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SEP. 11, 2013

What’s in Your Pocket?

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On the first day of Natural Science class, I like to give a quiz I call “Science Stuff You Probably Should Know By Now.” Forty typical science questions about atoms, the moon, your brain, lichens, pH, DNA, famous scientists, the color spectrum, the dinosaur extinctions, neurons, biomes, etc. Some basics. No grade. Stuff we’ve all been exposed to. I refer to the quiz as a reality check.


Frankly, the results usually aren’t great. Many poor to middling, lots of “oh, oh, I know this! No wait – Aaargh!” as they take the quiz. But there are always a couple of young Einsteins or Darwins or Hawkings in there as well.


I am always reading that science and math scores are plummeting in this country, and worse, that kids don’t like science any more. This is more than puzzling to me as I grew up in a kids’ golden age of rockets and robots. Granted, I was more into exploring the Congo with the Victorian naturalists, but nevertheless you get my point – science was cool. Chemistry sets and microscopes flew off the shelves at Christmas and comic books advertised sea-monkeys and ant farms. I collected and catalogued fossils, dissected owl pellets and recorded bird songs to see what happened when I broadcasted them in the backyard (really freaked-out males, it turned out.) And of course, it also all had to be documented in separate field notebooks. The point is, I felt like a young scientist even though I was just winging it. And, in fact, it was all real research.


I imagine when I teach, some of that nerdy sixth grader shows. I’m sure it does because I still basically experience nature the same way. A student chuckled the other day when I pulled a pocket lens out to check on a spider during a history class. “Who carries one of those!!?” And a moment later, “Can I see?” Then quietly, “I need one of those.” Perfect.


But enough about me…  One of the great joys here at OA is that we are able to get into our Natural Science where it lives – outside. All biology, from the simple “what is that?” to the coevolution of symbionts to the pesky and ever unpopular Kreb’s cycle, starts with real plants and animals outside doing pretty remarkable stuff. So, if I accomplish nothing else in my science course, it would be to know that when the semester is a distant memory, OA alums will slip a pocket lens in with their cell phone as they head out to meet each day. You never know what may cross your path on this planet. You might miss out on an ant cemetery or a parasitic wasp paralyzing its victim or dragonflies mating.


I’ve read that you can see “The world in a grain of sand and …. hold infinity in your hand.” Yeah maybe, but you’re definitely going to need a pocket lens.


Ted Wesemann