I recently had the opportunity to teach a science course to 6th and 7th graders at my daughter’s elementary school. I called the class “Science is Serious Fun 2”, and while we covered some serious subjects in science, my goal was to make science fun. I worry that the teaching of science in our public schools is taught as vocabulary and as concepts (pretty dry stuff ) and does nothing to stimulate curiosity and teach the joy of learning and discovery . I challenged myself to use what I knew about communicating and tried to engage the student’s imagination. It was an experience that was both immensely rewarding and humbling.
Day 1: Bioluminescence
As you know if you’ve read this blog, I work with bioluminescent proteins. Bioluminescent proteins are fun. Animals are fun. I was sure the kids would enjoy hearing about the creatures in the deep ocean that use light to interact. First question: How many ways can you think of that creatures might use light in the deep ocean? I helped them out a little here—to find prey, to find mates, to distract predators, to communicate. Most deep sea animals emit blue light because it travels farthest in seawater and their eyes are incapable of seeing red light. Wouldn’t it be neat (a word common in my youth) if some predators were able to use red light to stealthily illuminate their quarry? In fact there are predators in the deep ocean that can emit red light and thus sneak up on their prey.
I relayed to the students that my daughter has a bearded dragon lizard that does not see red light, so we use a red light at night to keep it warm. The seemingly harmless observation that some animals don't see red light provided the first opportunity to get myself in real trouble. A girl in my class asked, “Can my dog see red light?” Hmm... good place to ask if the students can suggest an experiment to test whether dogs can see red light...right? “How would you test if your dog can see red light,” I asked innocently. The reply: “I could shine a laser into its eyes and see if it blinks.” Okaaay...so now I’m responsible for blinding the family dog. “No! Let’s not do that! My turtles are not nearly as smart as your dog,” I replied, “yet they swim to the side of their tank when I turn the lights on to feed them. Maybe your dog can be trained to recognize that it is going to be fed when a light is turned on, and maybe we could test if the dog responds both to a white light and to a red light?” PLEASE.
All right. Time to get to safer ground. I brought 30 tubes of a bioluminescent reaction (a few hundred microliters of Gaussia luciferase and a 1 milliliter syringe filled with the luciferin coelenterazine dissolved in a small volume of ethanol). Each child would make a pretty blue light. As expected, the students were excited and having fun. The kids were instructed to drop their reaction tubes into the trash when they left the room. Wow! I’m good at this teaching stuff! The saying ‘Pride goeth before the fall’ comes to mind here as I think back to that class.
Day2: Code Day. We learn about binary and genetic codes
As the children filed into class on the second day, one of the girls remarked that “the light tubes tasted horrible.” Say what!? In my wildest imaginings I did not envision that anyone would taste the mixture. Fortunately, except for the very small amount of alcohol (about 100 microliters or 5 drops), nothing in the mixture would hurt the students.
While the students had fun on the first day, I felt I needed to make a better connection. I employed every technique I learned over the years from my efforts to fund my start-up company. In the early years raising money is difficult-- as any entrepreneur who depends on raising money in order for the company to survive will tell you—especially when your idea is a concept: A cartoon on a poster or Power Point slide.
The students at this school reluctantly wear uniforms. They're allowed to wear white, tan, maroon, and blue color combinations. I wore tan slacks and a light blue shirt out of respect for the students and to show them that I recognize and care about them.
I started the class by telling them that I was giving them my time, the gift of my years of experience and my energy. In return, I expected their best efforts, attention, and energy. This “contract” with the students will become valuable, as we’ll see, going forward. This principle is called reciprocity: I give you something, and in return, I expect something from you.
Next, I reveal that I am going to tell them things that very few people know, that the information I am going to tell them is rare, and that I am going to share some of my secrets. This is based on a fundamental principle in economics: Scarcity breeds competition. We value diamonds highly because we think they are rare (some will tell you they are not particularly rare).
Finally, I promised to be open, honest and respectful to them. I was there for them. They could ask me whatever they wanted. I looked into their eyes when I said it. I meant this. I got their attention.
