Doing “Good Science”: On the Virtues of Simply Messing About
In July and August in Oklahoma, countless millions of locusts and grasshoppers leap through gardens and fields, chomping their way through whatever hardy green leaves or stalks remain standing by that time. Lazy summer days bring the ubiquitous background hum of these creatures rubbing their ridged hind legs against their wings, an erotic song aimed at the properly attuned antenna of the opposite sex. To humans, especially those of the gardening variety, this insistent buzz resonates with ancient, archetypal dread. I have never actually seen a swarm of locusts, like you read about in the Bible, or which still occur regularly in parts of India and Africa, but given the damage that the southwestern variety can perpetrate, I can only imagine the mythic terror when the sky darkens and the unceasing drone amplifies like in a scene out of a Hitchcock movie.
Given the pervasive presence of these creatures on our homestead, it was not surprising that the boys would take an interest in their habits. One day in mid-August, I was struggling against the elements—late summer drought, scorching heat, and a host of invading insects, including the grasshoppers—to salvage something of our garden. As I weeded and mulched and relocated potato beetles from the potato plants to a can of kerosene, I noticed Shaman, who was eight years old at the time, sitting on our front stoop, gazing intently at something that he held in his fingers. From the garden I couldn’t tell what it was. Forty- five minutes or so later, my curiosity piqued, I found an excuse to go into the house and stopped to visit with him. He was still sitting in the same position, holding a grasshopper by its hind legs and attempting to feed it a stem of grass.
“Hey, what’s up?” (One of my top ten open-ended questions.)
“He was drowning in a puddle. I saved him.”
“Hmmh. So what are you doing?” (Another of the top ten.)
“I’m trying to figure out how its jaws work,” he replied, staring intently at the creature.
“Well, what have you found out?” (Yet another of the top ten.)
“It has lips and teeth and it spit out a brown juice when I picked it up.”
“Eeooh, gross,” I said (My surefire way of ensuring the boys’ intense interest in the natural world.)
“But I still can’t figure out how its jaws work.”
“How ‘bout you look it up in the World Book?” (Fallback position when I have no clue.)
And so, he headed indoors to find a jar for the captured critter and carry on his investigations.
After another hour or so of Sisyphean labor in the garden, I went into the house to see what was up. Shaman had created a ten-page grasshopper book with detailed pencil-drawn illustrations and relevant text, complete with a green colored paper cover. I learned from reading this delightful little text that grasshoppers’ mouths have two large, horny lips. I learned that between their lips is a pair of sharp jaws called mandibles and that behind the mandibles is another pair of jaws with feelers that taste and eat grass. I learned that they have five eyes. Five eyes! Wow! And what an amazing abdomen—eleven segments that work sort of like a telescope, expanding out so that the female can deposit her eggs deep in our Oklahoma soil. And those ovipositors—sharp things at her rear end powerful enough to dig holes in the ground! A truly amazing feat, given that I never found a shovel sharp enough to dig holes in the sun-baked red clay that passes for soil in central Oklahoma. Talk about adaptation.
Prior to this day, I mainly thought about grasshoppers, when I thought about them at all, as virulent enemies. Now, thanks to my son’s diligent research and careful documentation, I had a new appreciation for the marvelous engineering of these hungry orthopterans. If the learning experience had ended here, it would have been a valuable one. Shaman had responded to something in his environment with interest and curiosity. He had utilized his powers of observation to develop further questions. When observations alone could not satisfy his curiosity, he went to printed source materials to find out what the experts had to say about the topic. And finally, he represented what he learned in a creative way that was both visually interesting and factually accurate. But this was only the beginning.
The next day I was again out in the garden fighting the good fight for my tomatoes, corn, and potatoes against everything that might burn, shrivel, or devour them before they reached our table. I noticed Shaman walking in ever-widening circles around the house. Periodically he would reach down into the tall grass that was forever encroaching and then walk back over to the stoop. Again, my curiosity got the best of me. I walked over to where he sat and noticed that he was marking a grasshopper with a black laundry pen.
“Did you know that grasshoppers can jump twenty times the length of their own body?” he asked as he leaped down from the stoop and let the creature loose.
“No I didn’t,” I responded. “How far could you jump if you could do that?”
He didn’t take me up on that one, although I could see the wheels turn for a moment. Sometimes the best pedagogical questions simply do not resonate with what the learner has in mind. In this case, what he had in mind was collecting grasshoppers and marking them with the indelible pen. Hour after hour. As an art project, it wasn’t up to his usual standards. I figured he must have some other, non-aesthetic motive. And indeed he did.
“What are you doing?”
“Marking the grasshoppers.”
“I can see that.”
Rolling his eyes back as if to say that anyone with any sense ought to know what he was up to, he patiently explained that he was marking the grasshoppers, releasing them, and then investigating in ever-widening concentric circles to see how far they were traveling from the house. He was interested in range, you see—an ecological concept that is not usually taught in primary school. As far as I recall, we had not talked about the concept. I would not have thought to build it into a “lesson plan.” But here it was, emerging as an interest strong enough to justify devising a meaningful and systematic experiment. And systematic it was. For the next few days, Shaman continued to mark grasshoppers, to walk in circles around the house, and to search intently in the grass for the marked insects.
The results, as they say in the scientific world, were inconclusive. Given that we probably had a trillion or more of the creatures within a twenty-foot radius of the house, the chances of recapturing marked grasshoppers were slim at best. Surprisingly, he did find a couple. And the interest stayed with him long enough for us to have absorbing conversations about habitat, food chain, migration, range, and the procedures of investigative biological and ecological science……….
…… I am intrigued with the idea of “messing about,” free and unguided exploratory work with concrete materials, during which children test, probe, and experiment without imposed questions or instructions. Time for the unrestricted encounter with stuff, in which a child has the opportunity to touch, taste, feel, see, smell, manipulate, and experiment with the substances and elements, the objects and creatures of the world. Such opportunities are all too circumscribed in formal school, a place in which now, more than ever, every moment is planned, premeditated, even scripted. Messing about is crucial to the beginnings of things, for it can foster curiosity, guesses, estimations, and speculations. Messing about raises questions that require further investigations. Messing about can necessitate the acquisition of new skills (measuring, using tools, doing calculations, handling substances).
Important as it is, of course, learning does not end with messing about. Guidance is essential, as is knowledge that has been discovered, organized, and synthesized by knowledgeable others. But to neglect the initial phases of observation, free play, creative thinking and wondering, is to miss the opportunity to spark the thirst for inquiry that characterizes genuinely “good science.”