• About Farm School

    "There are obviously two educations. One should teach us how to make a living and the other how to live."
    James Adams, from his essay "To 'Be' or to 'Do': A Note on American Education", 1929

    We're a Canadian family of five, farming, home schooling, and building our own house. I'm nowhere near as regular a blogger as I used to be.

    The kids are 18/Grade 12, 16/Grade 11, and 14/Grade 10.

    Contact me at becky(dot)farmschool(at)gmail(dot)com

  • Notable Quotables

    "If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful."
    William Morris, from his lecture "The Beauty of Life"

    "‘Never look at an ugly thing twice. It is fatally easy to get accustomed to corrupting influences."
    English architect CFA Voysey (1857-1941)

    "The world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else that he builds ever lasts. Monuments fall, nations perish, civilizations grow old and die out; and, after an era of darkness, new races build others. But in the world of books are volumes that have seen this happen again and again, and yet live on, still young, still as fresh as the day they were written, still telling men’s hearts of the hearts of men centuries dead."
    Clarence Day

    "Anyone who has a library and a garden wants for nothing."
    Cicero

    "Histories make men wise; poets, witty; the mathematics, subtile; natural philosophy, deep; moral, grave; logic and rhetoric, able to contend."
    Sir Francis Bacon, "Essays"

    "The chief aim of education is to show you, after you make a livelihood, how to enjoy living; and you can live longest and best and most rewardingly by attaining and preserving the happiness of learning."
    Gilbert Highet, "The Immortal Profession: The Joys of Teaching and Learning"

    "Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment."
    Walter Wriston

    "I'd like to give you a piece of my mind."
    "Oh, I couldn't take the last piece."
    Ginger Rogers to Frances Mercer in "Vivacious Lady" (1938)

    "No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem."
    Booker T. Washington

    "Please accept my resignation. I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member."
    Attributed to Groucho Marx in "The Groucho Letters" by Arthur Sheekman

    "If you can't say something good about someone, sit right here by me."
    Alice Roosevelt Longworth

    "If we bring a little joy into your humdrum lives, we feel all our hard work ain't been in vain for nothin'."
    Jean Hagen as "Lina Lamont" in "Singin' in the Rain" (1952)
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Retro chemistry

I’m so far behind in my Boing Boing reading that it’s not even funny — GeekDad I can manage (and there’s a nifty post today about sorting/storing Lego) — but my spidey sense started tingling when I read Melissa’s frog post at Here in the Bonny Glen.

Melissa links to an article from the 1934 issue of Modern Mechanix and Inventions, reprinted over at the Modern Mechanix blog, which is new to me — a veritable treasure trove. And looking down the blog’s list of categories I came to “Chemistry” and got ridiculously excited. Heaps and heaps of articles, mostly from Popular Science and mostly by Raymond B. Wailes, author of my old childhood favorite Manual Of Formulas: Recipes, Methods and Secret Processes. By the way, here’s a spiffy article by Norm Stanley on the subject of amateur science that mentions Mr. Wailes, from the Society of Amateur Scientists website.

There are also categories for History, Science, Toys and Games, and enough other subjects to keep the retro heart beating quickly all year.

Cybils Review: The Periodic Table: Elements with Style!

The Periodic Table: Elements with Style!
created (and illustrated) by (Simon) Basher, written by Adrian Dingle
128 pages; for ages 10 and up
Kingfisher Publications (Houghton Mifflin Co.)
Library copy

I’ve been looking forward to reading this book ever since I saw it mentioned on Carol‘s and Rebecca‘s blogs.

Artist Simon Basher and chemistry teacher Adrian Dingle have created a vivid rogues’ gallery of elements guaranteed to bring the periodic table to life and appeal to kids of all ages. I’ll be the first to admit I’m the originally fuddy-duddy, but there’s something about this anime-style, Facebook approach to the periodic table that’s remarkably engaging. Not to mention a sensible approach to making the subject — indeed, the individual elements — memorable for everyone from fourth or fifth graders to college seniors (not to mention home educating parents who majored in, say, history).

And memorable is what you want when it comes to learning about the periodic table. Basher, who came up with the idea for the book, has said, “It’s really been designed to engage you on a gentle level and also to act as a memory trigger. There really is no reason to think of science as boring, as I’ve discovered, and I hope readers will see the fun side of it.” Echoed by Mr. Dingle, who writes, “This is not an academic book by any stretch of the imagination, but it does offer a window or gateway to getting interested in the elements. I see it as a very accessible opportunity to learn a little about some chemistry.” In fact, The Periodic Table takes the “memory trigger” several giant steps further than does another nonfiction book familiar to home schoolers — Yo, Millard Fillmore — because the illustrations and text are all about the elements.

The small book — seven inches square, and 128 pages — opens with an introduction explaining just what an element is and how (and why) the periodic table is arranged. Then nearly every element gets its own double-page spread, with an illustration and first-person narrative, accompanied by symbol, atomic number and weight, color, standard state, classification, etc. Here’s the write-up for Bad Boy lead, depicted as a Roman gladiator:

Don’t let my heavyweight status fool you — at heart I’m a completely malleable softy. I am so easy to work with that the ancient Romans used me for their water pipes. My chemical symbol (and the word “plumbing”) comes from by Latin name, plumbum.Over the years, I’ve gained a bad rep. People say that I build up in bones as a slow poison and that I have damaged childrens’ [sic] development. It’s true that I have an unfortunate ability to slip easily into the food chain — from pipes and cookware, leaded gasoline, and paints to fisherman’s weights. I have also been blamed for ending the ancient Roman civilization. Not fair! These days, I am closely regulated. But I am still used as a shield against x-rays, for roofing, and in stained glass.

Adding to the delight is a removable periodic table poster — definitely stylish, more cool than geeky — accompanying the book. Just the right thing for your young scientist to hang over the desk (or bed, depending on how much he or she really likes this stuff); though I realize, aside from the home educating crowd, who’ll be tempted to post it in the kitchen, most families will be content to borrow the book from the local or school library. Besides the poster, the book also includes an index and a glossary.

