finger painting

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A scientist goes to kindergarten

I’ve been spending a lot of time looking at kindergartens. Not at random; that would be creepy. No, I’m on the roller coaster ride of information sessions, admissions counseling, and financial aid applications to identify the absolute perfect environment in which my soon-to-be-5-year-old daughter can make handprint turkeys.

It almost feels like I’m going on college tours, except they’re directed at a student who sometimes yells at uncooperative shoes. That alone makes it an insane experience—unless any admissions officers are reading this column, in which case it’s a beautiful experience, and I loved your art room.

After all, it’s the science classrooms of my youth that somehow nudged me toward a career as a molecular biologist.

It’s premature, to say the least, to imbue this decision with any long-term career implications. I have no illusions that a higher quality wood grain in her building blocks will push her toward a future as a successful civil engineer. But it’s also hard to deny that my daughter’s eventual vocation is some part of the endgame.

Not that she has to be a scientist. I mean, I love her, so I wouldn’t exactly wish a postdoc upon her. But whatever direction she ultimately chooses, I’d like her to have a firm foundation in science and math. And, unfortunately, I have absolutely no idea how to determine which school will provide that. Honestly, what metrics are available? Choice of mascot?

I can’t be the only one who feels so clueless. Yet the other mothers and fathers arrive at Saturday morning informational sessions in suits, carrying labeled manila folders and seeming perfectly at ease. They warmly shake the hands of school staff members and announce, “Hi, we’re the ones who’ve been emailing.” I find it hard to stay silent among the nodding parents when an assistant principal says something like, “At our school, we focus on educating the whole child.” I want to raise my hand and ask, “So, not just the legs?”

Invariably, the information sessions lead to tours, and the tours lead to science rooms, which is when I start to really pay attention. After all, it’s the science classrooms of my youth that somehow nudged me toward a career as a molecular biologist. I remember studying frog life cycles, viewing diatoms and rotifers in a drop of pond scum under the microscope, and learning about the epidemiology of infectious diseases modeled by the spread of dysentery in The Oregon Trail.

Today’s science classrooms—at least at the sort of schools that can afford to employ actual admissions departments to evaluate kids who play with mulch and berate uncooperative shoes—are pretty awesome. This is evident not only in what they show us, but in what they apologize for. “We’ve been meaning to upgrade from iPads to iPad Pros,” they’ll say, “but don’t worry, they’re coming!”

What I really appreciate, though, is how well the science teachers describe how each piece of what they teach complements the students’ lessons in their other classes. That has to be part of what pointed me toward a career in science: viewing it not just as an isolated subject, but as the most interesting component of everything else.

But I have also learned that if there’s anything modern schools hate more than conventional chalkboards, it’s rote learning. Every school is careful to emphasize that they teach kids how to learn rather than what to learn. So, instead of memorizing phyla in science class, they’re asked to investigate and explore, to ask questions they can address with experiments.

I ought to celebrate the shift from teacher-led drills to student-led investigation, from the lecture-and-quiz-and-grade-and-probably-buy-a-strawberry-phosphate-for-a-nickel-at-the-drugstore model to the one that more closely matches what real scientists actually do. After all, one of the hardest skills to teach—yet one of the most valuable to scientists—is how to apply rampant curiosity to a legitimate problem. It’s the difference between saying, “Draw this tadpole’s life cycle” and “What would you like to ask about the tadpole?” But even though I know it must be an improvement, every now and then, the new style of education starts feeling a little … I don’t know … feely.

The kids don’t practice addition and subtraction in the traditional way. For example, they stick together “unit blocks” and slide beads on abacuses to get an intuitive sense of numbers. Of course an intuitive sense of numbers is more valuable than memorized multiplication tables, so this is a good thing, right? I’m sure it must be, until I see little Caleb and Wyatt getting reprimanded for brandishing their unit blocks as swords.

And that’s where I get slightly nervous. Even though the new methodology seems like it would ultimately produce students who could become better scientists, it’s hard to accept such a sweeping change without some anxiety. What if my daughter gets to college and she’s never drawn a Lewis dot diagram, but she’s “explored” the general concept of how owls make her feel? What if she becomes the parody of progressive education, telling her physics professor that she never learned Newton’s laws of thermodynamics because her 12th grade “Science and You” teacher/facilitator spent that time showing clips of TED talks about microfinanced kale?

What if she goes to Burning Man?

The problem is, somehow I’m a practicing scientist who is a recipient, a proponent, and a practitioner of science education—yet I have no idea how science should be taught. Many of the tropes of my own elementary school experience in the ’80s are now taboo. For example, as early as first grade, I competed in math and science contests at the state level. (Then again, the state was Delaware, so pretty much any contest with at least three people was at the state level.) I even once earned a trip to Washington, D.C., for the 1992 MathCounts National Competition, which was the only time I’d ever seen a roomful of 200 eighth graders get excited about a lecture on fractals.

Those contests were an essential part of my identity, not because of an obnoxious need for external gratification, but because I enjoyed trying to win them. The nervousness, the studying, the problem solving, the anticipation at the awards ceremony—those qualities were fun to me. Nowadays, though, there’s nothing more abhorrent I could ask an admissions officer than, “Will my child have the opportunity to win trophies attesting to her intellectual superiority?”

Maybe the answer is that I need to do what a scientist does: calmly, rationally, objectively observe what happens. Choose a school based on the best data possible (or, failing that, whichever one has the best lunches) and then be vigilant. Make sure the foundation the school lays supports the principles of scientific inquiry, and if it ever doesn’t, make up the difference myself.

And maybe it’s beneficial to feel uneasy about my daughter’s education; skepticism encourages attentiveness. I’ll be paying closer attention, making sure she has all the tools necessary to not only become a scientist if she wants to, but to become a good one.

A whole scientist. Not just the legs.

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