1 Apr 2016

Helping Kids Look at the Small Picture

By Pippa Wysong

When I was in the eighth grade, my homeroom teacher gave the class an exciting geography assignment. It was to write an essay on anything related to geography that we wanted to. We were to pick some part of the planet, go to the library, read up on the topic and write a paper. We could do this project in pairs.
Nothing wrong with starting small.
Just ask this caterpillar.
Claire Eamer photo

My friend Cathy and I discussed it and decided on the Sahara Desert. We knew nothing about it, but it sounded incredibly exotic. We had visions of relentless sunlight, drifting sand and camels. We both associated it with Lawrence of Arabia and Peter O’Toole’s dreamy blue eyes, which added to our naïve concepts of the Sahara Desert.

We proposed this to the teacher, who said it sounded like a fine topic and that we should narrow it down a bit.

“How can we narrow it down?” we asked.

“Go to the library and start reading. You’ll figure it out,” was his reply.

Off to the library we went, the first of multiple visits. We quickly discovered there were shelves full of books about the Sahara Desert. And we started reading.

With no other direction than “you’ll figure it out,” we were nervous about going back to the teacher. We were both shy and nervous at that age. His friendly directive, to our minds, was a command. The leap we made was that we had to figure it out or get a failing mark.

I decided to tackle everything about the Sahara Desert. Its geographical boundaries, minerals, population, and date palms. I wrote down things about various industries and oil, and quoted large tracts with weird terms like GDP and import-export jargon.

The paper had a lot of big passages in quotes with references (I knew not to plagiarize). Most of what was in quotes was stuff I didn’t understand but sounded important. I was amazed with what counted as ‘geography.’

Lambs start small too. It's not a bad thing.
Claire Eamer photo
In the end, we handed in 52 pages of sweat. Cathy contributed a reasonable five pages about the weather.

Later, in high school, a science competition was announced and I wanted to enter. The directions were “come up with an idea and tell the teacher.”

There were several of us who wanted to be part of a science fair, but “figure it out on your own” was beyond us. We needed directions to the starting line. Where other kids got their ideas from was a mystery.

Back in the 1970s and 80s, there weren’t the large number of science experiment books for kids and teens that there are now. (And I worry about some kids who may over-rely on these wonderful books because all the answers, including observations and discussions of implications, are taking away from kids figuring out some of those things themselves. Hopefully reading about those still helps them understand the critical skills used in science.)

I hear from friends’ kids that they still get the “start from scratch” and “figure it out on your own” directives. Good in some ways, stunting in others – depending on the student. Some of us who wanted to be part of a science project didn’t know where to look. We didn’t have parents who said “How about studying the effects of watering a house plant with coffee?” or “Here’s a neat way to build a model of a volcano.” I never did enter.

I’ve also seen parents say “I have to leave early to finish building junior’s science fair project” – but that’s an essay for another time.

Even racecars and racecar drivers start small.
Claire Eamer photo
Later, a reader in the eighth grade wrote to me at my Ask Pippa column, asking how she could do a science fair project relating to rust and her bicycle. I wanted to help, yet knew I couldn’t tell her what to do. But I wanted to give her something to help her get past the "start from scratch and figure it out" directive.

So I wrote back, suggesting she look up the word oxidation. I didn’t tell her that was the key concept behind rust.

Apparently it helped. I don’t know what her experiment was, but she wrote back months later thanking me, saying that the one word made all the difference. She had placed in the provincial finals.

The moral? Nudge kids towards a reasonable starting place. Or it’s too overwhelming and science becomes painful.

For more of Pippa Wysong's work, see her article Like Swimming Through a Pharmacy in Hakai Magazine.

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