For more on the writer and illustrator, see interviews with each at Houghton Mifflin’s website. Asked, “Were you good at chemistry as a student? Would a book like this have helped you?” and “Did you have any inspirational teachers who got you excited about science or art?”, Basher replies,

I liked the idea of chemistry but found the textbook really unstimulating. I always had more of an interest in art and music.I was lucky enough to have a great high school art teacher who really encouraged me to look at new art and also introduced me to a lot of great music. My passion for science and math came much later in life. While working on the book I did meet a materials scientist from MIT who really gave me some fantastic ideas and tips for the book. He had a real passion for art as well and he loved the idea.

And my favorite bit, from Mr. Dingle the chemistry teacher,

Science is a serious business, and I think the way to get people engaged is to make it accessible while still presenting hard facts and knowledge. Also, I don’t believe that science is “for all.” Some people will have an academic bent for it, others will not — that’s fine, but the answer is not to dumb down science so that everyone can “get it.”

Now there’s something everyone can get.

* * *

More Periodic Table Fun

Further reading, for the younger set:

The Mystery of the Periodic Table by Benjamin D. Wiker, with charming illustrations by Jeanne Bendick; a delightful living book, published in 2003 by Bethlehem Books as part of their “Living History Library”.

Dawn‘s favorite chemistry book, It’s Elementary: Put the Crackle in Chemistry (look inside the book here)

Further reading, for older children and adults:

Nature’s Building Blocks: An A-Z Guide to the Elements by John Emsley (and if you liked that, just for fun don’t miss his entertaining — and “sordid” — history of phosphorus)

A Guide to the Elements by Albert Stwertka (Oxford University Press)

Mastering the Periodic Table: 50 Activities on the Elements by Linda Trombley and Faye Williams

The Periodic Kingdom: A Journey Into The Land Of The Chemical Elements (Science Masters Series) by P. W. Atkins

NEW The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe by Theodore Gray (see below)

More periodic tables:

The animated version of Tom Lehrer’s ditty on The Elements (don’t forget to turn your sound up); many thanks to the generous and creative Mike Stanfill

The Periodic Table of Videos, from the University of Nottingham; more videos featuring the University’s Prof. Poliakoff are over at Test Tube.

Theodore Gray’s Wooden Periodic Table Table (no, that second “Table” isn’t a typo), and his very stylish periodic table posters. And don’t miss his fun columns at Popular Science. And new from Theodore Gray, as of October 2009, is his book The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe

The Royal Society of Chemistry’s Visual Elements Periodic Table, available in Flash or HTML versions, and which you can buy as a wall chart or CD-ROM

The Los Alamos National Laboratory Periodic Table

The Comic Book Periodic Table of the Elements

Rader’s Chem4Kids Periodic Table and clickable Element List

Prof. Mokeur’s interactive and printable periodic tables, and his game of Elementary Hangman

An interactive periodic table. And another one.

Chemicool’s periodic table

John Pratt’s Periodic Table Memory Pages

A handmade crocheted periodic table, made by a 15-year-old for a school project

UPDATED to add: From the comments below, Crissy at Soliloquy‘s favorite periodic table is here. (If you have trouble with that link for some reason, try this one.) She downloaded the PDF and printed a 20″ x 30″ poster for each of her sons. Many thanks for sharing that one, Crissy!

UPDATED further to include The Periodic Table of Periodic Tables!

From Adrian Dingle:

His website, especially handy for AP chem students; don’t miss the links page, which includes some other Periodic Tables
His blog, Chemistry Pages

Learning more about the Periodic Table of Elements:

The Resource Room

Mrs. Gibson’s Periodic Table Adventure website, with information on the history of the periodic table and how to read a periodic table

We haven’t used Ellen McHenry’s chemistry curriculum for grades 4-8, The Elements: Ingredients of the Universe (also available from the McHenry website), but I’ve heard very good things about it. Also from the website, you can download a free periodic table game, the Quick Six card game about elements, organic molecules card game, and pattern for your own periodic table pillowcase,

Dawn gave me the idea about using Lego in connection with learning about elements and the periodic table. Here is her post with the photo of her son building elements; he’s taking a Lego chemistry class for middle schoolers at MIT, where the curriculum includes using Lego bricks to model the elements. And then I found this this Lego periodic table, as well as this Lego advertisement featuring another Lego periodic table.

“It’s Elemental”, science education resources from Jefferson Lab, including math, bingo, word search, flash cards, word scramble, and crossword puzzle.

The five-disc “Periodic Table for Students” DVD series from Schlessinger.

Articles on the Periodic Table:

It’s Elemental, “Chemical & Engineering News celebrates the Periodic Table of the Elements on the magazine’s 80th anniversary” in 2003

Periodic Table stocking stuffers, or, you’ll never believe what home schoolers will buy:

Periodic Table of Fruits and Nuts, and of Vegetables, and of Desserts

Periodic Table place mats

Periodic Table coffee mugs, to go on the place mats

And Period Table playing cards

ElementO, the board game, for ages 10 and up; also available at Carolina Biological Supply

How about a Periodic Table fridge magnet, where each element is a separate magnet?

Or would you believe a Periodic Table shower curtain? Which I suppose you can swap around with your Metamorphosis shower curtain

And for those who appreciate the mysteries of science, Dr. Camille Minichino, who has a Ph.D. in physics from Fordham University, is the author of the eight volumes in the Periodic Table Mysteries: hydrogen, helium, lithium, beryllium, boric acid, carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen are all accounted for so far.

And don’t forget the gumdrops and marshmallows

(Let me know if I’ve goofed up any of the links. I’m just about cross-eyed now.)

Learning to think like scientists, and learning how to think about science

I meant to post earlier this week about Natalie Angier’s most recent NYT “Basics” science column when it first appeared, but schoolwork and festivities got in the way. You can read the entire column here (registration is free); and here are some bits and pieces (emphases, as always, mine):

[Faye Cascio’s ninth-grade physical science] … students can articulate their reasoning because, for one thing, they have no choice. One recent morning, Ms. Cascio asked several students in succession to explain the logic of their answer to the same question — and, “Uh, yeah, I agree with Yasamin and Josh” just wouldn’t do.

“It’s called dipsticking,” Ms. Cascio said. “It’s really important to make sure the kids are picking this information up, and so I ask, Is this clear to you? Do you really understand it? and I won’t go on until I get a positive, satisfying answer.”

