Thursday, December 31, 2015

A Wonderful Thing

A Wonderful Thing
My husband doesn’t usually bring his work home. It is only when things are going extraordinarily well or extraordinarily bad that he talks about his work life. And so I get snippets of the best and the worst aspects of his work life. He celebrates when his idea comes to fruition or when his machines work as they should. He despairs over crashing computer programs. Sound familiar? I think many people have similar aspects of work that give reason to celebrate or to feel discouraged.  
Did I mention that he is a scientist (a physicist to be exact)?
Being a scientist has its ups and downs like any other profession. Will his equipment work? If not, he will have to fix it or find someone who can. Will the work be done on time? He spends more time at work on the days immediately before deadlines. Will the work be good enough? Breakthroughs are exciting and gainful! The more high-quality work he does, the more he gets to do, which is good for his job satisfaction as well as our family’s health and well-being.
Conversely, being a professional scientist also requires a type of work that is different from other professions. Scientists are paid to discover things that have never been found before. The work modern scientists do is deeply entwined with historic science, which means they are responsible for knowing details of previous discoveries and how those previous discoveries inform future discoveries. Like Isaac Newton, in 1676, saw further by standing on the shoulders of giants, scientists in the twenty first century must consider how their work fits into the landscape of science.
The most unnerving thing about scientists passing information between each other is that they are bilingual. They use mathematical symbols interchangeably with english (or whatever is their native language) in their prose. When I explained this to my college students I used to joke that it is due to laziness. It is easier to write “x 0” instead of “the limit as x approaches zero.” So not only are scientists observing and studying things that have never been observed or studied before, they are talking about it in a way that makes it difficult for people who are not fluent in mathematics to participate.
However, more likely than not, you are not aiming to participate in professional science; nor is your child (for now). So you are lucky that Albert Einstein was right when he said, “Science is a wonderful thing if one does not have to earn one’s living at it.” Without being bogged down in the logistics of being a scientist, you have a unique opportunity to enjoy it. You are not responsible for discovering something that is new to humankind. It just has to be new to you. What is even better is that you are not limited to the world of academic science.
You are not bound to reading and writing articles in peer-reviewed journals or textbooks. You can read children’s books like “My Light” by Molly Bang or listen to “Fossil Fuels” by Jeff and Paige to learn about the energy cycle. You can watch television programs on the Science Channel or the Discovery Channel or other videos on YouTube like “Smarter Every Day.” You can listen to podcasts. You can play online games like the ones developed by Physics Educators at the University of Colorado. In short, you can learn from any media you choose!
Plus, in order for you to learn about or do science on your own, you do not have to work in highly specialized laboratories. You can start simply by playing with smart toys (yes, grown-ups can play with toys). You can learn at home in your garden or in the kitchen with Alton Brown as your guide. You can find and visit a Science Museum near you. You can even learn some science on vacation by visiting National Parks or volunteering. No matter what avenue for learning you choose, you have the pleasure of learning science as a playful, independent person.
What’s that? You want more direction? Consider planning your own lessons by perusing the Next Generation Science Standards and finding an activity to match. Maybe you just want to work your way through the free online lessons at the Khan Academy. And if you really crave a teacher-student relationship, you can enroll in continuing education programs or college courses.

Whatever way you choose to learn science is fine by me. The point I want to make here is that science learning is available to everyone, not just scientists. More importantly, I want to invite you to see science learning as a playful endeavor. It is something you can do and enjoy alongside your young child.
Think about bath time. It is something you will do with your child from the time he or she is an infant for many years. It will become part of the daily routine, at times merely offering the structure you need to make it to the end of a challenging day. At other times it will be a delightful place to connect with your child. It is during those times when you are happily enjoying the splashes and the bath games of a young child that I invite you to learn. See how simple it can be by reading the “Invitation to Learn Buoyancy” I made for you:

Invitation to Learn Buoyancy
Context: Babies, toddlers and preschoolers seem to have two favorite places to learn about buoyant force: in the bathtub and at the lakeshore. You will probably be right there with them to keep them safe but if you can step into their world you can learn some physics alongside your young child, too.
Purpose: To learn about buoyancy.
Growing with the Child - Levels of Experimentation
Baby Experiment: Throw or place something in the water. Observe if it sinks or floats. State your observation.
Toddler Experiment: Building on the baby science, collect the items from the water (if you can). Sort them into groups based on their buoyancy - sinkers, floaters, etc.
Preschooler Experiment: Before throwing or placing items in the water, guess what will happen. Will it sink or will it float? Continue with the toddler experiment.

Levels of Understanding: Benefits of Learning with a Grown-up (or as a Grown-up)
My favorite thing about learning with my kid is that I can read and do internet research to learn more or answer questions that arise. If I want to then I can think deeper, considering more complex things. Here are some things to guide your investigation into buoyancy.
Guiding Questions
❤ What is the most interesting, most important or most useful thing about buoyancy?
⨳ What are the limitations or advantages of studying buoyancy in a bathtub? In a lake? In a river?
՞ What if the bathtub was filled with olive oil instead of water?
⊜ How would you explain what you’ve learned to an older child?
Picture Books: A picture book is worth a thousand academic words.
Online Learning:

With this small amount of encouragement I hope you feel drawn to play and to learn with your child. As I see it, the benefits of accepting my invitation are numerous. Here are some of the benefits I consider the most valuable:
  1. Learn science at your pace. Buoyancy is a topic that can be visited and revisited in small amounts over the course of your young child’s life.
  2. Learn science at your convenience. The experiments are things you can do within the routine of your daily life. They can easily be expanded during a vacation to the beach. The follow-up research can be done with a trip to your local children’s library or while you watch TV in the evening.
  3. Learn science to your satisfaction. You choose what you will study, when you are done and when you are ready for more. There are no deadlines, no bosses, no stresses from broken equipment that could determine your career.
  4. Learn science with your child. We are constantly looking for ways to enjoy “quality time” with our children. An invitation to learn science provides you a little direction for ways of being open and active in things that interest your child.  
In all reality I realize that a micro-burst of time and energy is about all you have for learning science. And that is OK. Pint-sized learning is better than none at all. That being said, I hope you accept my invitation to learn science. Because science is a wonderful thing.

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