I shared with them a story about when I was their age, and my teacher caught me passing a note, confiscated the note, and read it out loud to the entire class—much to my considerable embarrassment. “What did the note say?” asked one of the girls on cue. I replied that I don’t remember all the details, but I do remember that the note revealed my interest in one of the girls in my class. Sooo...if you don’t want others to know your communications, you better pay attention to the codes I’m going to teach you. Now, I realized that this probably would create a flurry of note passing in classrooms. Honestly, if they learned the concepts of the codes I was teaching them, I felt that the price was fair. This played into my distrust of rules and authority (see previous blog on scientist’s mistrust of authority). I can tell you that the next day a teacher told me that they had caught a student passing a note...in code. Score!
Day 3: Mysteries of the Universe: Black holes, pulsars, super nova, Dark Energy, Dark Matter. Also, we touch agar plates to grow bacteria off our hands for Day 5
This was a great day. We talked about how scientists measure distance in the galaxies and how they estimate the age of the universe. The kids were entranced and asked lots of questions. I made the mistake of thinking (again!) that maybe I was good at this. See Day 4.
I did field an expected question from a very bright student. It was the best question I was asked, one that every teacher needs to be able to answer. It started with a whine: “Why do you ask such hard questions?” My answer was that the hard questions are the interesting ones. That scientists sometimes ask questions that they work on their entire lives. Sometimes they find the answers to their hard questions...often they do not. That the answers to hard questions change over time. As we get older and understand more, we realize that the answers we thought true didn't contain the whole truth--that there are layers of understanding, deeper answers. Okay, here it comes...
“Why should I even care about what you’re telling us?” she asked. I paced the front of the room, back and forth, in short arcs. “Have you ever seen that caged lion in the zoo?” I asked. “His world is very small. Imagine how much happier he is on the African Savannah, where his world is as far as he can see and as far as he can roam. Science makes our world bigger. We realize that the world around is bigger and more complex. That the world is bigger and smaller than what our senses tell us. That there is a universe that is so big we can scarcely comprehend it. That there exists a world so small we don’t even see it without special tools but is part of who we are. That everything is connected.” I started Classes 4 and 5 with the question, “What kind of lion are you, today?”
Day 4: Are you smarter than a cave man? Measuring time, distance, navigating.
I thought this would be a good day. Not so. The idea “Are you smarter that a cave man?” is based on a game I play with my kids. The premise is, “How did someone come up with the idea of a second? What could they use in their environment to measure time? Distance? How could the ancient mariners navigate using the stars?”
A few of the students were interested. Unfortunately, I couldn’t hear their questions-- and they had trouble hearing my answers--because of all the side conversations. I lost control of the classroom. All the bad Karma from talking (considerable) during my school days had come to roost. They were probably discussing ways to improve their codes, some of which the girls told me had been cracked in short order by pesky boys.
Day 5: We are what we eat? Salmonella, E. coli, and flesh eating bacteria-we’ll look at the plates we touched on the 3rd day and describe what we see on the plates.
This is my day of redemption. When the students entered the classroom, I sat quietly up front. When they all entered, I told them I had a confession. I failed yesterday. I failed to connect with them. I failed to provide them with a classroom where they could learn, because they could not hear me and I could not hear them. I told them I went through what many of them probably felt when they failed. I was angry. I was frustrated. That I wanted to walk away from the situation rather than engage with them. But I realized that this was part of my responsibility as a teacher to confront my failure in a way that I would want them to deal with their failures. And I told them that they had failed me, too. I reminded them of our contract, their promise to give me their attention, their energy, their commitment to learn. I told them I tell my girls that no failure is really a failure if we learn from it. I told them I would do a better job and learn from the failures of yesterday. And I told them I expected them to honor their contract. You could have heard a pin drop.
I then walked to the front of the classroom, showed them my agar plate with microbes from my fingertips, and showed them the contrast with one of theirs.
Don’t ever leave a school classroom without a heavy dose of hand sanitizer. One creative girl had imprinted an additional plate with her foot. As expected, there were smelly, pink, yellow, white, smooth, and crusty colonies on their plates. The kids were both fascinated and disgusted. And at the end of class I stood by the door and collected every single plate in a biohazard bag.
On the way out of the school I told the principal, who vetted my experience, that I believed I had created a class of germaphobes. I’m told they went through two bottles of hand sanitizer in the classroom that day and long lines of kids in the restroom waiting to wash their hands.
Maybe I am good at this.