A bigger reason the students seemed to wear the material comfortably emerged when they pulled from the classroom closet genuine items of clothing: white lab coats. The Academy of Science [“the almost sneakily rigorous high school magnet science program in Loudoun County, Va., of which Ms. Cascio’s physics class is a part”] is built on the principle of what its director, George Wolfe, calls inquiry-based learning. “I want them to learn to think like scientists*,” he said, “rather than regurgitate facts.” From the moment they enter the program, students do experiments, lots of experiments. Not canned experiments, either, of the sort found in the average “science is fun!” book that spell out every step. Here, the students must design experiments themselves, which means they must learn essential lessons like how to ask questions in an answerable way, what’s your error bar, and, will you please just give me some data already. …

Ms. Cascio, 57, is a law of motion herself, a stylish dynamo whose voice retains the comforting vibrato of her natal Jersey City. As an undergraduate at Douglass College of Rutgers University, she studied molecular biology and planned to become a doctor, but while living in Greece she began teaching and fell in love with the profession, eventually earning master’s degrees in biology and education. With her decades of experience and a string of national teaching laurels, Ms. Cascio could easily have settled into rote mode, but instead she decided to join the fledgling Academy of Science, where, she admits, the pace can be grueling. “It takes a lot more time to teach inquiry than by plug and chug, by getting up in front of a class and lecturing by the book,” she said.

But how much more satisfying the nosy approach to knowing can be, and how amusing, too. In one biology class last year, for example, Ms. Cascio’s students acquainted themselves with the cell, the nucleus, DNA, proteins, evolution, taxonomy and other bold-faced biology concepts by analyzing meat and seafood products from the supermarket, discovering that, hey, the things that had been sold as scallops were actually pulverized trout pressed into scallop shapes.

Through its emphasis on Socratic parrying and creative laboratory work, the program could well serve as a model for remedying misconceptions. Nearly all scientists and educators agree that somehow, at some point during their pedagogical odyssey, most Americans get the wrong idea about what science is, and what it is not.

Science is, or should be, about the world, not about science,” said Eugene Levy, a professor of physics and astronomy and the provost of Rice University. “But for too many students, science has been presented as a large series of manipulations that they rarely understand or connect to the reality around them.” If there is a message that he wants his students to take from his introductory science class, he said, “it is to grasp that the world is in fact understandable, that rational inquiry can lead to understanding, and that there’s rarely an excuse to say understanding is beyond them.” …

By the way, I read another article (from the Albany, NY Times Union) recently about teaching science, this one about teaching chemistry in the home, by home educating parent and “hands-on learning columnist” for Home Education Magazine, Kathy Ceceri, who writes, “I decided I wanted my kids to discover a little of that fun [with science experiments], too (within reason). What I learned, however, is that doing chemistry at home is a lot harder than it used to be.” For anyone interested in the history of children’s chemistry sets, and their sad demise over the past 40 years, you’ll be interested to read the rest of the article.

One book Kathy recommends in her article is The Joy of Chemistry: The Amazing Science of Familiar Things by Monty L. Fetterolf, head of the Department of Physics and Chemistry at the University of South Carolina-Aiken, and his wife and fellow USC professor Cathy Cobb, who specializes in books on the history of science for lay readers (including this and this).

Reading to the end of the article, which includes a list of resources, I was pleased to find that last month Kathy has started a new blog, Home Chemistry; from her sidebar,

This is the year I have decided to finally tackle lab science with my homeschooled kids (14 and 11). Despite horrendous memories of my own experience in public high school chem (mostly centered around experiments that didn’t work and savvier classmates who made out their observation charts first, then invented the data to fit), I’m hoping that — freed of state testing requirements and other barriers to having fun — we’ll all get to enjoy the excitement of science without the angst.

Lots of good stuff to read through.

* I’ll put in yet another plug for one of our favorite science books, How to Think Like a Scientist: Answering Questions by the Scientific Method by Stephen P. Kramer with illustrations by Felicia (“If You Give a Mouse a Cookie”) Bond

Science with Tom Edison

John Holt, on helping a very young boy learn the names of different words, from How Children Learn:

I was careful, when I told him the name of something, not to tell him as if it were a lesson, something he had to remember. Nor did I test him by saying, “What’s this? What’s that?” This kind of checking up is not necessary, and it puts a child in a spot where he will feel that, if he says the wrong thing, he has done wrong and is in the wrong. I have seen kindly, well-meaning parents do this to young children, hoping to help them learn. Almost every time the child soon took on the kind of tense, tricky expression we see on so many children’s faces in school, and began the same sad old business of bluffing, guessing, and playing for hints. Even in the rare case when a child does not react this defensively to questions, too much quizzing is likely to make him begin to think that learning does not mean figuring out how things work, but getting and giving answers that please grownups.

* * * *

A bit of a confession here from the would-be well-trained Farm School.

Literature-based studies work very well for us, especially for English (what newfangled types call “language arts”), and history. But literature-based science studies have been a bust. First, following The Well-Trained Mind‘s suggestions, with one discipline a year, life science or earth science/astronomy or chemistry or physics, and heavy on the narrating (with written “Narration Pages”) and notebooking (with written “Experiment Pages”). Then, in an effort to make things easier for myself, with more formal programs (Great Science Adventures, Living Learning Books), with fiddly little make-your-own booklets and worksheets. After a while, it occurred to me that while teaching science was more pleasurable for me this way, it wasn’t an interesting or effective way for my kids to learn. In fact, this rather bloodless approach was sucking the fun and fascination out of what would otherwise be very fun and fascinating subjects and ideas. They’re good books and curriculum, just not right for my kids, right now.

After a year or so of mulling the subject, a year in which we unschooled science and the kids learned a good deal (not to difficult to do in the country on the farm when dinnertime conversation tends to revolve around plant and animal genetics anyway) and in which I carefully studied Rebecca Rupp’s Complete Home Learning Sourcebook and read all sorts of things, including Natalie Angier’s new The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science, I realized that young Tom Edison didn’t have programs, curriculum, or lesson plans. No sirree. He just burned down barns and boxcars with his experiments and exasperated his teacher before being sent home to his mother for his education.

