Tag Archives: science

422. Little Bitty White Hunters

When he got back to his apartment, Neil dug around in his still packed boxes to find the few books he had kept as personal treasures from his childhood. The formula books had not worn well; they held little that the adult Neil McCrae could find worthwhile. But there were others that had kept their value, and he spent the next four hours accompanying the young Hunt brothers as they continued the expedition their father had had to abandon, collecting zoo animals while floating downriver on their Amazon Adventure.

That is a quote from Symphony In a Minor Key. It was the opening paragraph of Symphony 13, over in Serial.

Neil McCrae and I have a lot in common — duh — but I also kept him as a separate person. He has more patience than I do, for example. Another thing I did was give him an English class, while I was teaching science. This lets him read to kids and read their papers, and that gives me — through him — the chance to tease out what is going on in their minds.

More than any other subject, literature is about involvement and about demonstrating that involvement by writing. But please! Sixth grade papers are awful. You’ll see when you have to read some of them with Neil. I’ll be over here with my bunsen burner; call me when you are through.

I’ve done my share of teaching reading and literature, which aren’t quite the same thing. Neil encounters a ton of difficulties, and solves them, more or less. I encountered all the same problems in my first fifteen years of teaching, and the same good, bad, and ugly solutions, before science largely pushed reading out of my curriculum.

Teaching reading is tough in a school where the children have widely ranging skill levels. Teaching literature is relatively easy, if you have good literature to teach. Accepted literature is not the same as good literature. I don’t have the guts to teach Where The Red Fern Grows. If you had that piece of pornography of violence foisted on you as a child, you’ll get the pun. On the other hand, I loved teaching Fog Magic.

Truthfully, most of the children’s literature I know, I read as a teacher. There were no bookstores which featured children’s books where I grew up, and besides, most of the children’s books I read when I was a teacher hadn’t been written yet when I was a child.

Like most children who are given the choice, I read books for children, books for young adults, and books for adults, indiscriminately. I still do. Just a couple of years ago I made it half way through my childhood set of Rick Brant books before I ran out of time and steam. Any time I see a Howard Pease juvenile, I snatch it up. His popularity has waned and they are getting scarce.

So Neil looks back at his childhood (which was my childhood — Neil was born full grown on the Ides of March) and remembers the books he read. Willard Price wrote the “___ Adventure” books starting with Amazon Adventure in 1949, and continuing for an additional thirteen books, ending in 1980. I only read the first four; by the time he wrote the rest, I had outgrown them. They all followed the pattern Neil later recounts, someone young went somewhere interesting and did something exciting, without adult supervision. That isn’t much, but that is all it takes.

In some cursory research today, I ran across an interesting phenomenon. I don’t want to make too much stew out of one oyster, but the critics in the day when the “___ Adventure” books were written, said that they were full of cruelty to non-Western people and animals. That is a problem in anything written before books were sanitized in the name of political correctness. If I were a cynic, I could say that this makes the eligible to join the rest of Western literature. Fortunately, I’m not a cynic, but I did note that comments written recently by men who grew up reading the “___ Adventure” books, then became adult writers of today, praised those books. Hmmm.

The truth is, when I wrote Symphony originally, I wasn’t thinking of Amazon Adventure at all. I was thinking of Zane Grey’s Ken Ward in the Jungle, but I didn’t have a copy, and had no way to get one to cross-check my memory. Amazon Adventure was in the local library, so it was the one to be immortalized.

Today things are different. I went to the other Amazon and ordered an eBook containing all three Ken Ward stories. Kindle is my new favorite word beginning with a K. It lets me romp through my out-of-print childhood at a buck a pop, without ever leaving the chair in front of my computer.

The world has changed, and my tastes have changed as well, so I don’t have much hope, but I’m going to give Ken Ward another try.

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420. Created Equal, Not Likely

I made Neil McCrae an English teacher. This has quite a few advantages in that English teachers deal with emotions and hidden meanings. That works out well in writing about teaching.

Personally, I wouldn’t teach English for five times what they paid me. It is too hard. Any question you pose has fifty answers, and you have to read all of those awful student papers. I read my share one year when the English teacher, the History teacher, and I set up a cooperative teaching situation. Every student researched and wrote a paper on some nineteenth century scientific innovation.

