how to be cool

Recently, while visiting a friend and her 13 year old, the same age I help teach science to, he said to me, “it must be so cool to be a scientist”. His comment caught me off guard. And the reason it knocked me off stride was that is was so astute. He could not have been more correct.

Last night I watched a NOVA special on ants. The renowned myrmecologist E.O.Wilson was the featured scientist. It would not be a stretch to call Dr. Wilson one of, if not THE, most important ecologists of our time. While his primary focus is on ants, his list of publications, books and investigations, on a wide variety of social and ecological subjects, is astounding. It would be a serious understatement to describe him as a genius. I tell you that, to tell you this: E.O. Wilson is a child at heart.

OK, to be honest I have never met the man. Yet, while watching him talk about ants; their incredible social structure, absolute dominance of most terrestrial environments, and the lessons we could learn, I was enthralled by his juvenile curiosity about the world around him. And herein lies the link to the comment about how cool it is being a scientist.

The foundation of the whole experience of being a scientist rests in the joy of being a child, of discovering the world around us and examining its components. It is a celebration of not knowing and the willingness to plunge head long into trying to find out. It is about synthesizing, deconstructing, learning, screwing things up, starting over, and moving forward, at whatever speed.

There are a number of times I have wanted to say to the children I teach, “enjoy this time and let it influence you”. What holds me back is the understanding that the message is more for me and my generation. My students are doing this naturally, even if it does not include paying attention in science class.

Adults, I sense, have forgotten the pleasure and fun in simple investigation. Of finding out what the obstacles to digging to China might be, of poking a stick into an ant colony, of microwaving Peeps. We can all be scientists, and science need not even be part of the equation. All it takes is a curiosity about something. Pick up a book by a new author, try a new roast of coffee, sign up to teach middle schoolers how to play the guitar. There is plenty to learn, and plenty to teach. We all have the coolness of being in us.

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the education cycle

​Our lives are constructed of our experience and our perception of those experiences. These are not mutually exclusive concepts; they build on and feed into each other. As adults, and thus educators, we play a role in how youth appreciate experience and how they learn to perceive those experiences, whether inside the classroom or not. If that responsibility sounds oppressive, consider this: the underbelly of responsibility is vulnerability.

​A few weeks ago I worked with my Manhattan Middle School students as they made their way through their first science test of the year. From Wednesday morning to late Thursday night of that week I was one of the scientists at the University of Colorado’s Mountain Research Station helping to educate 5th graders about the methods used in scientific research. Then, on Friday, I had the opportunity to talk one-on-one with the mathematical biologist Dr. Greg Dwyer. What each of these events has in common, other than me, was a cycle of learning and teaching, an ebb and flow between mentor and mentored. There was the openness of giving and receiving. Inherent in this ecosystem was the responsibility to facilitate wonder and enthusiasm while at the same time being vulnerable to not knowing and therefore opening the doors to our own learning.

​The use of the term ecosystem is not accidental. Regardless of scale, an ecosystem functions best when processes flow unencumbered. Understanding what processes contribute, how they interact, and what might disrupt them is the focus of my research. Delineating the components of an ecosystem can be a frustratingly slow undertaking. There are the inglorious hours behind a microscope, the wading through scientific articles in search of a single piece of insight, and the looming uncertainty that in the end your statistics will prove your theory misaimed enough so as to add another year onto your education.

​And then there are those periods of time when inspiration and insight come in abundance and from unexpected players. More often than not these nuggets of academic sustenance are a matter of how we view our place in the process. How comfortable we feel within our niche and how we feel that niche is contributing to the ecosystem. There is in academia, a hierarchy. Professor, graduate student, undergraduate. So too in secondary and elementary education; teacher, student. Yet while tenure may confer respect, it does not mean the flow of information is in a single direction, just as the processes in a natural ecosystem do not flow in one direction.

​The point of all this is that we each have the chance and ability to contribute to someone’s education. And that includes our own. When you discover something share it. When you don’t know something admit it. Let those around you teach. And when you seek to teach do so with compassion.