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.