• 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."

    "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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  • Copyright © 2005-2016 Please do not use any of my words or my personal photographs without my express permission.

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

A new dimension to science studies

Rebecca at Ipsa Dixit reports that her family has the brand-spanking new title, Einstein Adds a New Dimension (Smithsonian Books, 480 pages), the third volume in Joy Hakim‘s wonderful Story of Science series.

From a recent Edutopia article (Edutopia’s “Daring Dozen” profile of Ms. Hakim last year is here):

Journalist and textbook author Joy Hakim is still writing, adding to her textbook catalog with continued brilliance. Her latest opus is a contemporary science book for secondary school students called Einstein Adds a New Dimension, due in print this September. It’s the third in a series she has written that approaches science through its history and stories, rather than focusing exclusively on its theorems and formulas.

“This is the greatest scientific era ever,” she says, “and yet we don’t teach kids much about it. No wonder school science often seems irrelevant.” Though Hakim admits this is the toughest book she has ever written, it’s also the most exciting. Thanks to help from Edwin F. Taylor, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she’s keeping things on target when it comes to quantum theory, relativity, cosmology, and many other realms of cutting-edge science. Most of all, though, she’s achieving her real purpose: “To get readers to grapple with ideas, do critical thinking, and get an intellectual life.”

A few years ago, Time Magazine noted that Ms. Hakim “has been called the J.K. Rowling of textbooks.”

The book is jointly published by Smithsonian Books and the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA). Thanks to NSTA, you can download and read a sample chapter from the book, A Boy with Something on His Mind.

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:

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.

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

More food for thought: connections and disconnections

I’ve been cogitating for the past week or so on the things I read in Natalie Angier’s science book The Canon, partly in preparation for my regurgitation earlier today and partly in preparation for the kids’ science studies next year (informal plans for which I hope to post before too long). So everything was rolling around in my head quite nicely when my I started to read one of the books from my father’s recent parcel*, Barbara Kingsolver‘s latest, the nonfiction Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, just published in May and which I’m enjoying very much. It sounds very much of a piece with her 2002 book of essays Small Wonder, which JoVE has mentioned at least once to me in her comments here. (My request was down pretty low on the interlibrary loan list, but after opening the package, I canceled the hold and requested Small Wonder instead.)

So on page 11 of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, I discovered this passage (emphasis mine),

Many bright people are really in the dark about vegetable life. Biology teachers face kids in classrooms who may not even believe in the metamorphosis of bud to flower to fruit and seed, but rather, some continuum of pansies becoming petunias becoming chrysanthemums; that’s the only reality they witness as landscapers come to campuses and city parks and surreptitiously yank out one flower before it fades from its prime, replacing it with another. (My biology-professor brother pointed this out to me.) The same disconnection from natural processes may be at the heart of our country’s shift away from believing in evolution. In the past, principles of natural selection and change over time made sense to kids who’d watched it all unfold. Whether or not they knew the terms, farm families understood the processes well enough to imitate them: culling, selecting, and improving their herds and crops. For modern kids who intuitively believe in the spontaneous generation of fruits and vegetables in the produce section, trying to get their minds around the slow speciation of the plant kingdom may be a stretch.

What Kingsolver’s husband, Steven Hopp, a biology professor, calls “agricultural agnostics” (he and their daughter Camille are co-authors of the book, by the way). Which of course handily echoes what I had read not too long before in The Canon (one of the bits I posted earlier today):

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.

There’s a reason this place is called Farm School and there’s a reason we’re not budging.

Of course, The Canon goes off in one direction, toward science education, and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, toward another. Here’s a hint:

When we walked as a nation away from the land, our knowledge of food production fell away from us like dirt in a laundry-soap commercial. Now, it’s fair to say, the majority of us don’t want to be farmers, see farmers, pay farmers, or hear their complaints. Except as straw-chewing figures in children’s books, we don’t quite believe in them anymore. When we give it a thought, we mostly consider the food industry to be a thing rather than a person. We obligingly give 85 cents of our every food dollar to that thing, too — the processors, marketers, and transporters. And we complain about the high price of organic meats and vegetables that might send back more than three nickels per buck back to the farmers: those actual humans putting seeds in the ground, harvesting, attending livestock births, standing in the fields at dawn casting their shadows upon our sustenance. There seems to be some reason we don’t want to compensate or think about these hardworking people. In the grocery store checkout corral, we’re more likely to learn which TV stars are secretly fornicating than to inquire as to the whereabouts of the people who grew the cucumbers and melons in our carts.

