‘Daddy, Tell Me a Story About Science’

By Wendy Thomas Russell | September 17, 2012 | 12 comments

I was never very good at science. Mostly because it was taught to me the same way math was taught to me: It wasn’t. I mean, it was, technically. But not in a way that inspired me or held my interest for very long. I found it all difficult and boring. I grew up in a time when math and science were “boy” things. The teachers I had (with the exception of one extremely awesome biology teacher) were men who seemed to aim their instruction right over my head. Everything struck me as dry and unemotional. I always felt I was missing something — some basic brain function. I learned things as though they were random pieces of information floating around me, rather than stacks of wisdom neatly piled on a solid foundation of understanding.

Later, at the University of Nebraska, I was able to avoid math and science for the most part (the journalism department was far more interested in language arts). I did take one astronomy class, but that was taught by a very old Japanese man whose heavy accent destroyed any chance I had at making sense of the universe.

He pronounced “star” like this: stah-waaaah. I barely scraped by with a C-.

Fast-forward two decades, and I’m a mother writing a book about religion whose central tenant is: teach science. No matter what our children grow up to believe in terms of God or religion, giving them a sense of how big and wondrous the right here, right now is will help them put their beliefs into a worldly context.

So how does a science-traumatized woman ensure that her daughter develops a fascination with and understanding of science? Well, if the woman is me, she marries a guy who possesses a fascination with and understanding of science.

Every night for the past couple months, my husband, Charlie, has a new bedtime routine with Maxine; he tells her one science story. Sometimes it’s about the stars and planets; sometimes it’s about bugs and other creatures; sometimes it’s about the human body — but he always manages to put a contemporary spin on the science, making it relevant to her little world. There are lots of stories about new findings and experiments that he read about in that morning’s paper. The Mars Rover provided lots of fodder.

A few nights ago Charlie brought our tree-stump cutting board into Max’s room and explained how each ring signifies one year in the life of a tree. Then he told her the story, which he’d originally heard on NPR’s Radio Lab (excellent show, if you’ve never heard it) about how a climatologist cut down a tree for research — only to find that the tree was 4,400 years old. “That’s 4,400 rings,” Charlie told Maxine. “Not only was it the oldest tree in the world, it was the oldest living thing.” No other continuously living organism had come close to living as long as that tree had lived. The climatologist, heartsick and haunted by his own mistake, never cut down another tree as long as he lived.

I couldn’t see Maxine’s reaction, but I, for one — listening through the door — was riveted.

Far from being bored or confused, Maxine gets so excited when it’s time for her “science story” with daddy. The whole thing makes me wonder if science, like food, tastes best when it’s homegrown. Hearing about the natural world from her dad, who is hand-selecting stories and talking just to her, must have an impact that Mr. Wheeler couldn’t have hoped to achieve with me in Chemistry 101.

It has also made me seek out my own “science stories,” and to challenge myself to wrap my mind around things that always seemed unknowable.

Hey, maybe there’s hope for me yet.

By the way, the Radio Lab show that Charlie had referenced? It was called Oopsand you can find it here.


12 comments

  1. What a wonderful story! You gave me some flashbacks about my own boredom in science classes. Plus I remember getting a c- in Astronomy as well. Just so boringly delivered and explained way past my understanding. I remember signing up for the class in college and being excited about learning about the universe. I quickly realized it was a big black hole mistake.

    I want Charlie to tell me a science story when I see him next. A great father-daughter special time! Thanks for sharing your outside the door experience.

  2. khadijah says:

    ” The whole thing makes me wonder if science, like food, tastes best when it’s homegrown.”

    Your story reminded me of my childhood. I think it does taste better homegrown. My mother is a chemistry professor and she used to do show-and-tell, bringing home dry ice from her labs, liquid crystal thermometer strips, charts and diagrams and everything. While other kids played with lego blocks, I played with her molecular models blocks (but I didn’t know what I was building). While other kids learn about human creation how humans were made of mud/clay and water (according to the Quran), my mother explained that humans are composed of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus, sulfur, metals and water. Years before my first formal chemistry class, I had already learned about the concepts of thermodynamics, in real world, minus the calculations. It led me to become very inquisitive and I cannot thank her enough for that.

  3. I grew up as a nerd. Star Trek, science fiction, and a firm belief in evolution with an overall above average scientific literacy. I knew many things about science, but I never really understood it until recently, in my thirties. The Hubble images were always cool, but not awe-some in that sense that enthralls and draws tears. I had taken honors chemistry classes in High School that taught me how to calculate the mass of atoms and how they interact, but I never faced what an atom was, I never really looked beyond the Bohr model of little balls orbiting other little balls. I never took an interest in Physics, though now I can’t think of a better thing I could master. I knew about this thing called photosynthesis that plants did, but never really marveled at the process. I didn’t even know much about light. I knew it was a bunch of these little glowing things called photons, but I didn’t know anything about EMR. Quantum mechanics was something Scott Bakula did with Dean Stockwell on Primetime TV. I left High School knowing more about science than probably 75% of my graduating class yet I understood about as much as all of them. It’s that turning point where you think you know everything you should about something only to realize how very little you really do.
    I don’t know where exactly my turning point was, but I think it was ghost hunting. The more I observed that hobby the more I wanted to understand what such things could be, and I became introduced to the electromagnetic spectrum. This led me to a strong desire to know exactly what “light” was, how it manifested and what were the fields in which it interacted. I gave up ghost hunting, but was introduced to quantum electro-dynamics and ultimately my new “hero” Richard Feynman. His “Fun to Imagine” videos made science suddenly understandable. Though I found Darwin’s works interesting, Dawkin’s “Greatest Show On Earth” delivered the biggest blows in terms of the wow-factor of evolution. And now, I’m hooked. I’ve even looked into going back to school to become a science teacher, so I could teach science the way it captured me, rather than the way it was taught to me.

    Now I love relaying what I learn to my kids and watching new things with them. The YouTube EDU channels have been fantastic, SciShow, ViHart, CrashCourse, Veritasium, Vsauce, all have found ways to make science interesting, and the Maker subculture is giving kids the chance to apply that science and learn more in ways that also build confidence and valuable life skills. The new scientific revolution is in building a generation of science lovers. Not just lab rats or science majors. But poets and authors, artists and singers, politicians and activists all tuned into the wonder of science. Perhaps then we will truly enter a scientific age.

  4. Chris Bartley says:

    Not exclusively science, but The Kid Should See This is a wonderful resource in general, heavy on science, and many of the posts should spark lots of good sciencey discussions:

    http://thekidshouldseethis.com/

  5. Rich Wilson says:

    I’m really impressed with the efforts of https://www.facebook.com/ScienceIsSeriouslyAwesome (That’s the mirror page for parents who are afraid of their kids seeing bad words).

    I’ve seen a lot of my FB friends who I would not have suspected are interested sharing things. The admin keeps a “That’s really cool” factor.

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