Teaching science: I

High school lab set up for fermentation demo showing flasks, bottles and air locks.
Making ethanol in the classroom looks “sciency” but….

I am leading a new course this fall, the Nature of Science (NOS).

Much, perhaps most, of what passes for science in high school is dogma. The NGSS tried to fix this, but so long as we diminish “matter” and “energy” to a few paragraphs in September, so long as we let children believe the world is round without letting them challenge us with “obvious” evidence to the contrary, and so long as science teachers continue to “believe in” [gravity/evolution/heliocentrism/plate tectonics/etc.] high school science remains a fairy tale.

Science is, to be fair, nothing but fairy tales, but fairy tales anchored in the natural world. This is a tad problematic at times, as the border between natural and supernatural, what’s real and what’s not, gets fuzzy, especially at the quantum level.

So in September I am getting a class of bright young humans and we’re going to explore our natural world.

I may be asking you for help….

Snowdrops in a human wasteland

We live in north Jersey, not far from landfills made famous locally by made families, and nationally by The Sopranos.

Part of the landfill has been reclaimed as DeKorte Park, and while folks around here pretend that the wetlands have been reclaimed, the chemical undertones at low tide expose its damage.

(I clam. I know the fecund smell of a healthy mudflat. It’s getting there, but the hint of halocarbons under the fecundity betray the spin of those paid to fool us.)

And here amidst the human damage bloom some snowdrops, a reminder that spring is coming and that renewal is possible.

But it’s late January and the snowdrops come too early now.

Cracking wheat

Bakers love to write about their bread singing as the loaf cools. Steam whistles through the crust, the crust crackles as it shifts. It sounds poetic. It is poetic.

I was born reasonably deaf. I cannot hear my bread sing, but I do not miss what I never knew, no more than you miss the colors a honeybee sees that humans cannot.

A loaf just out of the oven is dead. The yeast have been cooked after doing the work, reason enough to pray as you slide your dough into the oven.

Wheat berries are alive. If you plant one, it will grow into a wheat plant.

If you split one open (easier said than done) you can see a tiny wheat embryo waiting to be bathed in water, to activate its enzymes, to awaken from its slumber and become a thriving, multicellular organism.

When I grind the wheat berries to make fresh flour, I can hear the cracking of the hulls. I doubt (but do not know for sure) that wheat berries are unaware of their end, but still remind myself that the grains going into the hopper are alive, and the dust we collect and call flour is not.

We know something, but not a lot, about life, but we know this much—everything alive here and now comes from countless generations of life over billions of years, life begetting life begetting life, a connected strand that once broken cannot be put back together again.

We are not so different from plants as we might believe—we share DNA, we share mitochondria, we share critical enzymes, we share a thread of life drawn from a common ancestor.

If a cooling loaf of bread sings, the cracking bodies of wheat berries reflects the cracking of bones, of life. The wheat is not aware, of course, but it is dead just the same, as unaware as I will be when I am dead.