I knew we’d have to move away from a well-laid out, book-heavy program for my own sake — ever so much easier to plan and co-ordinate — to a more hands-on method for the sake of my kids (ages 10, eight-and-a-half, and almost seven) — not quite so easy to plan and co-ordinate — to keep them excited about and interested in science, before it turns into incomprehensible drudgery. And dare I say it and sound like an unschooler, but often the kids’ best lessons, and when they learn the most, is when things aren’t Planned – And – Co-ordinated. Of course not. That would be too easy.

This coming year, after much thought and reading, we’re trying something new — heavy on the experiments and experimenting, light on lab reports, narration, and even reading, especially when it comes to biographies and “the history of science” stuff, which I adore but which the kids regard as frilly extras. I figure there’s plenty of time for that later. What there’s little time for now, though, is hooking the kids on the magic and fun of science. And instead of spending the entire year on one facet of science — chemistry or physics or biology, etc. — which the kids with their many interests lose patience with quickly, we’re going to do both chemistry and physics, with the usual natural history thrown in, too; if we were following the WTM framework, we’d be starting our second, more in-depth study of biology, which just might send everyone here around the bend. As far as I was concerned, that wasn’t even an option, though I was sorely tempted by Noeo Science for chemistry and/or physics, but in the end realized I didn’t want us to be constrained by someone else’s lesson plans, though I have found some wonderful book suggestions on Noeo’s reading list (including, from Physics I, Rubber-Band Banjos and Java Jive Bass, How Do You Lift a Lion? which I mentioned the other day; Fizz, Bubble & Flash; and and from Physics II, Gizmos and Gadgets: Creating Science Contraptions That Work (& Knowing Why)).

So here is the non-plan for science this year:

Chemistry:
I’m going to take a page from Tom Edison and let the kids become boy and girl wizards. Messy, our-flasks-and-test-tubes-bubble-over experiments galore, no lab notes, and minimal books, mostly for experiments:

the old and dangerous Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments (which I wrote about here several months ago). Lynx at One-Sixteenth is using The Golden Book too, so we’ll be able to compare bangs and booms shortly.

Our old out-of-print How and Why Wonder Book of Chemistry by Martin L. Keen

Two older Dover books already on the shelf: Entertaining Science Experiments With Everyday Objects by Martin Gardner and Chemical Magic by Leonard A. Ford and E. Winston Grundmeier

Mr. Wizard’s World six-DVD set; though I think I’ll ask Tom to help the day we electrocute the hot dog.

There are so many good experiment books available, new and out-of-print, including a number by Mr. Wizard, aka Don Herbert, and even a dandy Thomas Edison one); I decided to go with what we already have on the shelf.

Physics:
I ordered the K’NEX Simple Machines Set, and I plan to keep it in the living room and let the kids loose with it, with minimal assistance and guidance from me. Mechanically-minded Daniel will have a field day,

On the bookshelf, just in case:

Physics in a Hardware Store and Physics in a Housewares Store, both by Robert Friedhoffer and both out of print but which I found easily and cheaply secondhand; recommended in Rebecca Rupp’s Complete Home Learning Sourcebook. I can’t think of a better way to involve Tom’s carpentry experience and the kids’ love of tools with basic physics principles. And while we’re in the kitchen with the housewares, we can make use of kitchen scientist Harold McGee’s Curious Cook website — “exploring the science of food and its transformations”.

And on the reference shelf, if the kids want more information, though I will try not to push it, because I know that while I prefer to read about science, my kids prefer to live it:

How to Think Like a Scientist by Stephen P. Kramer and illustrated by Felicia Bond

David Macaulay’s The Way Things Work, and the related DVD series which I found in the library system; 26 discs, 13 minutes each.

* * *

I’ll wait to see how this year goes before planning any more science. If the approach works this year with the kids, I have my eye on a couple of books following the same approach for the high school years, Hands-On Physics Activities with Real-Life Applications: Easy-to-Use Labs and Demonstrations for Grades 8-12 by Cunningham and Herr, and Hands-On Chemistry Activities with Real-Life Applications: Easy-to-Use Labs and Demonstrations for Grades 8-12 by Herr and Cunningham. I think the latter would be well paired with the Thames & Kosmos Chem C3000, which looks like one of the better chemistry sets available in these toothless times.

Just a bit more from John Holt on How Children Learn:

There is a special sense in which it may be fair to say that the child scientist is a less efficient thinker than the adult scientist. He is not as good at cutting out unnecessary and useless information, at simplifying the problem, at figuring out how to ask questions whose answers will give him the most information. Thus, a trained adult thinker, seeing a cello for the first time, would probably do in a few seconds what it takes a child much longer to do — bow each of the strings, to see what sounds they give, and then see what effect holding down a string with the left hand has on the sound made by that string. That is, if — and it is a very big if — he could bring himself to touch the cello at all. Where the young child, at least until his thinking has been spoiled by adults, has a great advantage is in situations — and many, even most real life situations are like this — w here there is so much seemingly senseless data that it is impossible to tell what questions to ask. He is much better at taking in this kind of data; he is better able to tolerate its confusion; and he is much better at picking out the patterns, hearing the faint signal amid all the noise. Above all, he is much less likely than adults to make hard and fast conclusions on the basis of too little data, or having made such conclusions, to refuse to consider any new data that does not support them. And these are the vital skills of thought which, in our hurry to get him thinking the way we do, we may very well stunt or destroy in the process of educating him.

(L at Schola has been reading John Holt too.)

* * *

Other recent Farm School science mutterings, natterings, and ramblings:

More food for thought: connections and disconnections

Science summer school

In search of freedom and independence, and big bangs

The beautiful basics of science

Science summer school

Herewith some choice bits from science writer Natalie Angier’s latest title, The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science, in the hopes that, especially if you’re the parent of school-age children, educated at home or elsewhere, you might consider adding this to your library list or bookshelf, possibly the latter for a handy one-volume (under 300 pages) reference.