In case you never thought about it, the nineteenth century is when science took over mankind. 1800 if far more different from 1900, than 1900 is from 2000. Look it up.

Our kids had to look it up. This was only ten years ago — we only did it one year — and for the first time our computer lab was fully connected to the internet. We gave them the time they needed to do the work in school, since many of our students were too poor to be connected at home. While they worked, we walked around to see that they weren’t playing the latest game or copying a student paper on their subject from half-way around the world.

When all was finished, all three teachers read the papers separately, with different criteria, and the papers got grades in all three classes. They got a grade for writing and grammar from the English teacher, a grade for how their innovation affected history from the History teacher, and a grade for scientific accuracy from me. That made for some odd moments.

On student, used to all As, bright, skillful, and cocky wrote a paper on a scientific innovation without doing any research. The paper was beautifully written, carefully printed, neatly bound, and grammatical, but she had faked it. I understand that; a good writer can fake his way out of a Federal prison, and it can become addictive.

All her scientific facts were dead wrong. The paper got an A in English, an A in History, and a D in Science, along with a half-page explanation of why, and a red circle around all her errors.

Does Middle School exist do teach you how to avoid getting caught in High School? Could be.

I taught everything my first year, and a little more science every year thereafter until I was finally down to just science. It’s surprising how many people don’t feel comfortable in science. The imposter syndrome is rampant. Personally, I loved it; it was my favorite subject from the first, and there were a lot of other teachers who were glad to let me do it.

The only other subject with more people who don’t want to teach it, is math. But even math has its advantages. “The answer to the problem is 9.72, Johnny. It doesn’t matter if you think it shouldn’t be. That’s what it is!”

Try saying that in a Civics class when you are discussing Republicans and Democrats.

PE teachers get a bad rap. I’m sure there are some lousy ones out there, but the ones in my school were excellent. Still, thirty years of playing Tate-ball (invented by our PE teacher Mr. Tate) seven hours a day can get to you. Adriana, my friend and the other PE teacher, enjoyed fifteen years of outdoor teaching, but all those early autumns and late springs in the blazing sun finally took their toll. She switched to science. There will be more on this Wednesday.

346. Science, just for fun

rat-hereTeaching should be fun for teacher and student alike. That’s my perspective, but I have to admit that I had it easy on that front because I taught science. Science is full of falling things, and flying things, and squishy things, and stinky things. If I had to teach English, or social studies, or math, I would certainly have a different view of how much fun teaching is.

Here is an example. CH4 is the formula for methane gas. Teaching chemical formulas could get a little obscure and uninteresting if you let it, but there are always “interesting facts” that you can throw in to help keep things rolling. For instance, methane is what comes out of the gas pipes that you cook with if you live in a city. It’s also what comes out of cows and ends up in the news as a bovine generated greenhouse gas. If you leave a stove on without lighting it, you smell it, but methane is odorless. How does this happen? The gas company puts a chemical in with the methane that stinks when fresh, but burns up without stinking if a fire is lit.

This is the point when some wiseacre will say, “If methane is odorless, why do farts stink?”

And you can answer with a straight face, “Well, if you consider where they come from, and what the gasses have to push their way through, and the little particles they are carrying with them . . .”

If you can’t make science fun, you probably shouldn’t be teaching it.

One of the things that come up in middle school science is the conservation of matter. Matter is neither created nor destroyed, except in nuclear reactions; it just changes form. Methane gas combines with oxygen to create carbon dioxide and water. You know the equation, and you’ve probably had to balance it. My students had to do it, too. You have to do the work if you are going to learn.

But there is nothing wrong with spicing things up occasionally with an illustrative story. Even Jesus used parables.

Consider the story of Billy, who never believed what he was told.

I would begin this story with a drawing on the board like the one at the top of this post, except that there would be a cartoon of a dead rat, on its back, where the word “rat” is.

The story begins — When Billy came into science class one day, his teacher had put a dead rat on a scale and covered it with a bell jar. The scale read 7262.5 grams, the weight of the bell jar plus the rat. Billy’s teacher said, “This is part of a two week long experiment. Don’t touch the setup.” Then he taught something else.

