Friday, August 10, 2007

Talking To Kids About Science

I gave a talk on the interpretation of bones to the Summer Reading Session at the Lassen County Library last week and there was a nice little blurb in the Lassen County Times (for a change!). The audience was made up of about 20-30 kindergarteners through fourth graders. I had been asked to give a discussion on dinosaurs, which is not my forte; however I fortunately have a collection of fossils (including vertebrate fossils), shells, belemnoids, gastroliths, and a few other things. I think the highlight might have been the fossilized Carcharadon tooth (white shark) that all the kids thought must have come from the biggest shark in the world….until I showed them the Megalodon (extinct cousin of the white shark) tooth that was easily five times the size!

Before pulling out the fossils, however, we looked at bones of modern animals and talked about the kinds of things you can tell from bone: the species, how it might defend itself, sometimes the sex of the animal…but most importantly we talked about diet. One thing I’ve noticed about kids this age: they’re pretty smart, and most can use their reasoning skills to put two and two together. So, it became clear fairly quickly that the type of teeth an animal has is a really good indication of its diet. This is a point these early grade schoolers get but one that seems to be lost on Ken Ham and the Answers In Genesis crowd. I made it a point to talk to these kids and let them use their own reasoning to solve a problem based on an understanding of the natural world around us. Creationists like Ham won’t allow their children to reason, ask questions or explore alternative explanations – the only answers they accept are the ones they’ve contrived from biblical sources and the only science they’ll accept is that which gives them the answers they expect. (And if they get any political power, they won’t allow our children to reason and ask questions either!).

It is extremely important that those of us in science fields get out to talk to kids as often as we can. First, to insure that they understand what science and reasoning is all about, but secondly, so that they will know they’re not alone when other adults in their lives start to close the cultural blinders on their curiosity. You never, ever know the full extent to which you’ve influenced a child, even if they seem to appear bored while you’re talking about zebra teeth. I know from experience that it’s the little things that make a difference.

It’s also quite rewarding on a personal level: kids really do ask great questions and make wonderful observations. Even when they’re off the mark, they’re not off it by much. I just shiver at the thought of kids living in Ken Ham-like households where truth is a construction of their parents’ fears and reality is limited to what can be supported by a two thousand year old text written by primitives. Kids have a right to explore the world around them – those of us in professional science fields have a duty to give them that opportunity as often as we can.

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