Ms. Angier’s writing style is often too breezy for me (verging on blowzy at times), but the book is a useful scientific tutorial, particularly valuable for those of us who tend to feel more comfortable in the humanities than the sciences. I especially appreciated all of the interviews and quotes from scientists in a variety of fields, all of whom come across as human and deeply interested in sharing their not particularly difficult or esoteric but fascinating passions. Unfortunately, the book has no footnotes but does have a reference section at the back, compiled by chapter, citing books as well as articles and web sites. I’ve added some other articles and book titles I’ve found, linking to the various scientists mentioned in the quotes below (the links are all mine and not Angier’s).

From Angier’s introduction, on why she wrote the book and why one should want to study science — forget about promoting “greater scientific awareness” for the abstract greater good:

There’s a reason why science museums are fun, and why kids like science. Science is fun. Not just gee-whizbang “watch me dip this rose into liquid nitrogen and then shatter it on the floor” fun, although it’s that, too. It’s fun the way rich ideas are fun, the way seeing beneath the skin of something is fun. Understanding how things work feels good. Look no further — there’s your should.

Angier talked to Peter Galison*, a professor of the history of physics at Harvard, who

marvels cheekily at the thoroughness with which the public image of science has been drained of all joy. “We had to work really hard to accomplish this spectacular feat, because I’ve never met a little kid who didn’t think science was really fun and really interesting,” he said. “But after years of writing tedious textbooks with terrible graphics, and of presenting science as a code you can’t crack, of divoring science from ordinary human processes that use it daily, guess what: We did it. We persuaded a large number of people that what they once thought was fascinating, fun, the most natural thing in the world, is alien to their existence.”

Still explaining the reasons behind the book, Angier writes,

It’s not that I wanted to take dumbing-down to new heights. In peppering sources with the most pre-basic of questions and tapping away at the Plexiglas shield of “everybody knows” until I was about as welcome as a yellow jacket at a nudist colony, I had several truly honorable aims. For one thing, I wanted to understand the material myself, in the sort of visceral way that allows one to feel comfortable explaining it to somebody else. For another, I believe that first-pass presumptions and nonexplanatory explanations are a big reason why people shy away from science. If even the Schlemiel’s Guide to the atom begins with a boilerplate trot through concepts that are pitched as elementary and self-evident but that don’t, when you think about them, really mean anything, what hope is there for mastering the text in cartoon balloon number two?Moreover, in choosing to ask many little questions about a few big items, I was adopting a philosophy that lately has won fans among science educators — that the best way to teach science to nonscientists is to go for depth over breadth.

From Angier’s first chapter, “Thinking Scientifically”**:

Even more than the testimonials to the fun of science, I heard the earnest affidavit that science is not a body of facts, it is a way of thinking. I heard these lines so often they began to take on a bodily existence of their own.”Many teachers who don’t have a deep appreciation of science present it as a set of facts,” said David Stevenson, a planetary scientist at Caltech. “What’s often missing is the idea of critical thinking, how you assess which ideas are reasonable and which are not.”

What’s also missing is the fun:

“When I look back on the science I had in high school, I remember it being taught as a body of facts and laws you had to memorize,” said Neil Shubin, a paleontologist at the University of Chicago. “The Krebs cycle, Linnaean classifications. Not only does this approach whip the joy of doing science right out of most people, but it gives everyone a distorted view of what science is. Science is not a rigid body of facts. It is a dynamic process of discovery. It is as alive as life itself.”” …

But when you treat it as if it’s not alive,

When science is offered as a body of facts, science becomes a glassy-eyed glossary. You skim through a textbook or an educational Web site, and words in boldface leap out at you. You’re tempted to ignore everything but the highlighted hand wavers. You think, if I learn these terms, maybe I won’t flunk chemistry. Yet if you follow such a strategy, chances are excellent that you will flunk chemistry in the ways that matter — not on the report card in the backpack, but on the ratings card in your brain.

Some ideas on why so many just aren’t comfortable with science or scientific principles any more:

A number of scientists proposed that people may have been more comfortable with the nuts and bolts of science back when they were comfortable with nuts and bolts. “It was easier to introduce students and the lay public to science when people fixed their own cars or had their hand sin machinery of various kinds,” said David Botstein of Princeton. “In the immediate period after World War II, everybody who’d been through basic training knew how a differential gear worked because they had taken one apart.”Farmers, too, were natural scientists. They understood the nuances of seasons, climate, plant growth, the do-si-do between parasite and host [and this is much more true of present-day farmers who farm in more traditional, less conventional methods without synthetic chemicals that kill the parasite and injure the host]. The scientific curiosity that entitled our nation’s Founding Fathers to membership in Club Renaissance, Anyone? had agrarian roots. …

“The average adult American today knows less about biology than the average ten-year-old living in the Amazon, or than the average American of two hundred years ago,” said Andrew Knoll, a professor of natural history at Harvard’s Earth and Planetary Sciences Department. “Through the fruits of science, ironically enough, we’ve managed to insulate people from the need to know about science and nature.”

Angier on “plain-truth poems of science”:

To say that there is an objective reality, and that it exists and can be understood, is one of those plain-truth poems of science that is nearly bottomless in its beauty. It is easy to forget that there is an objective, concrete universe, an outerverse measured in light years, a microverse trading in angstroms, the currency of atoms; we’ve succeeded so well in shaping daily reality to reflect the very narrow parameters and needs of Homo sapiens. We the subjects become we the objects, and we forget that the moon shows up each night for the graveyard shift, and we often haven’t a clue as to where we might find it in the sky. We are made of stardust; why not take a few moments to look up a the family album? “Most of the times, when people walk outside at night and see the stars, it’s a big, pretty background, and it’s not quite real,” said the Caltech planetary scientist Michael Brown [which link led me to this, which definitely gives me pause]. “It doesn’t occur to them that the patter they see in the sky repeats itself once a year, or to appreciate why that’s true.”