The next day, things didn’t change. After the third day, the rat had started to swell up. (I didn’t take two weeks for this. The whole story took about fifteen minutes. At this point I erased and redrew the rat with a distended belly.)

By Friday, the rat was huge, and it was all Billy could do to keep from lifting the bell jar and poking it. But he didn’t. Even though the rat was huge, the scale still said 7262.5 grams.

Over the weekend, the rat blew up. When Billy came in on Monday, there was nothing left but a skeleton wrapped in a busted skin, with a few oozing guts. The air around the rat was kind of brown and the scale still said 7262.5 grams

(At this point I had redrawn the rat to match the description. This was also the point when I elicited from my students just what was happening and why the scale still read the same.)

Billy just didn’t get it. He couldn’t understand why the scale stayed the same when the rat was reduced to almost nothing. His teacher had explained that the rat’s mass had been converted to gasses which were trapped in the bell jar. Since the gasses could not escape, the scale had no reason to change.

Billy didn’t believe it. It had to be a trick. While his teacher was across the room, helping one of his fellow students, Billy slipped up to the teacher’s desk, took hold of the bell jar, tipped it back . . .

There was a pop and a hiss as the bell jar came unstuck. The scale dropped to 6571.3 grams. The students in the room screamed, leaped up holding their noses and yelling at Billy, and ran for the back of the room . . .

You get the point. They got the point. And we had a lot of fun besides.

315. Apprentice in Science

fleming-schola-rs-1966For eight weeks in 1965, I was a Fleming Fellow (see yesterday’s post).

The gist of the program was that a Fellow was assigned to a research scientist as something like an apprentice. My personal research had been a hybrid of ecology and space science (see Tuesday’s post) Nothing like that was available in a medical research facility; instead, I was assigned to Dr. Gunnar Sevelius who was doing research on determining renal flow through use of radioisotopes. He had just finished editing Radioisotopes and Circulation the preceding year.

Dr. Sevelius gave me a small lab room and access to a supply of radioactive iodine, along with sensors for radioactivity and a strip chart recorder. He sat me down to talk about his work and tell me what he expected from me. He treated me as if I could figure things out for myself – which I could. I didn’t see him often after that, although I hung out with his young lab assistants.

I don’t need to give a lot of detail here. It has all been superseded.

Everything sophisticated in science was crude when it was being developed. Any kid in a high school metal shop today could reproduce one of Goddard’s original rockets — but only because Goddard taught them how. Any trained technician can slide you into a machine and look at images of the inside of your head — but only because to the work done by people like Dr. Sevelius. Everything at OMRF was cutting edge for 1965, and probably none of those machines are even stored in dusty basements any more. Science moves on, and quickly.

Computers? Video monitors? Forget it. A strip chart recorder had a moving roll of paper, a moving head with roll of typewriter ribbon and a striker that made a dash on the paper every time the sensor detected radioactivity. An image of a pair of kidneys looked something like this:

renal

You can see a strip chart recorder at the top of this post. That’s me in 1965, with a haircut that was already going out of fashion.

I learned a lot that summer, not least that I would never again spend eight weeks in a windowless room doing repetitive research. I love the results of science, but the doing of it can be damned boring. I also got to test myself against other smart kids, and be satisfied with the result. Every other Fleming fellow had done more sophisticated work than I had, but they were the products of sophisticated high school science programs, or the children of scientists.

There were lectures and activities for us. I met a scientist who had done research on the reaction of elephants to LSD — two years before I chose to avoid it when it became mind candy.

I learned about Michigan State, and was encouraged to apply there. I got a tour of the basement where research was being done using a sensory deprivation tank. Fifteen years later that became the basis for my second published novel.

I learned about the infamous Dr. Sexauer. From a former fellow, I got the names of two of my former incarnations, in a late night seance. Tidac and Javernan became characters in my three fantasy novels. I wrote about that incident, and it led to an odd occurrence. The OMRF was trying to find all its Fleming Fellows to prepare for the 60th anniversary of the program. I had mentioned the name of the girl who seemed to be running the ouija board. The OMRF had googled her name, found my post, and connected with me. It was good to hear from them again.

When I returned to my tiny high school that fall, I had touched the larger world and I would never turn back.