Guest: A simple tool to spark student passion for science
If you are committed to the education of anyone — child or adult — buy them a magnifying loupe or hand lens, writes guest columnist Nicholas Money.
Special to The Times
Nicholas Money will talk about his new book at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at a Town Hall Seattle event. Tickets are $5.
WE haven’t done a good job convincing the next generation that studying biology is exciting. By we, I mean me, a 52-year-old college professor, as well as most of my peers in higher education and teachers in K-12 classrooms.
This indictment stems from surveys showing low levels of scientific literacy in the United States, and, anecdotally, the vacant expressions on the faces of students in introductory biology classrooms. And, there is an unnerving level of mistrust in science and scientists.
Fortunately, I have a solution, and it was invented in the 17th century.
If you are committed to the education of anyone — child or adult — buy them a magnifying loupe or hand lens. Even a cheap 10-power lens is a wondrous device, providing greater magnification than any human experienced before 1610. That’s when Galileo said he began viewing insects with a lengthened version of his telescope.
Other inventors claim priority for inventing the microscope, but Galileo’s friends published the first magnified images of bees using his tabletop occhialino in 1625. And what they saw was astonishing: multi-paned eyes of the insects looking like tiny Tudor windows, hairy legs, the intricacies of the mouth parts and sharpness of the sting. Nobody had seen a bee like this.
Microscope design improved swiftly and the first views of microorganisms — fungi sprouting from a moldy book cover — were published by Robert Hooke in 1665. The simplest microscopes today are better than anything used back then. Even young children can be shown how to observe the tiny forms of life in pond water and see cells scraped from inside their own cheeks.
With proper guidance, a child’s first glimpse of his or her own cells can be a moment of explosive recognition. You are made of these translucent blobs — they look like tiny fried eggs, and the yolk in the center is where the 23 pairs of chromosomes that you inherited from your parents are housed. All living things are cells, from the amoeba in the pond to the trillions of cells in your body.
Upon seeing bacteria swimming in a drop of water, it takes creativity to relate these morsels of life to the liter of microbes that live in the colon. Like distances between stars, the size of cells is difficult to grasp. Ten thousand bacteria fit within the period at the end of this sentence.
Students with poor vision, or without sight, can enjoy these revelations with the collaboration of a sighted partner. Imagination is needed on the part of the sighted and sightless to make sense of biology.
The emotional value of magnification and comprehension of the composite nature of our bodies are important consequences of this microbiological education. If we don’t begin with cells, it is impossible to drill down to the level of molecules, which is where so much of biology teaching should lead.
But there are more pressing reasons for this re-evaluation. Humans have always focused on elephants and oak trees and ignored smaller species. We have expanded our purview a bit, but anything tinier than an ant still gets short shrift from most biologists.
This is a mistake, because most of life is microscopic, and without microbes we are toast. Tens of millions of bacteria live in a pinch of soil, a cup of seawater contains 100 million planktonic cells, and 1 quadrillion bacteria help digest the food in our gut. Marine diatoms make glass shells that sparkle in the sunlight and absorb more carbon dioxide than all of the rain forests. How many people know these things exist?
The importance of microorganisms isn’t a secret, but we keep being sidelined by our narcissism. We miscast biology like an English teacher who tells students that Harry Potter is the beginning and end of Western literature. It is time to recognize the amoeba in the room and introduce every child to a microscope.