Sunday, October 30, 2011

Doritos and daphnia

In the middle of the snowstorm yesterday, I scrambled out to my tiny pond, a mud puddle, really, to fetch as much elodea as I could for school. Elodea is a lovely water plant that plays well with microscopes. I also scooped up about 5 gallons of pond water full of critters about as ill-prepared for the storm as I was.

Two buckets of pond water now sit in the kitchen--some will overwinter in the basement under fluorescent lights, some in the windowsill of our classroom. (One year I had mayflies in January.)

The classroom pond water has been there for years now. I should really start it over--as the years go by, the evaporating water leaves behind traces of salts, and eventually it will be too salty for pond life. For now, though, the water fleas still dance among a few translucent snails and the knolls of blue-green algae covering the bottom. All sorts of microscopic critters flit through the duckweed.

I could start over, dumping my windowsill pond down into the drain, starting fresh. Starting over without consequences, though, is a tricky thing, possibly impossible, in life, human or otherwise. Everything we do has consequences.

So I work with what I have, and what I have includes the great-great-great-great offspring of daphnia from my backyard summers ago.

The metaphysical (or at least the anti-reality folks, or ARFs as I shall call them) crowd has me worried. The Daily Show ran a piece with an ARF, Noelle Nikpour, yipping away against science:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Weathering Fights - Science: What's It Up To?
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook

I have several children who know more about the Mayan calendar than they do about evolution. I have more than several children who do not know their connection to the earth. We tell children that our planet is round, and that Doritos are junk food, without offering a shred of evidence for either.

I'll concede that the Earth is round. Took me awhile to believe it, but after years of looking at boats disappear over the edge of the sea, shadows change over the seasons, and photos from satellites, it's easier believing it's round than flat.

Doritos, however, are miracles, a sophisticated blend of complex organic molecules fused together by plants using the energy emanating from the sun, itself a miracle, fusing hydrogen into helium. They're food, and pretty good food at that--and all food is biology at its gory best.

I get one shot to teach children biology--for most of my kids, this is the last time they will study biology in any formal sense, ill prepared to face years of propaganda via the Noelle Nikpours, Rick Perrys, and Rick Warren (what is it with Ricks?) of the world.

Tomorrow I will haul a couple of gallons of water almost a mile, as my ancestors did (though for a different reason), to bring more "real" life to my biology classroom. In the end, I cannot hope to compete with the propaganda fed both inside and out the school by the monied interests who know more about demographics than democracy, more about profit than people.

My hope is to give children a taste of just how large this universe is, how wonderful, how deeply ingrained we are with it, and it with us.

A bucket of pond water holds more life than most of us can imagine.

It starts with a single drop.

Or I could just teach to the state test, and put the microscopes away.


Amy Brown said...

Nice blog post! I am an AP Biology teacher, and for the life of me cannot get Elodea to grow in my lab. What is your secrete?? I have not found it growing naturally in any ponds in my area. I have to resort to getting it from a pet store. It gets me through one lab, and then it promptly turns to mush and dies. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated!!
Amy (

doyle said...

Dear Amy,

I suspect elodea is exquisitely sensitive to chlorine, so when I use tap water I either let it sit a few days, or de-chlorinate it.

In the summer I keep it in my tiny backyard pond; in the winter I keep it in a 15 gallon bucket with a fluorescent lamp over it.

The stuff is pretty expensive in pet stores, but grows so heavily in my ponds I sometimes toss a bunch in the compost.

It makes nice tiny flowers at times, even in the classroom. I love the stuff, and the cytoplasmic streaming makes kids see plants a little differently than they did coming in.

Unknown said...

I've begun telling people I don't believe in germs - in bacteria, viruses, etc. Scientists told us germs were bad and then they told us some are bad and some are good. How can I trust what the shaky ground of science when they flip-flop like that? Besides, they're just after the grant money. Take AIDS for example. Scientists study this "virus" so that they can earn money from drug companies. Any self-respecting theologian with a strictly literal interpretation of the Old Testament will tell you that it's God's wrath on those who have sinned - namely the poor and dispossessed of Africa.

doyle said...

Dear John,

The scary thing is, the more we know about bacteria, the more sophisticated they become.

This whole life thing is weird.

OTOH, it's All Hallows' Eve--the ghosts will be roaming tonight....