Friday, December 5, 2008

Rambling in December

We drove down to Cape May tonight. It's likely to be too cold to go clamming tomorrow, and the tides refuse to cooperate with the brief daylight we have now anyway, so I might catch up with schoolwork.

Not sure this is universal, but here in Bloomfield the first week of December tends to be a long week. Thanksgiving is done, yule is coming. It's the time of year that keys get lost, kids act out, aging parents die, and most of us are a little off kilter. We pretend otherwise, but we're bucking two or three billion years of evolution here.

We need more light.

After a skip down the Garden State Parkway I grab a Ballantine Ale. In June I can drink a bottle of ale without a whole lot of thought--the world is jumping with life, and introspection just seems silly. No need to question life when its spilling out of the earth, the air, the water. June is noisy and bright and fresh and we're blessed with more energy that we know what to do with--so we dance.

December, however, requires a reason to move. Despite modern amenities, our bodies still believe (and what our bodies believe matters more than we care to admit) that any expenditure of energy requires a real good reason. Our ancestors who refused to believe this died before the next summer solstice.

Most of what we do in a day does not have a good reason, but we do it anyway.

In June, I would not even think about the bottle cap, the bottle, the label, the mucilage that holds the label. I would drink my ale, a gift, and toss the bottle back into recycling, participating in the cultural magical belief that recycling makes waste OK.

Aluminum is a relatively recent discovery--it wasn't until the 19th century that a method was developed to grab the metal out of bauxite, and it was more expensive than gold.

Napoleon used aluminum plates to impress his guests. Today we use it to cap our beer, then nonchalantly toss it in the garbage.

The cap is lined with polyethylene terephthalate, or PETE, made from ethylene glycol, which is made from ethylene and ultimately tied to the products of photosynthesis millions of years ago. Without oil, the plastics industry could not exist.

The bottle itself is made of glass, a combination of silica, lime, and aluminum oxide. The bottle in my hand was recently over 1500°C. It's a nice 3°C before my hand warms it up.

I could tell my students all this, but all they're going to hear is that the teacher drinks beer.

The human part of beer packaging is truly amazing, but the stuff inside defies our knowledge.

Yeast need to eat, just like we do. And like us, when oxygen's around their mitochondria are busy busting up sugars, releasing the energy captured by a plant. (No doubt the plant had not planned on giving up its work to some foreign organism, but humans are not much better at planning what to do with their organic compound once they're done using them either.)

Unlike us, however, yeast can survive when the oxygen's scarce. While we rely on oxygen to take up electrons once we've drained all the excitement out of them, yeast have an alternative way to absorb the electrons from the sugars they break if oxygen's not around: fermentation.

Strangle a yeast cell and it will reward you with ethanol.

Next week we will make ethanol in class to highlight fermentation. I will yammer on about ethanol and anaerobic conditons and electron transfer (yawn) and we will brew a big batch of hooch using nothing more than water, yeast, sucrose, and a smattering of yeast nutrient.

I won't call it hooch, and most of them will not notice we made booze in class.

What do students see today? What do any of us see?

When they were born, planes already flew, the internet already hummed, and their parents' faces were already lit by monitors. Their world is ensconced in a sound track.

They buy water in PET bottles, listen to music from iPods, and define government by slogans. Even their dreams are molded by the corporate media surrounding them.

None of this is their fault, but I think the older crew does not realize the extent of the artifical world surrounding our children.

I'm spoiled. I am eating an apple tonight from an orchard of a friend, a farm that holds what phyiscally remains of my sister. It is possible a few of her molecules bumped into mine tonight.

I am listening to a CD by Jeff and Vida, a couple who knew my sister. I can play along with a guitar or a harmonica, and if the power goes out tonight, the music will not stop.

This week a child in my class was disgusted by the idea that I swim in pondwater. I had brought some to class for a lab. I asked her to smell it. She did, and to her credit she realized she like the smell, "it smells like summer." The pondwater became less alien.

This week a child in my class was surprised to learn that the sun gets lower in the winter. To his credit he was brave enough to ask if it will rise again. I assured him it would, but had I told the truth (as in what I believe, not what I know) I would have had to admit that I had my doubts.

