Archive for the ‘Biology’ Category

Learning at the Edge

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A. & E. Exploring the edge of a stream

Any naturalist knows that the most interesting place to look for things is at the edges. Where a field meets a forest or a river flows into the sea or where the reef hangs over deep water – those are the areas that are especially abundant. The edges are where species from two different ecosystems mingle and hide and hunt. There are even plant and animal species that exist only in these edge habitats.

Ecologists call this the “edge effect,” but I think the same phenomenon applies anywhere that two different areas intersect. For instance, physics is interesting, but exploring the edges of physics and art, or physics and psychology, or physics and theology, can be even more interesting. How about the intersection of martial arts and mythology, or architecture and music, or history and dance?

Everything in this world is attached to something else. By exploring the edges of seemingly unrelated fields of study, new ideas are born. In fact, that’s where all the great thinkers are. Buckminster Fuller lamented that our modern educational system concentrated too much on creating specialists when what we really needed were more generalists. By this he meant people who studied a variety of things and could make valuable connections between them. These are the Renaissance thinkers or polymaths like Leonard da Vinci, Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Maria Montessori, Rabindranath Tagore, Isaac Asimov, Steve Jobs, and others who are able to see the large patterns that others may not see.

We will always need specialists in every field, because they are able to study something deeply and make new discoveries based on years of intensive research. But we need generalists too; those who have spent time and effort to learn several subjects very well, and have made something of what they learned. Simply being well-informed isn’t enough. We all tend to dabble in different subjects, but a real polymath will put in some real time and effort on several subjects (not necessarily all at once), and come up with new insights or contributions.

This is one of the wonderful things about homeschooling. Because we have the freedom to customize our curriculum, our children can study the things that most interest them, for as long as they want. For science, my daughter only wanted to study anatomy and health. Every year for six years I would ask her, “Do you want to read this book about rocks? (or electricity, or space, or whatever)” and she would say no. She only wanted more books about muscles, bones, cells, blood, viruses, etc… It could be about animals or humans, sometimes plants, but certainly nothing that hadn’t once been alive.  We read books about Florence Nightingale and medieval medicine, constructed models, did Janice VanCleave experiments, drew pictures, counted heartbeats, looked for golden ratios in the human face, listened to trees with a stethoscope, looked at nematodes with a microscope, played the Somebody game, watched documentaries about the brain, evolution, animals, etc.  When we discovered animal carcasses while hiking, she would squat down to investigate the position of the bones and look for clues as to how the animal died and who had been eating it.

It’s amazing how many different topics you can touch on with a single abiding interest. She was happy for me to find interesting things for her to read and do as long as it was related to anatomy or health. Thinking about it now, I probably could have interested her in electricity if we had researched the body’s electrical field, or space exploration if we had looked at what astronauts did to stay healthy during missions (in fact, this was her favorite exhibit at the local Air and Space Museum).

The wonderful fun thing about learning is making connections – finding out how things are related. And to see that, you must go to the edges and look.

Try this: Bring to mind two or three things that you are very interested in, and find the connections between them.

How Studying Nature is Like Appreciating Football

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Years ago, when my husband still watched football, he wanted me to enjoy watching with him. I didn’t mind as long as I was cleaning up or working on a craft project or something, because the sound of the game was enjoyable. Listening to the cheering crowds and announcers is just part of everything that is “Autumn” to me, along with changing leaves, crisp sunny days, apples, and the smell of woodsmoke. But I couldn’t focus on football games at all because all of the running, tackling, yards and penalties didn’t mean much to me. I would watch the screen, only to discover that I hadn’t really been watching, and was only daydreaming. My husband patiently explained the fundamentals and I watched the replays with some interest, but it wasn’t until he started telling me about the players that I really paid attention. It wasn’t until I felt like I knew the people wearing those uniforms that their play really became interesting. This isn’t just a male/female difference either, because obviously my husband already knew the stories about the players. He knew about the coaches, the rivalries, and the histories of his favorite teams.

Learning begins with attention, and attention begins with connection. When we make connections with people, they become more interesting. The same goes for anything really – cars, buildings, gardens, animals – you name it. That’s one of the reasons that reading a great book can launch an interest that you never had before. I was never interested in slime mold until I read The Way Life Works by Mahlon Hoagland and Bert Dodsen, but now I can hardly wait to see a slime mold.

Little kids seem capable of forming personal connections with anything. They will watch, touch, smell, and play with everything they can get their hands on. This of course is why they are such excellent learners. Turn them loose in a field and they will find all kinds of things. “Nature study” comes naturally to them. Nature girl

The problem is when kids get a little older, and maybe they have lost their genius for connections. Point them to a field and they might say,”Why? There’s nothing out there.” It may be pretty to look at or a good place to play a game, but other than that, why bother? It’s like me watching a football game. We need to know who is playing. What’s at stake? Where are the rivalries? What amazing skills and quirks are there to see? Once we’ve made those connections, interest tends to follow.

So if we want kids to get outside and appreciate nature, it really helps to have someone who is knowledgeable and enthusiastic tell us stories about the players. Every tree, spider, salamander, and stinging nettle has a story to tell. Volunteers and guides from Nature Centers can be wonderful resources. My daughter took a weekly class last year that met every Monday at a mountain lake. The guides took them on nice slow walks looking for animal tracks, identifying plants, and learning about wilderness orientation and survival. My daughter LOVED it, as did most of the other kids.

In the absence of real live guides, there are always books to captivate interest. Some of our favorites are the books by Jim Arnosky, especially his “Crinkleroot’s Guides.”

Unfortunately, I think these guides are out-of-print but you might be able to find them used or at the library. You will probably find A LOT of books at the library though about various nature topics. Just let your kids pick out whatever appeals to them.

If you would like to brush up on activities and background stories yourself before heading out on nature walks with the kids, try the classic “Handbook of Nature Study” by Anna Comstock. Hold out for an original version though – don’t get a cheap reprint. I found mine at a wonderful used book store. This delightful (and heavy) book is not necessarily meant to read to kids, but for YOU to read so you will have some understanding of what hidden stories lurk under rocks and forest pools.

I also used a neat series of books by Michael J. Caduto and Joseph Bruchac that used Native American stories to help kids find connections with plants, animals, rocks, and water.

Another great resource these days is videos. Have you ever seen “The Secret Life of Plants” or “Life in the Undergrowth?” Seriously, those movies will pull the rug out from everything you thought you knew about plants and insects. Check out what is available in your library and online.

Whatever resources you use to find the stories behind nature, be sure to get outside with your kids to make discoveries on your own. Take your time. If your kids want to race around and climb trees, that’s fine. Wait until they are tired out before settling in to really look at things. Let them do the discovering, but be prepared to look at everything they will want to show you, and perhaps answer a few questions. But don’t turn it into a science lesson. Think of it as storytelling, and getting to know our wild neighbors. Even your most jaded, non-nature loving kids will find it hard to resist a hermit crab after reading “Pagoo” by Holling C. Holling; just like I found it hard to resist watching football after hearing all about Brett Favre, Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and the rest.

It’s all about making personal connections, and feeling some empathy or kinship with whatever it is we are trying to learn.