Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Curiosity, Wires, Destruction

Kids are very curious. Whose kid hasn't taken something apart? Who hasn’t heard a two-year-old ask why? Why is the sky blue? Why do fish swim? Why is that car upside-down?

I have a theory (unsupported by facts, mind you): If kids are told ‘I don’t know’ too often, they lose some of their curiosity. They start to believe that answers can’t be found, or are too much trouble, or are ineffable. If parents say instead, ‘Let’s go find out!’, kids can learn that inquiry is worthwhile, that research can answer their questions, and that the answers are interesting.

My other theory is that everyone would love science if they were only shown it the right way. I’ve sat through a lot of lectures where the teacher clearly didn’t know the answer to ‘Why should my students care?’ And you know what? Those lectures were boring. But there should always be a convincing answer. Sometimes the answer is, so you can understand something else. Sometimes it’s, because it’s cool. Occasionally, it’s directly relevant to everyday life: why alpha particles only kill you when ingested, why allergy shots work, why you shouldn't get an antibiotic for your cold, why autism has nothing to do with vaccines. But I think science should always be presented as a framework for understanding the world. It’s not that knowing exactly how cells divide is so important, but it’s the ability to reason, to make connections, that lets you explain to your grandma why everyone she knows is getting cancer. (Age.)

A lot of chemistry and biology is presented as dogma rather than as ongoing questions. (Could we force every highschool teacher to read Kuhn and Popper? Please?) Gravity is written in stone, cells look just like those jello molds from the seventh grade, genetics are Mendelian, and chemotherapy kills cancer cells. I think this discourages inquiry. Maybe a kindergartener can’t handle it, but surely a highschool student can grasp the idea that data leads to theories, which are constantly evolving, and which are a best model for what has been observed so far, and that research is always ongoing. If kids- and then adults- know WHY science is interesting and relevant, they’ll have the knowledge to tackle questions on their own, and they’ll believe in their own ability to figure stuff out.

We had a microscope growing up. Pond scum, dog hairs, onion skins, dirt, leaves: you name it, we looked at it. Since my mom is a PA, bodily-function questions were referred to Gray’s Anatomy (now online! Free! Woo-hoo!); inquiries on what happens to potato starch in the microwave* and why were met with a potato, a bowl, and a knife. We took apart washers, computers, blenders, and cars. ‘Why?’ was always answered by ‘What do you think?’.

All three of us are scientists.

*It's amazing how many scholarly articles there are on microwaving potato starch. Who knew?


  1. Anonymous11:21 AM

    If you can manage to answer every single one of a child's "why" questions with "Let's go find out!" you deserve a parenting medal. I'm just saying.

  2. Anonymous12:32 PM

    YES! YES! YES! I so agree with everything you say. State of science education is so hideous (even in and perhaps especially at university-level - since it actual scientists are teaching and should know better), that it makes me want to weep. I fear with the standards of learning that is so pervasive now that it's only getting worse. I've heard lots of people opine that children are natural experimenters (even babies throwing/dropping stuff on the floor is an experiment) and that school basically kills all that natural curiosity.

  3. Anonymous3:11 PM

    I hope when I have kids I'm the "Let's go find out" type of mother. I know it's not always possible, but I think it's a good idea.

    There was a kid I used to babysit for who used to always ask, "Do you know why the grass is green?" But he was one of those genius kids who usually already knew the answer.

  4. Anonymous10:20 AM

    I just wanted to add that I think it's better to err on the side of answering questions that may be over the heads of the kids. My first grade teacher was having a baby and apparently lots of us were asking where babies came from. After checking with parents, we had an actual truthful presentation about this. I don't remember it at all but apparently when I got home my mom asked me, "So, what did you learn about where babies come from?" And I told her that you go to the hospital and the nurse hands the baby to you. Now, clearly I didn't take absorb much of what was said. But at least I knew hospitals and nurses were involved, which is better than thinking a stork is involved or whatnot. And that it was okay to ask/get information about possibly taboo topics.

  5. I'm so glad to find your blog. It is so important to have voices of sanity out there. And there is nothing more important than a love of and respect for sciecnce.

  6. Phantom and NSLS, I admit that I have yet to test the theory. We also got a lot of 'Go look it up yourself!' or 'Go play!'. :)

    Turtlebella, I once explained to my baby sister in very small words how DNA works. Worth a try, right?

    Maya's Granny, welcome! I'm glad to share my love of science with anyone I can get hold of.


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