This week in class a child realized that the Big Bang theory has the same flaw the Cell Theory does--it cannot explain origins. They are both good theories, and they both explain a good chunk of the world as we know it. To his credit he started to distinguish between what we can know, and what we cannot, and did not dismiss either theory because of its limits.

This week in class students planted again--and next week we will all be amazed when radishes and beans and wheat and oat arise from dank peat moss.

I think it's time to make bread in class. I can bring in some wheat, then grind it up. We can throw in some yeast. We can watch it rise. I've avoided this in the past because it is impossible to make decent bread if you let it rise too long.

I can talk about yeast for 17 hours, draw fancy equations on the Smartboard, show a United Streaming clip about wheat, and show a slide show on the commercial manufacturing of bread.

I can then test it--one or two students will ace the test, most will fall somewhere in the high C, low B range, and a few will randomly fill in bubbles on the scantron.

Or we can make bread.

Which will they remember when June rolls round again?

The bread is by Jessica Pierce, the iPods from the Apple site, the Ballantine from the Ballantine site


Chris said...

This is the Dr. Doyle that gave me a new outlook on science. Another one of those things that reminds me what's important. Cheers.

Louise Maine said...

I am having these conversations more and more. People here are worried kids are not getting the content. Never mind that I can offer them deeper understanding into materials and connections that they will remember for awhile. Forget the school as we know it with movies and lectures, etc. And using a smartboard to deliver them does not improve instruction. Inquiry as you do it, does.

doyle said...

Dear Chris,

Thanks for the warm words--it's not the science that matters as much as thing (let's call it "universe", but the word seems to narrow) science tries to explain.

Dear Louise,

"Inquiry as you do it, does."
I wish my class went anywhere as smoothly as a blog. Defining what happens in a classroom by what's posted on a blog is like learning about emergency rooms through the television show ER. While both reflect real events, there's plenty of time when I worked in the ER when we did little more than discuss why cold medicines don't work, assure mothers that a day without pooping is not always fatal, and some rare blessed hours we did absolutely nothing.

I could spend 2 months tying bread to all kinds of science, but also to culture. That I even have to think in terms of "science" and "culture" (or "English" and "history" and however else we divide the day into 48 minute pedagogical bites) shows we have a problem.

The only time we can safely dwell on the big questions, the big mysteries, without looking like the village idiots is when we're in mosques, temples, or churches (and I'm sure I left a plenty analogous places out), safely tucked under roofs, usually led by someone appointed to make sure our minds wander just far enough not to get in trouble.

Ima Hapynau said...

I teach jailed kids how to paint (not draw but to paint). They think being able to write in "cursive" is a most remarkable achievement. They are 13-17 years of age (both boys and girls).
They know about their area code (many have it tattooed on their hands, arm or face) and not much more than that. It is appalling how little they've been taught in the public schools in Texas. It is shameful!

Angela the Magnificent said...

That is a beautiful bread. I should me making bread at home instead of making numbers at work...

doyle said...

Dear Happy,

Your work sounds phenomenal! Do the kids get to post their work anywhere?

(When I worked inner city, I was amazed by the artwork of the elementary students--the content shattered any illusions.)

I understand the frustration at both ends now--if we insist as a culture that all our kids will be able to learn at the same rate, a bucket load of them will get left behind, far behind.

Ah, Angela!

Get yourself over to jayppea's flickr site--she posts a lot of what she bakes, sews, grows--oh, and cats.

Ima Hapynau said...

We collect paintings from the kids each year (they get to keep 4 out of every five paintings they do on canvas paper) and the real estate board gets 120 of them framed and holds a silent art auction where absolutely everything sells. The money from that comes back to the program and buys all art supplies and pays me. The incentive for them is they bring their families and we give them certificates and honor them before the crowd and furnish a great feast, as well. Most don't come to the auction as they are long gone, some re-incarcerated, very few rehabilitated but those who do are SO proud and so excited when they see their paintings framed. We just hope to plant a seed of self confidence and teach a skill. 98% LOVE to paint.
I read an article about how crime and creativity go hand in hand...that would explain why we get such great artwork!

doyle said...

Dear Ima,

Any place on the web we might peek at some of those paintings?