Wednesday, September 24, 2008


I posted this yesterday at Spynotes, but it seemed like it belonged in this space as well. -- Harriet"Mommy," AJ said at breakfast this morning, "when can I see the atom smasher?"

AJ has taken a sudden interest in particle physics. I attribute this to the opening of the CERN large hadron collider coinciding with his spotting of a book on physics by Dan Green and Simon Basher. Last night I told him that there was a particle collider in Chicago and I thought his jaw would hit the floor. Apparently, he was thinking about it all night.

I went online this morning to see if Fermilab offers tours. The good news is that they do. The bad news is that children under 10 don't seem to be permitted and most of them are for high school age and up. There are probably good reasons for this. But still, I'm pretty sure my little science geek would get something out of it. And it's hard for me not to to feel like this is part of a larger trend of science being reserved for older children and adults.

We are very excited to have a new hands-on science curriculum at AJ's school, one with lots of experiments and projects, that begins in kindergarten. It appears to be the centerpiece of the language curriculum as well -- many of the books they are reading are about science and many of AJ's spelling words have been drawn from their science readings. But the more I talk to other parents, the more I realize that this is unusual.

I don't remember doing any significant amount of science until seventh grade, at least not in school. My mom signed me up for an experiment of the month club when I was in kindergarten, which helped my mom focus my explorations. My memory of these monthly experiment kits have in turn influenced some of the things I've done with AJ since he was in preschool. Beyond them, though, there were not a lot of resources for a kid with an interest in science. I turned to writing and let the science drop.

I feel like an unlikely advocate for the expansion of science education for children. The last science class I had was a biology class I took my freshman year in college more than twenty years ago. I never had a formal physics class, although I've done some reading on my own. The physics teacher in the high school I was in when it came time for physics was notoriously awful and I decided that I'd be better off on my own than letting an idiot kill the joy of physics for me. I had planned to take it in college, but was talked out of it by my advisor who thought someone so clearly rooted in the liberal arts would never survive. And so I have many degrees in literature and music but science is a great big hole in my own education.

But why do we think science is so much harder than literature and music? Really, I think music is about the hardest thing I've ever studied in many respects. Anything really interesting and big is going to be difficult. But somehow, we see music as something that should be accessible to everyone. But science is only for the educated, the smart, the special.

A seven-year-old certainly won't get the same thing out of a tour of a particle accelerator as a college physics major. But is that any reason to exclude him from something he wants to know about it? What if the tour inspired him to learn more so he could understand it better? What if that kid decides to major in physics down the road? What if he becomes the discoverer of the elusive Higgs Boson? Or what if he just passes on his love of learning to his own kids someday?

With AJ, I take the approach of "if he's interested, let him try." If he asks questions about how particle accelerators work or how to calculate with irrational numbers, I don't know the answer. But together we find out to the best of our ability. AJ is not afraid of big, complicated answers. He's okay with not understanding them all the way for the moment. But he likes to try. And maybe someday he'll get it all the way there. In the mean time, let him see what he wants to see.

Yesterday, I went to the bookstore to buy the other two science books in the Dan Green/Simon Basher series, one on The Periodic Table, the other on Biology. AJ sat down with them at breakfast and started to read The Periodic Table, laughing at the cartoon characters and noticing, for the first time the way the elements are grouped in the table. He spread out the poster that came in the back so he could map each one-page element profile with its position on the chart. He liked how the one row all looked like clouds. "Oh! That's because they're [the noble] gases!" He followed the numbers with his fingers, memorizing the positions. The books are the perfect mix of silly cartoons and serious science. They suit him perfectly.

I put the books on the checkout counter to buy them. The cashier, about a decade older than I, picked them up and leafed through them. "Wow. Science books for kids. These look great. I wish they'd had these when my kids were small." He turned a few more pages. "I wish they'd had them when I was small. Maybe I'd be a scientist now instead."

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