. He was implicitly telling us that he wasn't a big fan of teaching science only as something you do as a career step.

So my goal now is not only to learn more about how science was taught to elementary school kids in the past, but also to find out more about what teachers think of today's focus.

Which means I have two-thirds of my trifold board started!

(This is Part 1 of an "I'm not sure how many parts there will be" series, but I can tell you that I have picked up some interesting old science textbooks at thrift stores and that there are also some Very Funny Bits in some of them, so please stay tuned.)