Countries of the World: a cultural context for science education

My job title these days is changing and I wear many hats. Most people who have any association with science writing have worked with writers in mostly a technical capacity. My work is a little different than traditional science writing. I’m  exploring creative science writing through what I consider the “cultural integration of science.” Here’s a geography game that I’m playing with my kid and his friends becoming an example of the cultural integration of science.

The game is Countries of the World. Each week, a child in the group chooses a country that they’re interested in learning more about. We read maps, so they know the possible choices, and we’ve been playing this game for about nine months now so the kids have a pretty good idea of what’s on each continent by now. We spend a week learning more about the country that they chose. This gives us enough time to explore most of the kids questions and interests for the topic.

So, here’s how a game about Peru because an organic chemistry lesson:
Cassandria chose Peru. We ate a lot of potatoes, went for an imaginary hike in the Andes, read stories about llamas, and built a variety of home-made pan flutes. And then, we got to textiles. Zev was curious about weaving, so we turned a windowsill into a loom and mimicked traditional weaving patterns. We watched some videos about Peruvian weaving and in one of them they mentioned using cochineal insects to dye wool red and orange colors. These scale insects, that eat cacti, are dried in the sun and ground into a dye powder. Carminic acid is around 20% of the dried insects’ weight and can be extracted to make carmine dye. After a rousing game of imaginary fabric dying, we built a molecule of carminic acid together. The molecule building game started two years ago and is cumulative, so yes, this group of four-year old’s understand basic organic chemistry.

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Here’s how a lesson about Mongolia became an energy lesson: Zev chose Mongolia. We built a ger, we cooked boortsog, and we read stories about daily life and ecosystems in Mongolia. We pretended to hunt with eagles and milk horses on the steppe. While playing house in the ger, the kids decided that the rocks anchoring it were the stove and the support post going up the center was the stove pipe. This lead to us cooking suutei tsai in our ger and a discussion of contextual fuel use. What fuels are used in Mongolia? Why? For what? Where do they come from? How do the combination of our choices and the available materials create cultural patterns of energy use? We then discussed a variety of fuel/energy options, added those words to our vocabulary practice and matched the kids toys to them.

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It all weaves together (pun intended). It’s easy in small groups, a lot of like stream-of consciousness. The kids define things they’re interested in, and I tie them all together. It’s in the storytelling. What are our cultural stories? How do we share them?

I try to cover each of the arts: dance, visual, music, etc. and the rest seems to fall into place. The kids are left with an understanding of another culture, some geography, reading and writing are incorporated so they get their literacy needs met, math and science get integrated into it all. It becomes a comprehensive narrative.

I’m interested in redefining our cultural stories to explore the ways our culture is changing as a result of rapid technological advancement. I love finding ways of integrating science into entertainment that we already consume and showing how science fits in with existing entertainment and our existing activities. That is what I mean by the “cultural integration of science.”

Dinosaur Week 2017

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In 2017 Dinosaur Week got bigger.

Sunday: We went boating at Loch Lomond where we read excerpts from Jurassic Park. (The section where the sauropods peek over the treetops, make trumpeting sounds welcome the humans to the island.)

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Monday: My neighbor brought us fish bones that she found at the beach. We boiled them clean and fit them onto a chalk fish outline. We learned about neural spines on the top of fish vertebrae. In the evening, we read about dimetrodon’s and learned that the crest on top is a neural spine sail, like on the top of the fish vertebrae. We constructed Dimetrodon Dragon costume for a bearded dragon. IMG_20170410_114059721.jpg

Tuesday: We baked dinosaur cookies with friends. Sybil, the bearded dragon, pretends to be a Dimetrodon.

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Wednesday: We used play dough to talk about fossil imprints left in sedimentary rocks. IMG_20170412_131422117

In the evening, we baked a dessert dinosaur diorama. It’s a chocolate cake with a grape jello (agarose) ocean, an erupting cream cheese frosting volcano, candy dinosaur eggs and mint trees.

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Thursday: Friends came over to read dinosaur stories and eat the prehistoric landscape.17862640_10154909210280020_7818720222900570650_n.jpeg

Friday: Chickens arrived in the morning, we talked about how they’re avian dinosaurs. We talked about how both dinosaurs and birds hatch from eggs.

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Saturday: We built a volcano, then dyed dinosaur eggs. The kids got to eat chocolate *dinosaur* eggs because it’s now nearly Easter.