Much as Michael Pollan did last year with his Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, Kingsolver urges us to rememember that we are what we eat and reconsider what we put in our mouths. Kingsolver does it by eating locally and tending her own patch of earth as lyrically as she writes.

Which reminds me of this article, on farmers who write, from last week’s New York Times (I think it’s a pesky Times Select story, so if Bug Me Not doesn’t work, email me and we’ll sort things out). To even things out, here are some free recipes from the Animal, Vegetable, Miracle website.

Now off to the farmers’ market with you!

* Also in the package — thanks, Pop — and on the go at the moment:

The Fight for English: How language pundits ate, shot, and left by David Crystal, inspired, as you can no doubt tell, by Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves

The Unfinished Canadian: The People We Are by Andrew Cohen

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.

"Wow. Oh boy" indeed.

In today’s Globe and Mail.

Canada’s alternative alternative

Just a snippet from yesterday’s Globe & Mail article on the new Canadian creation museum, in Big Valley, Alberta. It cost only a fraction of the U.S. version’s $27 million, but interestingly while its U.S. counterpart is known as the “creation museum”, the Canadian version bills itself as the “creation science museum”. Read the rest here:

The museum sits about 60 kilometres north of Drumheller’s Royal Tyrrell Museum, which houses one of the world’s largest collections of dinosaur bones, and Mr. Nibourg wants his 900-square-foot facility to serve as an “alternative view” of Earth history.

It is filled with everything from a “fossilized teddy bear” meant to show how quickly an object can appear fossilized, to a scroll that claims England’s Henry VI can be traced back to Adam and Eve, to fossils offered as proof of the Biblical flood.

If you happen to find yourself in southern Alberta this summer, do yourself a favor and head to the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology in Drumheller, a member of the Alliance of Natural History Museums of Canada. The Royal Tyrrell has a wealth of programs for children and families, including nine different summer programs — make a fossil cast, hike the Badlands, excavate at a simulated dig site, prospect for fossils, and more — and a science camp. Also, during the school year, “University, college and school students [including homeschoolers] with accompanying teachers and chaperones are admitted free when they are visiting as part of a school group”. And did I mention that the nifty gift shop is online? Where you can find the Royal Tyrrell’s own Resource-a-saurus Rex, a teacher’s guide to palaeontology for use with grades K through 12.

This way to the egress

PZ Myers has the creation museum carnival up and running. It looks like a terrific round-up of articles, which I look forward to reading the rest of the week post-4H, and I’m pleased that my little entry (the previous post) could be a part of it. Many thanks to Dr. Myers for the rounding up, and for the original idea, to John McKay, whose blog is named after Farm School’s favorite cockroach (here too).

Now back to the fairgrounds…

P.S. If the humbuggery of Ken Ham’s efforts has your interest piqued, you should enjoy this, too. But then again, Phineas T. knew he was a humbug.

I typed this all by myself with my opposable thumbs

I shouldn’t even be here posting, because we’re getting ready for the big 4H Beef Club weekend — achievement day, interclub show, and sale. (No, Laura doesn’t have to sell her heifer calf; only the steers get sold, heading straight to their doom and little wrapped packages. One reason an older friend of hers and longtime 4H member suggested a heifer over a steer.)

I’ve been reading andhearing again a fair amount this past week about the new creation museum in the U.S., since opening day is slated for Monday.

So it was a tonic to read Red Molly’s thoughts on the subject, especially in conjunction with homeschooling (HT Alasandra, and also for the reminder about the John Wayne Centennial today, for which my kids are gleeful).

Even more interesting to learn that Red Molly’s post is part of tomorrow’s, erm, creation museum carnival to be hosted by one of my favorite science bloggers, PZ Myers at Pharyngula, which, by the way, has some of the best online prehistory/evolution reading lists in a variety of categories — “for the kids”, “for the grown-up layman”, “for the more advanced/specialized reader”, etc. (scroll through the comments for more titles).

