Monday, March 22, 2010

The Old Man and the Shark Jaw

Not long ago I was tasked with visiting a conservative religious school along with a colleague and our stalwart tide pool animals. We were told explicitly that we were not allowed to mention evolution. A lot of thoughts went through my head because one of the primary reasons I am a science educator is to do my part to improve evolution literacy in this country. When I met my coworker that day we discussed what we could and could not mention. We decided to verge on the side of caution and not talk about adaptation, animal relationships or anything that could remotely be mistaken for Darwinism. Both of us were a little nervous.

On that day we decided to bring along a box full of shark jaws as well. A little while into our stay I was approached by an older man, probably a parent or a teacher or both, and he immediately launched into a series of questions. “So they have no molars? How do they chew? Oh, so they just tear off chunks and swallow them whole? I see the replacement teeth, is that all they get? Oh, so they just keep re-growing them? What if they lose just one and not a whole set?” We talked for maybe ten minutes. It made me really happy because it defeated the stereotype in my mind that conservative religious people aren’t curious about science. This person at least was intensely curious about mako sharks and their teeth and jaws. He came back about half an hour later and asked me a few more questions that had boiled to the surface.

This got me thinking about a few things, especially in light of my attempted “discussion” about how people got interested in natural history/biology. I thought about the power of natural artifacts and live animals to inspire a kind of curiosity that may lay dormant in most people. I find myself with a more or less insatiable thirst for information. It kind of defines what I do on a day to day basis. But for most people the inclination to go searching through textbooks and other sources of information to the answers to questions about shark teeth doesn’t pop out of nowhere. But as soon as they come face to face with a shark jaw questions start coming up. Even better when there’s a guy like me standing behind said shark jaw to field those questions.

If you are an educator how do you use natural artifacts or live animals/plants/other organisms to inspire curiosity? Even if you don’t have access to the collection of some established institution can you find ways to use nature as a direct teaching tool? Since spring is here I’ve been thinking about plants and gardening a lot. What about using a vegetable garden as a tool for learning about natural history? I wonder if anyone has tried this and what it looks like. Or even simply tromping out and seeing what you can find (like crocuses) and trying to use that as a teaching tool?

I can’t resist ending on this amazing natural history fact about sharks: I found out recently that their teeth are actually modified from their scales. If you look at a shark scale under a microscope you will see the resemblance of these two structures. The scales developed in a tooth-like shape, the broad side facing towards the shark’s face and the point facing away, to decrease drag while the animal swims. In very primitive sharks it was some of these scales that eventually became teeth.

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