One of Angier’s best concrete tips for parents of young children, which she did mention in her CBC radio interview the other month:

Another fail-safe way to change the way you see the world is to invest in a microscope. Not one of those toy microscopes sold in most Science ‘n’ Discovery chain stores, which, as Tom Eisner, a professor of chemical ecology at Cornell, has observed, are unwrapped on Christmas morning and in the closet before Boxing Day. Not the microscopes that magnify specimens up to hundreds of times and make everything look like a satellite image of an Iowa cornfield. Rather, you should buy a dissecting microscope, also known as a stereo microscope. Admittedly, such microscopes are not cheap, running a couple of hundred dollars or so. Yet this is a modest price to pay for revelation, revolution, and — let’s push this envelope out of the box while we’re at it — personal salvation. …”Yes, the world is out there, over your head and under your nose, and it is real and it is knowable. To understand something about why a thing is as it is in no detracts from its beauty and grandeur, nor does it reduce the observed to “just a bunch of” — chemicals, molecules, equations, specimens for a microscope. Scientists get annoyed at the hackneyed notion that their pursuit of knowledge diminishes the mystery or art or “holiness” of life. … A rose is a rose is a rose; but the examined rose is a sonnet.

I’ll leave the rest for you to discover, from the individual chapters explaining the various sciences (physics, chemistry, biology — a chapter each on molecular and evolutionary — astronomy, geology, statistics, and calibration), except for this tidbit from the chapter on physics, which caught my eye as I plan the kids’ rejiggered science program for the fall:

As the science of starter parts and forces, physics can also be defended as the ideal starter science. Yet standard American pedagogy has long ruled otherwise. In most high schools, students begin with biology in tenth grade, follow it with chemistry, and cap it off in their senior year with physics, a trajectory determined by the traditional belief that young minds must be ushered gently from the “easiest” to the “hardest” science. More recently, though, many scientists have been campaigning for a flip in the educational sequence, teaching physics first, the life sciences last. Leading the charge for change is Leon Lederman, a Nobel laureate in physics and professor emeritus at the University of Illinois… .Lederman and others argue that physics is the foundation on which chemistry and biology are built, and that it makes no sense to start slapping the walls together and hammering on the roof before you’ve poured the concrete base. They also insist that, taught right, physics is no “harder” than any other subject worth knowing. Some schools have adopted the recommended course correction, and others are sure to follow.

Another modest price to pay for revelation is the cost of The Canon, under $25 at most booksellers in North America, so you can read the rest in the comfort of your own home. Two opposable thumbs up.

* In the linked interview, Dr. Galison recommends the following science books for children — English physicist Russell Stannard‘s “Uncle Albert” (that would be Einstein…) trilogy, The Time and Space of Uncle Albert, Black Holes and Uncle Albert, and Uncle Albert and the Quantum Quest (which seem available only secondhand in the U.S. but can be bought new in Canada); and Peter Sis’s “sophisticated and beautiful [picture] books” on Galileo and Charles Darwin. He also recommends the following for nonscientists: The First Three Minutes by Steven Weinberg, who won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1979; QED by Richard Feynman; and The Elegant Universe by string theorist Brian Greene.

** Excellent for teaching kids to think scientifically is a book we discovered through the Noeo Science website, not surprisingly titled How to Think Like a Scientist by Stephen P. Kramer and illustrated by Felicia Bond (the “Mouse Cookie” lady, as one of my kids calls her).

Lastly, a summer science bonus, for those rainy days you’re not outside playing in puddles, via the Feynman website: physics coloring pages from Physics Central.

Poetry Friday: The Hazards of Science

From our little old copy of The Arrow Book of Funny Poems, collected by Eleanor Clymer and published in 1961 by Scholastic, this poem seems appropriate in light of my last couple of posts. I’m about 12 hours early because Tom is pouring more concrete for a job near here tomorrow, and I’m sure the kids and I’ll be pressed into service before art lessons right after lunch.

The Hazards of Science
by Anonymous

A green little chemist
On a green little day
Mixed some green little chemicals
In a green little way.
The green little grasses
Now tenderly wave
O’er the green little chemist’s
Green little grave.

In search of freedom and independence, and big bangs

For Daniel’s eighth birthday last month, his grandfather sent him the UK edition of The Dangerous Book for Boys by brothers Conn Iggulden and Hal Iggulden. The book, an oversize red-covered tome, is an appealing jumble of activities and projects (make your own battery or tree house or the greatest paper plane in the world, learn basic first aid, five knots every boy should know), as well as useful knowledge — there are chapters on grammar, some of Shakespeare’s most famous quotations, Latin phrases every boy should know, and stargazing. Rather like E.D. Hirsch’s “What Your 4th Grader Should Know”, but in one volume with matches, alum, and copper batteries.

Snitching it from my son to read, at first I wished that the like chapters were lumped together, all the Famous Battles chapters and Extraordinary Stories (about extraordinary lives) together, and the various astronomy chapters (Astronomy, Charting the Universe, The Moon, The Solar System) together too, but then I realized I was looking at the book as a home educating adult woman in her forties, when what the average seven to 12 year-old boy (or girl — and anyone who lets the title of a book stop her has other problems) probably wants is the surprise of discovering what’s next. And that means chapters on codes and ciphers (including charts for Morse code and the NATO phonetic alphabet), making crystals, the story of Scott of the Antarctic, making a go-cart, and insects and spiders, side by side, by side by side. Enough to keep one happy on “Sunday afternoons and long summer days”, as noted on the book’s back cover, as well as winter days and tucked under the covers with one’s torch, er, flashlight, reading about Joe Simpson’s harrowing 1985 mountain-climbing expedition in the Andes with his friend Simon Yates.

The Dangerous Book reminds me a bit of an old but very useful doorstop I have on the shelf, the 1931 edition of The Volume Library: A Concise Graded Repository of Practical and Cultural Knowledge Designed for Both Instruction and Reference, with sections on Education, Language & Grammar, Literature, History, Geography, Trade & Industry, The Atlas, Biographical Dictionary, Dictionary, Mathematics, Science, Hygiene, Government & Law, Fine Arts, and Useful Miscellany (which, like The Dangerous Book, includes Answers to Puzzling to Questions). More than half the fun lies in not knowing where a turn of the page will take you, and knowing that you are also certain to learn something new and fun. But dangerous only in the sense that a little learning, even about knot-making, is a dangerous thing.

Likewise, there’s little dangerous or even brand-spanking new in the Igguldens’ book for old-fashioned, or I suppose “retro” (sounds less conservative and more trendy, doesn’t it?), families, where childhood still includes a bicycle, a patch of green to run around in, with some Latin and Shakespeare thrown in for good measure. And those of us who are fortunate enough to have the fortitude or constitution to let the running around be fairly unfettered (that would be those of us whose kids have all needed stitches and whose idea — the kids’, that is — of fun is leaping off stacks of big round straw bales), Dangerous is more of a remedial summer camp (and summer school) in a book, and there’s nothing wrong with that, especially for those last children in the woods. Which is probably why the book has been so popular in the UK and now the US.

