Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Science Literacy vs Appreciation

When our grandchildren visited our outdoor neighborhood during past summers, at times this science educator wondered whether we should stress science literacy or science appreciation. In my own mind I opted for science appreciation without using either of the terms in the earshot of the children, lest we would compromise the genuine joy of outdoor discovery for them. The term “science” might not have been understood, not to mention what “appreciation” may have meant had I used the term when they were very young. It is clear, however, that they were learning the fundamentals of science appreciation.

In the past we have attempted to identify birds both by sight and by song. For roughly four years Bird Songs: 250 North American Birds in Song has been a staple in our sun room, even during winter months, a treasured gift from their aunt. This far from the coast, we enjoyed the unfamiliar sounds of shore birds we would never see, but the book helped us identify our own locality’s pileated woodpeckers, cardinals, tufted titmice, bluebirds, and a variety of other neighborhood companions over the years. Last summer we identified a red-headed woodpecker in the tree of our next door neighbor, truly a flashy bird with spectacular beauty and becoming quite scarce because man is altering its favored habitat.

Before my grandchildren’s interests redirect to more serious social or athletic pursuits, we only hope they have tucked away a few memories of their grandparents’ yard--the little black ant hills, the marvelous digger wasps, and the many monarch butterfly chrysalises we watched hatch before we watched the adults fly off to Mexico, or perhaps produce one or two more summer generations in our area. We watched the planets of our dark skies set on a couple of occasions, savored the hoot of the great horned owls we once heard, and became alarmed at the threat of a mother turkey aggressively shielding her well-hidden babies as we approached her in the woods. These are all parts of a treasured memory bank for future years.

We must not forget our lot’s prime agricultural product. Black walnuts are a staple here. This year our beautiful front yard black walnut tree will bear only the second true bumper crop in ten years. There will be several thousand useful walnuts to benefit from my personalized nut gathering, storage, and cracking practices. The nuts keep for several years and afford tasty treats if one can endure the difficult process of breaking the shells. When the tiny walnuts begin to form come spring, there are meaningful lessons on the sequence of development from beginning to end of harvest. The scripture in Mark 4:26-29 describes this creative process as an occasion to glorify God. Later as the grandchildren sit on the rock wall consuming the newly cracked nuts, there is ample time to reflect on the ongoing process of development toward harvest as sequenced by Jesus.

Several famous secular writers highlight the tension between science appreciation and science literacy. In 1995 one science educator, Morris Shamos, wrote a book The Myth of Scientific Literacy which suggested a more realistic objective would be to highlight science appreciation rather than science literacy. Several national movements advocating scientific literacy have ended dismally because leaders have under stressed a grass roots appreciation of the natural world in favor of a more superficial, program driven effort. These are problems which have plagued many initiatives in education.

Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods (2008) was popular for a time. Louv “describes a generation so plugged to electronic diversions that it has lost its connection to the natural world” according to a back cover entry from The Nation’s Health. Our mental, physical, and spiritual health is linked directly to our association with nature. In the United States, children are spending less time playing outdoors--or in any unstructured way. The author decries the truth that “for a whole generation of kids, direct experiences in the backyard, in the tool shed, in the fields and woods, have been replaced by indirect learning, through machines.” Finally, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. poignantly stated we shouldn’t be worshipping nature as God, but nature is the way that God communicates to us most forcefully.

Our experience has shown that many children sated with an overabundance of physical goods and prepackaged entertainment can still become fascinated with the why and how of nature’s phenomena. This is illustrated by the way younger children often forsake complex and expensive toys in favor of simple exploring and discovering outdoor wonders. A sense of appreciation of natural things is most likely to develop from activities that are “sense based” to every degree possible. Sense based activities are a manifestation of God’s general revelation, one of God’s two primary means of communicating with His children. Children’s attention may be captured more effectively by events they observe in the world around them. After young people gain more cognitive awareness at different levels, they may be able to integrate their God consciousness more effectively.

The ancient people described in Romans 1:18-20 “can clearly see his (God’s) invisible qualities—his invisible power and divine nature (NLT).” Our awareness of this gift to today’s young people and adults is essential even in this present day. Many poetic scriptures such as Psalm 19 speak of the glory of our entire cosmos and, by extension, the micro cosmos and all we observe at every level of creation. Truly, the entire cosmos tells “of the glory of God.”