Do You See What I See?
Recently I found an excuse to dust off some old lab books of introductory science experiments. They were the curriculum for a 9th grade Physical Science I class at my high school; I wrote them as a summer job during college. I didn’t invent the experiments. Rather, the head teacher gave me outlines, and my job was to try them out and make sure they would work, so that prospective students wouldn’t get frustrated and turned off by science.
The excuse was a friend, a scientist, who is meeting a public service requirement of her studies by volunteering to teach science to schoolchildren, and to their teachers. I offered my science course as possible material for her classwork. As we looked over the experiments, we doubted a bit how even 9th graders might learn from them, or be as excited about them as I was when I built and tested them myself. Sure, the projects were easy, and they had worked. But would the experience of building these projects — static electricity demonstrations, electromagnets, motors — be enough to convey the principles behind their operation? Would the kids see the point?
Yesterday I was in the kitchen preparing a simple lunch of tacos and beans. Washing and cutting lettuce, chopping an onion, peeling a cucumber, grating cheese, warming the beans with some tomato sauce. In the quiet afternoon, I couldn’t help noticing the crunch of the knife through the lettuce. Or wondering how best to preserve the other half of the cucumber, now leaking water from its open end. And why do we grate cheese? So much science, here in the kitchen!
Now with the internet, you can search “science in the kitchen” and get pages and pages of websites with all sorts of neat science projects in the kitchen. Let alone YouTube with some pretty exciting and dangerous experiments. (Be warned!) I have no doubt that school science textbooks have taken this to heart and now include experiments that relate to the real world. And yet, science enrollment declines.
Even with the best of intentions, popular science experiments in the kitchen won’t do it. Science is not in school, nor is it in the kitchen. Science is not an activity, but a way (just one way) of looking at the world and making sense of it. What excited me in science class was not the sitting and listening to the lecture. It was making the connections with daily life outside class, and enjoying the beauty of the natural world with new understanding.
Those understandings could come from things as simple as basic cell structure in biology. There’s lots of water in a living cell, so when you peel and cut a cucumber, it gets wet. Or as complex as thermodynamics. One college winter, I learned that there’s really never a flow of “cold”, but only heat transfer. For a good month after that, climbing the steps to class, I would grasp the banister outdoors, and instead of feeling cold, I felt the heat flowing out of my hand into the metal. These experiences are what brought me back to study even more.
Science teachers have to have and share that excitement. If they’re not science experts themselves, no matter. They are learning adults, who can build their own understanding and catch the excitement from science mentors. The key has to be in giving the right answer to the question so many students ask: “But what is this good for?” The wrong answers are the allegedly practical ones — advancing technology, getting a job, or passing the test. The right answer, the one that should guide science teaching, and bring the kids back to class, is “Because the world around you is beautiful, and science gives you eyes to see it.”