Daniel, always one of the first children in the woods, in the mud, and into his father’s tools, reports that his new book “is good and it’s fun, but it’s more of a reading book than a doing book”. His first choice for a “doing” book is still The American Boy’s Handy Book by Daniel Carter Beard (do yourself a favor and get the Centennial edition published by Godine, with the lovely foreword by the late Noel Perrin), which is on target with my thoughts last year.

So I was interested to learn that both Daniel and I are in complete agreement with Mark Frauenfelder at Boing Boing, who wrote last week in his post Dangerous books for boys (and girls and men and women): “While the book is beautifully produced and entertaining, it really doesn’t contain any risky projects that the title and nostalgic design suggest.”

To remedy that, Mark suggests a list of his favorite “dangerous” books, including a couple by his friend (and Farm School favorite) William Gurstelle; also on the list is the Manual Of Formulas: Recipes, Methods and Secret Processes, originally published by Popular Science Magazine in 1932, which I think is the volume still on my parents’ kitchen shelf; I read it often but didn’t use it much because it required so many exotic, um, ingredients. (Though Davy might find the information on how to re-ink typewriters useful.) In a similar vein is Lee’s Priceless Recipes: 3000 Secrets for the Home, Farm, Laboratory, Workship and Every Department of Human Endeavor compiled by Dr. N.T. Oliver, which I discovered in the Classic Reprint series section of the Lee Valley Tool catalogue. The 1998 facsimile edition is a handy dandy size, 4-1/2″ by 6″ (and just under an inch thick), just right for keeping in a pocket or storing in, oh, say, a tree house, and was a bargain at under $8 Canadian; not surprisingly, the new edition comes with the following warning:

This is a reprint of a book compiled in 1895. It describes what was done and what was recommended to be done in accordance with the knowledge of the day.

On the medical side, some of the proposed remedies would not only be considered inadequate today, but would also be considered potentially harmful.

ON ALL MEDICAL ADVICE, CONSULT YOUR PHYSICIAN. DO NOT TAKE THE ADVICE GIVEN HERE.

It would also be advisable to treat all corrosive, explosive, and toxic materials with greater caution than is indicated here, particularly any materials that come in contact with the body.

Not a bad idea when some of the recipes, only a few for food (ice cream, lemonade, beer, etc.), include how to make “camphorated tincture of opium” for whatever ails you, and the book has an entire section on “Fireworks and Explosives”, with instructions on how to make dynamite. Dangerous doesn’t begin to cover it.

What caught my eye in Mark’s list of books was his mention of The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments, first published in 1960 by the Western Publishing Companty, in part because the kids spent the better part of the winter enjoying Golden Book’s Complete Book of Indian Crafts and Lore by W. Ben Hunt, and in part because the book is said to have influenced the Radioactive Boy Scout. Mark writes [emphasis on the third paragraph mine],

Dangerous projects [in The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments] include: making chlorine, ammonia, hydrogen, and ethanol.

The book is long out of print, and used copies are very expensive (Amazon.com has used copies for over $100). Of course, in today’s litigious environment, no major publisher would dare republish a book that had actual chemistry experiments in it, for fear getting sued. I have long wanted to own a copy of The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments. I sort of forgot about it, but recently a friend emailed me a page he had scanned from a copy he owns. It prompted me to search for a sub-$100 copy. I got lucky and found a $0 copy, thanks to BitTorrent. Here’s a link to the torrent file for a nice scan of the 112 page book.

The book is an example of everything great about vintage children’s science books. Once you lay your eyes on it, you will come to the sad realization that our society has slipped backwards in at least three important ways: 1. The writing quality in old kids’ science books was better; 2. The design and illustration was more thoughtful and skillful; 3. Children in the old days were allowed and encouraged to experiment with mildly risky but extremely rewarding activities. Today’s children, on the other hand, are mollycoddled to the point of turning them into unhappy ignoramuses.

Which ties in nicely with a point Natalie Angier made last week in her CBC interview about her new book, The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science, which I forgot to mention in my post the other day, that the worrying drop in children’s scientific literacy is due in part to the idea kids have of science as dry and boring, brought home to them daily by dry and boring textbooks.

Unfortunately, BitTorrent doesn’t work for those of us with Macs. So try this free PDF file here, The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments; I discovered another PDF link (since disabled) in this nifty post about retro science books, which also mentions Mr. Wizard’s 400 Experiments in Science, by Don Herbert and Hy Ruchlis (the post also laments the absence of Mr. Wizard on DVD, though the kids and I discovered recently via Zip.ca that Mr. Wizard is indeed available on DVD). In some brief email correspondence, Mark at Boing Boing was kind enough to mention that The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments can be had in book form from Lulu for under $30 US, which does appeal to the Luddite in me, not to mention handier for handing to your child. And spark an idea for more chemistry for school next year, especially if I remember to take a look at the online catalogue of the homeschool-friendly Boreal Northwest lab supplies (which operates in the US as ScienceKit.com). Now if only I could get Tom to build us a small lab building, separate from the house, where the kids could make messes and things could go bump (and boom) in the night.

I’ll leave you with a bit of Noel Perrin‘s foreward to the 1983 centennial edition of American Boy’s Handy Book, on the book’s author, Dan Beard:

…of all the attempts to preserve wildness that he made in a long life (and he lived to be 90), the most successful was the book you are holding. It began as a series of articles for the old St. Nicholas magazine, designed to encourage city boys to recover their natural independence and self-sufficiency. It first became a book in 1882. For the next half-century it went through edition after edition, as innumerable fathers gave it to innumerable sons. Then as the new concept of boyhood gained strength, interest in the book faded, and now it has been hard to find for fifty years.

