Saturday, June 26, 2010

AP Biology and Clever Hans

Tonight we jumped into the bay as the sun settled on the water's edge. My hand felt the surreal density of a comb jelly--the touch feels almost imaginary.

The comb jelly and I both rely on the sun. We both take in organic matter, strip off a few electrons and put them to work, then cough up the electrons back into oxygen, releasing water.

As I dove under the surface, I could see the glow of the sunset even under water. A few moments later, a pod of dolphins passed within 30 yards.

In a few months, I am going to be teaching students about cellular respiration and electron transport chains and mitochondrial cytochromes. Most will dutifully take notes. Few will connect the biochemistry to the beauty that surrounds them.

Something happened billions of years ago. That something has been playing out a long time, long enough for comb jellies and me to bump into each other, one life form as odd as the other.

But not that long...put a sequence of my DNA into the comb jelly, and its cells will make my proteins. If that's not disturbing, you're not paying attention.

(Paying attention costs energy. Organisms cannot afford to waste too much energy doing nonessential tasks. The ease of the iPod reflects over 3 billion years of evolution. Go us.)
Abstract models of mitochondria passing electrons down an energy gradient do not excite most folks. Quite a few of my kids have never planted seeds before. Many have never seen the ocean, despite living just a few miles from tidal waters.

Biology a few decades ago was about exposing children to the wide variety of life around us. Now it's about invisible reactions. And while watching a child spew off biochemical cycles may appear amazing, they know no more than Clever Hans, the Counting Horse, tapping out square roots.

Or maybe a lesson in illusions is what
they need to function in our culture.


I'm going to take a chance on trusting my love of biology to carve out my curriculum this year. Who knows? Maybe once kids know what exists they'll become curious about the how.


Barry Bachenheimer said...

Or their interest in bio will be influenced by national events. When globs of oil make their way to the Jersey shore or droplets of oil come in the rains of hurricane season to appear on their cars or homes, they'll want to know why and how it will effect them, their children, and their children's children.

doyle said...

Dear Barry,

Yes, except that their interest is sparked by a local event, the tarring of our beaches, the desecration of something we love.

Any education worth a darn is about modifying behaviors, about fixing what we love, and knowing our limits, knowing what we cannot fix. In a word, education is about the local. (OK, two words...)