Friday, February 11, 2011

Science Baby Steps: What can we learn from a sitting outside?

I want to start writing about easy science inquiries and activities parents can do with kids, but I feel that before I can do that, I have to address the ins and outs of embracing a scientific mindset. To that end, I am going to try to write a series of science baby steps to help share some of the things that I think help me as a scientist.

For the past two years I have been an NSF GK-12 fellow. Each of those years our fellowship advisor and a few of the School of Education faculty put on a Middle School Science Academy for local middle school teachers. Some of these teachers then work with the GK-12 fellows over the course of the following year after the academy.
One of the first activities for the teachers is to go outside, find a shady spot and write 50 questions about what they see. After about 15-25 questions, people start getting frustrated and that's when the magic happens, because Brad Williamson pulls a leaf off of a tree and asks them to think about it. The questions just begin to pour out of them.

A ginko leaf.

This lesson has taught me two very important things. First, good questions often result from changing the scale or scope of observation. Second, when we engage in scientific inquiry, we are brought back to that magical time in childhood when we asked questions about everything. Why is the sky blue? Why do birds sing? Why do trees grow up, instead of sideways? Everything was magical and therefore open to question, observe, touch, play with and enjoy.
When most people think of scientists they think of us as stodgy white men in lab coats carrying on about some obscure principle. After two years of watching and participating in the middle school science academy, I have come to view scientists like myself as children still caught in that magical time where we feel free to push the limits of everything.
This week the weather in the Midwest is warming up. The snow will melt. The sun will shine. It's a perfect time to shake off the doldrums of winter and step outside, find a quiet spot and reconnect with the kid inside all of us who is free to dream, imagine, and most importantly, question everything around us.
The first step in being a scientist is to let your mind explore all the things you normally pass without truly observing or interacting with them and be open to all the questions that those observations bring, even if you don't know or can't find the answers to them. Some of those questions will capture your imagination and you'll keep thinking about them. That is what thinking like a scientist is like.

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