Watching a stream of the first two episodes of Genius by Stephen Hawking I was reminded of the words of one of my teenage mentors.
Awe and wonder are usually listed as synonyms, but there is an old distinction. Awe leaves you so impressed that you don't know what to do other than feel it. Wonder is deeper. You are still amazed, but now you want to understand it better. You come to learn that wonder is license to ask Nature questions for she is not unknowable.
Science education should inspire with a sense of wonder and provide a sense that paths exist. A few of the science shows, I wouldn't count Genius among them, manage this. They're expensive to produce, but there are probably lessons on making science palatable to a larger number of people. The best provide stories and even inspire a few into STEM programs. Lean-back science education. How do you get people leaning in a bit more?
I've spent a few posts on my belief the current system of American science education focuses on filling a pre-professional STEM pipeline underserving and turning off a majority of students in the process. I'd like to see something more relevant for most people.
Anton van Leeuwenhoek was a hacker - a 17th century optics hacker. A few Dutchmen had been perfecting glass lenses and had stumbled onto the basis of compound microscopes and telescopes. Galileo heard of this work and perfected a telescope good enough to revolutionize astronomy and our view of our position in the Universe. Leeuwenhoek went the other direction and created the field of microscopy revolutionizing biology and our understanding of life. Little curved pieces of glass shook the foundation of our understanding of the world.
It is hard to imagine Leeuwenhoek's excitement. Almost everything he put under his microscope made him the first human to discover a bit of a tiny world that has been hiding on, among and in us. His drawings are beautiful and appear in about a hundred or so letters to the Royal Society of England. Robert Hooke was something of an English polymath. He improved on Leeuwenhock's design and, continuing the tradition of just looking at things, discovered the existence of cells. Hooke was also gifted at making accurate drawings. Biology was on its way.
Too many think of discovery as something already found and archived in textbooks or wikipedia. Real discovery is nothing like that. In fact there is still much to be discovered and some of it is very accessible. You can take delight in personal discovery. Imagine taking a scraping from your teeth to see what's there .. or perhaps see what's living on your sister's face by taking a sample with a bit of scotch tape. Real and accessible discovery.
Every kid should have at least one scientific instrument. These need to be easy enough to use, they can't get in the way of discovery, robust and portable. The idea microscope should fit in a pocket so you can look at things when you're wandering through a garden or wooded area - or perhaps your school cafeteria. Anything that allows you to see beyond your senses is a candidate, but I think microscopy is best suited for the curious kid.
I once thought that there were science haves and have-nots based on economic conditions. If you were lucky enough to be from a wealthy Western country you had a better chance of developing an interest in science than if you came from the developing world. While that may be true statistically I'm now of a different mind. I think there are those curious and not so curious people and they can be found everywhere. The trick is to get something to exercise their curiosity and it has to work equally well for everyone. It needs to work without electricity, Internet, technical sophistication and lesson plans. It has to be extraordinarily inexpensive and easy to ship across borders. It turns out just such a device exists.
Manu Prakash's group at Stanford created an origami microscope a few years ago. The Foldscope is folded from heavy printed paper for easy shipment and had a relatively sophisticated lens group. It is easy enough for an eight year old to put together and interesting enough to keep this significantly older physicist occupied. It costs about a buck to make a couple of them which make a packet. A few prototype runs have been made - there are about 50,000 of them all over the world. No real lesson plans - it is better to play and discover on your own and communicate with a growing community by Internet and physical mail.
At the moment the group is gearing up for a much larger run. I believe the deal is everyone given the opportunity to buy one has to provide a second one to someone who they think wouldn't have access to a microscope on their own. I can think of a kid in Cameroon. In the meantime wealthy Westerners can buy very nice portable field microscopes. There are a number of digital microscopes and microscope adapters for smartphones. I'd recommend against just relying on digital images - there is something very deep about observing something deeply enough to make an accurate drawing - even if you're a not-so-good artist like me.1 I'd count the ability to concentrate on something and reproduce it in the form of a sketch as one of the more powerful thinking tools I have. Most of us draw when we're little, but most of us stop and unlearn. I think you can make an argument for a basic art class like you can for math or science.
They go nearly everywhere and volunteers are translating the instruction sheet into a number of languages. I read that it takes about $25 in postage and handling to get a Foldscope into South Sudan. It is worth the cost. There are people with an interest and an ecosystem vastly different from anywhere else so it should be done. I don't know what percentage of kids and adults are curious enough to use one of these as a discovery tool, but wouldn't it be wonderful if all of the kids on the planet had one available?
Comparatively rich kids have the ability to acquire much more sophisticated instruments, but there's a rub. The "better" instruments may be too nice to take out in the field, too complex to understand well and not standard. There is an advantage to having standardized instruments at some level. That shouldn't stop anyone from spending money and looking at other classes of instruments. In fact I think there is real opportunity for building robust, easy to use scientific augmentations for smartphones.
Foldscope is a brilliant idea - lean forward science education for anyone. Of course there has to be an opportunity to discovery and play. That means unstructured and unsupervised playtime - something many children in the wealthy Western world have very little of... Too bad as the world is full of so much wonder.
1 Lately I've decided I've taken too many snapshots and am not appreciating images so I now try to study a potential image before taking a photo - even to the point of sitting down and spending fifteen minutes sketching it to understand it a bit better.
Lumpia are sort of a spring roll from the Philippines. The term is generic - many are meat filled, some are vegetarian and they can be deep fried or roasted. Here's a variation that works well .. lots of ways to adapt!
° medium sweet potato
° 14 oz tofu firm brick
° 1/2 cup diced green beans
° 1/2 cup diced carrots
° 1 cup shredded cabbage
° 1/4 cup chopped scallions
° 3 garlic cloves chopped
° 2 tbl olive oil
° 1 tbl sesame oil
° salt and pepper
° spring roll wrappers (I'll cheat wherever I can)
° partly cook the sweet potato - throw it in the microwave for 2 or 3 minutes. Skin and chop into cubes
° drain the tofu and slice into little cubes
° put 1 tbl of olive oil in a large pan over medium-high heat. When hot add the tofu and cook until edges begin to brown. Remove tofu and set aside in a large bowl
° add the rest of the olive oil to the pan. Add garlic and cook until soft and garlicy smelling - a minute or so
° add beans, carrots and cabbage and cook until softened.. maybe 10 minutes
° add scallions and sweet potato. Cook for another 10 minutes or so
° dump the pan into the bowl with the tofu toss. season add sesame oil and toss again
° put some of the filling on each wrapper and roll'
° place on a baking pan and brush the lumpia with some olive oil
° bake in a 375° oven for about 20 minutes turning halfway through