The book will be interesting to contemporary boys (and some girls, too, which would startle Mr. Beard) in two ways. First, like Huckleberry Finn — or William Dean Howells’ A Boy’s Town, or Thomas Bailey Aldrich’s The Story of a Bad Boy, or even like some TV programs on the “Little House on the Prairie” model — it gives a picture of a kind of childhood now quite rare. Being a manual or handy-book, it gives an unusually faithful picture. Beard describes nothing that American boys weren’t really doing a century ago — in fact, nothing that it didn’t seem to him almost any boy could (and would want to) do. It’s like being given a glimpse of your great-grandfather’s boyhood, only with none of the romantic haze the old man would cast around it, if he were alive and telling the story. Or it’s like a look behind the scenes in Mark Twain. So that’s how Huck and Jim cooked catfish; that’s how he and Tom Sawyer must have made fire-balloons.

But the book is even more interesting as an actual manual to use right now. It is possible — in fact, normal — to watch “Little House” in an entirely passive mode, with no thought of clicking off the set and going out to dig a well or catch prairie dogs. It is not possible to read The American Boy’s Handy Book without feeling a desire to try some of the things Beard talks about.

Parts of the book are, of course, outmoded. No one can go to the village glazier now and pick up free bits of surplus glass to use in making a home aquarium, or trot down the street to the blacksmith with directions for a couple of metal parts you want him to forge. …

But because nature itself has changed hardly at all over the past century, however much our attitude toward it has, and because jackknives, axes, and fishhooks remain readily available, a good half of the directions are as useful today as they were in 1882. And as fascinating.

Not to mention dangerous.

If you’ll excuse me now, I have to teach my six-year-old how to burn a hole in a leaf with a magnifying glass.

UPDATED to add: I forgot to mention one of our favorite out-of-print chemistry books, The How and Why Wonder Book of Chemistry by Martin L. Keen, illustrated by Walter Ferguson, published by Grosset & Dunlap, 1961, part of The How and Why Wonder Book series. The books are generally paperback, large format, more than 48 pages, profusely illustrated (with maps, charts, and drawings, rather than photographs), and begin with a narrative approach followed by a question-and-answer format. The Chemistry volume covers subjects from “What Is Chemistry?” and “The Ancestors of Chemistry” to “The Language of Chemistry”, “Some Interesting Elements”, “Organic Chemistry”, and “The Branches of Chemistry”. Well worth the (Canadian) quarter I spent, considering the original price was 59 cents. We’ve got quite a few How and Why Wonder Books, and I’ve been keeping my eyes open for “The How and Why Wonder Book of Beginning Science” and “The How and Why Wonder Book of Science Experiments”, among others.

Bet you didn’t know I read "Chemical & Engineering News"

Just for the articles, though.

Three of them, in fact, from tomorrow’s issue. The first is on homeschool science curricula, especially high school chemistry:

It’s Monday night at the Strouds’, and David is at the dining room table with his two daughters, Fisher, seven, and Ripley, nine. On this particular evening in February, David is performing an electrolysis experiment using a battery and a penny immersed in water. Monday night is chemistry night, and David and his wife, Annemarie, have invited C&EN to join them for the evening. Fisher and Ripley giggle as bubbles begin to form on the coin.

The Strouds are among a growing number of families in the U.S. who homeschool their children. An estimated 2 million students now are being homeschooled in the U.S., and that number is growing at a rate of 7 to 10% per year, according to the National Home Education Research Institute.

More parents are also deciding to homeschool their children beyond middle school, and as they do so, they are discovering that the availability of already prepared chemistry curricula is quite limited. The situation is especially challenging for secular homeschoolers, who say there are virtually no secular high school chemistry curricula out there for the homeschooling community.

The market is slowly responding to these trends, and several high school chemistry curricula that cater to a diverse audience of homeschoolers now are in development. In addition to helping families teach the fundmental concepts of chemistry, these curricula address an important practical question: How do you carry out lab experiments that are challenging and informative yet safe to be carried out in the home? …

Read the article for the rest, including some more on the programs under development.

Another article is on “Help For Homeschoolers: Opportunities abound for learning science outside the home“:

As awareness of the problem grows, more opportunities for learning science have become available to homeschoolers around the U.S. For example, the Maryland Science Center, in Baltimore, for the past eight years has been offering several weeks of educational programming in September specifically for homeschoolers. Students visit the planetarium, watch IMAX films, participate in discussions of various exhibits, and do hands-on experiments in subjects ranging from biochemistry to archaeology.

In upstate New York, the Cornell Center for Materials Research, in partnership with the Ithaca Sciencenter Museum, offers hands-on materials science workshops for homeschoolers. The workshops are led by Cornell faculty, postdocs, and graduate and undergraduate students. …

The American Chemical Society doesn’t offer any formal programs for homeschoolers, but it offers educational opportunities through its student affiliate groups and other programs. For example, the ACS student affiliates at Waynesburg College, in Pennsylvania, offer a laboratory program in which they do chemistry experiments with homeschoolers. And ACS member C. Marvin Lang, as part of his speaker service tour last November, provided an afternoon of chemistry demonstrations to students and parents of the Marshfield Area Home Educators Association in Marshfield, Wis.

The third article, “Former homeschool students reflect on their educational experiences“, profiles several former homeschoolers who continued on with college studies and careers in science, including Seth Anthon, who

… grew up in rural North Carolina, where the nearest public school was an hour’s drive away. So his mother, who had worked as a teacher, decided to homeschool him. When Anthony reached high school age, his mother began taking a chemistry course at North Carolina State University as a prerequisite for entering pharmacy school. His mom would bring home her assignments, and they would do the chemistry problems together. “Homeschoolers have a tendency to turn all sorts of situations into learning situations,” Anthony says.

For the chemistry labs, Anthony came up with a lot of his own experiments, many based on simple household chemistry. “When you’re doing household labs, you don’t go to the store and buy glacial acetic acid; you use the vinegar you have in your kitchen cabinet,” Anthony says, adding that through his experience he gained a greater appreciation for how chemistry fits in with the real world.

In contrast, he remembers being frustrated with the general chemistry labs when he entered college. “It was very cookbook,” he says. “Everyone was attuned to the procedural way of doing things. I was thinking in a different mind-set.
“Honestly, I can’t say I learned a whole lot about chemistry from the labs,” says Anthony, who is now a Ph.D. candidate in chemistry at Colorado State University.