Saturday, March 9, 2013

Is there life in high school biology?

I'm going clamming in a couple of hours because I enjoy it, because it makes me forget about language for awhile, and because I like to eat clams.

While we prattle on about genetics in class,  I think of clams and millipedes and all kinds of critters in these parts, and every one of them closer to us than my kids realize. All the big questions of how to survive on this planet were answered billions of years ago. The rest is just fine tuning.

Humulin, sold as human insulin, is made by E. coli, the same E. coli found in poop.


Why?

Because if you put a piece of human DNA into bacteria, the bacteria will treat it as its own--there is fundamentally no difference between the DNA found in your skin cells and the DNA of the critters in your poop. All life forms we know are this closely related.

"Knowing" high school genetics well enough to ace an exam may give you a little jolt of satisfaction, but will not, by itself, get you closer to understanding anything about the living. Words are hardly necessary for survival, they've only been a round for a few thousand years, and I suspect they won't be around in a few thousand more.



Words, however, define most of what we think matters, and so long as we think that, kids will be able to pass biology tests without the vaguest notion of what being alive means.

You need a mudflat for that.





How do you test a child's sense of connection to the universe?

10 comments:

Malcolm Chrystal said...

you get to some....hopefully more than just a little.

I have never seen a picture of bill peet....but for some reason you invoke an image of what bill peet should look like.

malcolm

ps...i have only seen the picture of you in your tinfoil hat.

doyle said...

Dear Malcolm,

I had to google "Bill Peet" to learn who he was.

I may need to post a photo just so folks realize I only wear the tinfoil hat at times of great cosmic stress.

But yes, we get to some, and maybe more than we realize. There's an awesome universe out there beyond the culture we wrap around ourselves.

It's why I teach.

Scott said...

This quote will make it into my little book: "All the big questions of how to survive on this planet were answered billions of years ago. The rest is just fine tuning."

Great post.

Malcolm Chrystal said...

Bill Peet, like Dr. Seuss, was ahead of his time in regards to predicting our ecological demise...read the Wump World to your flock!

Malcolm Chrystal said...

and Farewell to Shady Glade!

Kathryn J said...

Food comes shrink wrapped - nevermind knowing where or how it was grown. Butter is related to milk - no way! Garbage and human waste is magically whisked away and never thought of again.

I ate the leaf of a radish plant in my classroom and my students were horrified. I touched soil to plant some seeds and they called me dirty in a derisive disgusted tone.

They came in this morning mystified by the fact that it was dark outside on the way to school. Time - daylight savings or standard - is incomprehensible because they can only read digital clocks and don't understand how those numbers relate to each other or the passing of time.

I'm not sure I can climb a mountain this big. Some days I wonder where to even start.

Kathryn J said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jeffrey Michals-Brown said...

Words have been around a long time, may even make thought as we know it possible. Have you ever encountered Radiolab? I try never to miss it when it airs on my public radio station. There is evidence that words may be necessary even to connect two thoughts together.
http://www.radiolab.org/2010/aug/09/

Reflections of a Science Teacher said...

When I was asked to teach biology I squeezed life into it everywhere I could - bug collections, herbariums, walks in the woods. The official biology curriculum is sure to beat the love of learning out of most people.

Biology teachers, it is your job to put the life into the class in spite of the curriculum.

Susan Eckert said...

The comment above (from Reflections...) totally nails it.

As much as the students may feign horror at giant millepedes, worms, hissing cockroaches and pillbugs, they are interested and paying attention to what biology truly is supposed to be: the study of life.

It takes a little more effort to collect stuff and bring it into the classroom but it's fun and well worth the time. (The best thing I brought in this year was a squirrel tail that I found while watching my son play soccer--had just seen a rather large Red-tailed hawk minutes prior. I even did some salt cure taxidermy that demonstrated something in every bio curriculum--osmosis!)