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Good Toddler Dinosaur Books:
Danny and the Dinosaur by Syd Hoff
Digging Up Dinosaurs by Aliki
The Big, Little Dinosaur by Darlene Geis
Raptors, Fossils, Fins and Fangs by Ray Troll

 

Skeletal Anatomy

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I feel like I need to talk about Halloween before I talk more about Dinosaur Week (2015, 2016). My kid has a reference for skeletal anatomy, so we are able to talk descriptively about comparative anatomy when we talk about fossils.

How did this happen? Every Halloween we talk about bones. They are everywhere in the artwork, so I pin up skeletal anatomy diagrams in my house and we talk about what the bones are called, how they connect, and what their functions are. He’s four now, repetition helps. We do this every year. This year trick-or-treating, he walked down the street and told his friends all about skeletons.

Dinosaur Week 2016

The 2016 Dinosaur Week themes were mammals and microfossils. Dinosaur week got kicked off by a trip to LA where we visited the La Brea Tar Pits. Zev loved the station where researchers were using tiny brushes to sort teeny-tiny microfossils.

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We took a walk through a redwood forest, with a handful of plastic dinosaurs. We pretended we were dinosaurs tromping through an ancient forest.12507625_10153680598900020_383084786655700054_n
We built a living room dig site:12549074_10153688877645020_266480249487270095_n

Next to our dig site was a lab for sorting microfossils. There’s a microscope (the flashlight is the light source), centrifuge, brushes, chisels and picks etc.:

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We visited the Mammoth exhibit at the Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose.  Zev chose to pretend that the substrait that you’re supposed to brush away from the big mammal fossils was actually microfossils. So, we sorted microfossils and looked at them under the real microscopes.

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We brought our brushes to the park and made a paleontology dig site in the sand box. We found a hadrosaur. We excavated the fossil bones (large sticks) and matched them to a hadrosaur skeleton. We brought a few small samples home to run a genetic analysis on in our laboratory.

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After analyzing our results, we made a poster to share our research with our peers:

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Dinosaur Week 2015

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Somehow I accidentally forgot to share Dinosaur Week here, for the last three years… I think it was because it wasn’t really a planned activity. It started out with me passing out toy dinosaurs as an afikomen prize to the kids after Passover, and substituting a fossilized megalodon tooth for the traditional lamb bone on the Seder plate. The kids got excited about dinosaurs. I love paleontology. It was an easy sell.

It started out simple, and has become an annual family tradition.

In 2015 for Dinosaur week we built a field camp for our paleontology research in the living room and read dinosaur books in our tent with a flashlight. I baked a boston creme pie. We ate it in our field camp. We fed the ducks at the pond near our house and talked about avian dinosaurs.

I cannot recommend enough Dinosaur Rock. I love it.

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Building with Toy Molecules

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I introduced organic chemistry building toys to my son (and his friends) as soon as they stopped putting small objects in their mouths, around 2 years old.

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It started as a part of the first Dinosaur Week, when I played Enter Life by Faith Hubley and I had to describe that CHON is Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen and Nitrogen, that all life is made of them and how they’re connected to build larger molecules. I still love that haunting cartoon, it played in the Smithsonian Paleontology hall for most of my life.

It evolved into a game that we play across country with a child/friend set that lives in Maryland. The kids take pictures of the molecules they’ve build and we email them back and forth. After a few months of the game, we made a book about it.

The molecule building set is right above the wooden blocks in the toy cupboard and they’re a favorite building toy. So, yup. These four year olds get the basics of some organic chemistry (I get a lot of quizzical looks about that).

I’m delighted that Zev has started spontaneously building small molecules and bringing them to me to match the activities that we’re doing. For example CO2 for the dry ice and laser game we just played after dinner.IMG_20180125_231422.jpg

Most recently though, it’s become a regular feature in other games as the kids play other narrative games, like Countries of the World.

Rhythm and Glue

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I’m thrilled to share the new concept art made for the television show that I’m writing. This concept illustration was made by the fantastic team at Liberum Donum (Inks: Santiago Calle, Colors Ivar Osorio).

Rhythm and Glue is a thirty minute comedy-drama television series helps viewers become active participants in climate change mitigation. Project advisors, Max Boykoff and Ed Maibach both recently advocated a narrative comedy approach to communicating climate change in a New York Times article. Comedy empowers communities into action and broadens participation for audiences who are not yet active participates in climate change mitigation.

The show connects viewers with a network of non-profit organizations supporting the actionable behaviors that the audience can take locally to mitigate climate change. Real-time audience participation facilitates a national conversation about how we can collaborate to mitigate climate change. Content creation is advised by a team of subject experts. We are confident that a popular comedy-drama with these elements and approach can dramatically improve and increase climate change mitigation efforts internationally.