Whether or not Monday is a holiday where you are, go visit a natural history museum (scroll all the way down for related links). Of special note,

Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology, Drumheller, Alberta (which offers home school discounts)

Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Ontario

Canadian Museum of Nature, Ottawa, Ontario

American Museum of Natural History, New York City

Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago; the travelling Charles Darwin exhibit opens here on June 15, 2007 (through January 1, 2008) and has its ownwebsite

Museum of Science, Boston

Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center, Woodland Park, Colorado

Ruth Hall Museum of Paleontology, Abiquiu, New Mexico

Wyoming Dinosaur Center, Thermopolis, Wyoming

National Museums of Kenya, Nairobi, Kenya

the grandaddy of them all, the Natural History Museum, in London, England

and the great-grandaddy — the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin aka the Naturkundemuseum aka the Humboldt Museum of Natural History in Berlin, with collections — more than 20 million zoology specimens, more than 3 million palaeontology specimens, and more than one million mineralogy ones — that date back to the establishment of the Prussian Academy, in 1700, and the Bergakademie (Mining Academy) in 1770. Celebrated for its Brachiosaurus brancai, the world’s biggest mounted dinosaur skeleton. Thanks to the great grandaddy OC for the reminder.

Additional links:

The Charles Darwin Has a Posse sticker page. Because you can never underestimate the power of a well-placed sticker or bookmark. As I noted in my 2005 Posse post, “As Darwin himself said, and as you can be reminded daily from a bookmark, ‘Doing what little one can to increase the general stock of knowledge is as respectable an object of life as one can, in any likelihood, pursue’.”

Understanding Evolution website, created by the University of California Museum of Paleontology; lots of resources for educators and children

Darwin Day Celebration website, with links, events, and other items leading to a celebration of the great man’s bicentennial on February 12, 2009.

The Darwin exhibit is no longer at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC — it’s opening at the Field Museum in Chicago (see above) on June 15 — but the website remains, with a good list of resources, some for kids.

The PBS Evolution series also has a niftywebsite, with some projects and links for “Teachers and Students”

American Association for the Advancement of Science

Verlyn Klinkengborg’s New York Times column, August 2005, Grasping the Depth of Time as a First Step in Understanding Evolution

Darwin Correspondence Project, based at Cambridge University; according to the project’s website, “The main feature of the site is anonline database with the complete, searchable, texts of around 5,000 letters written by and to Charles Darwin up to the year 1865. This includes all the surviving letters from the Beagle voyage – online for the first time – and all the letters from the years around the publication of Origin of species in 1859.”

Coturnix’s book list for adults

Becoming Human website

Project Beagle website and theBeagle blog

Evolved Homeschooling blog — “A collection of evolution and science resources for the secular homeschooler”.

And finally, you can join the Friends of Charles Darwin, gratis.

The beautiful basics of science

Listening to CBC radio while working in the garden last week, I heard an interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times science reporter Natalie Angier about her new book, The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science, which sounds very worthwhile. I take most Amazon reviews with a grain of salt, but I’m intrigued by the reviewer who called Canon “a prose-poem of science”, which reminds me that the new book is also available unabridged on audio CD.

A transcript of the CBC interview isn’t online, but I found this interview from yesterday’s Boston Globe. From which:

IDEAS: What was your goal with “The Canon”?

ANGIER: In order to follow science, even in the newspapers, you have to have some confidence that you get the basic lay of the land, the geography of the scientific continent. I was trying to convey the basic ideas behind scientific thinking in a way people would understand.

IDEAS: Is there any special reason why Americans are poorly educated in science?

ANGIER: Our obsession with money plays into it. I think there is some truth to David Baltimore‘s observation that people used to making a lot of money don’t get that interested in science, science being a sort of blue-collar profession that requires a lot of hands-on work and that is probably not going to make you rich.

Project Beagle (and Science in School)

I’ve added a new button to the right for Project Beagle, which I discovered at the Beagle blog. You can read more there and at the Project Beagle website; the actual ship plans are here. As the website notes,

we aim to provide the most compelling event of Charles Darwin’s 2009 bicentenary by building a sailing replica of HMS Beagle and sailing in Darwin’s wake. The build and Beagle’s arrival in the Galapagos in 2009 will be two of the central events of the Darwin200 celebrations. The Beagle intends to fire a new generation of scientific imaginations, and to play a central role in celebrating the life and work of Charles Darwin, one of the greatest biologists ever to live.

Don’t miss the website’s Links Page, which includes a link to Science in School, a free online (and, in Europe, print) journal that

addresses science teaching both across Europe and across disciplines: highlighting the best in teaching and cutting-edge research. It covers not only biology, physics and chemistry, but also maths, earth sciences, engineering and medicine, focusing on interdisciplinary work.

The contents include teaching materials; cutting-edge science; education projects; interviews with young scientists and inspiring teachers; European education news; reviews of books and other resources; and European events for teachers.

(And in Serbo-Croatian, too.) The current issue includes articles (science in film) as well as book reviews and teaching activities (build your own spectrometer). Worth a peek in any language.