Sunday, April 18, 2010

A Walk in the Woods

The thing I miss the most (and probably the only thing) about living in the suburbs is that I could walk a few steps from my door and be in the woods. It was relatively easy for me to get so deep in the woods that I couldn’t see any of the surrounding houses. This is much more difficult (or at least time consuming) in the city and generally involves driving. Luckily I do live within walking distance of the Arnold Arboretum. I go to the arboretum a lot but last weekend we took our first walking tour and got to learn a little about some of the plants.

This walk in the “woods” had me thinking about two things related to natural history education. First is the notion that this isn’t really natural at all. Our guide even said, fairly close to the start, that the arboretum is more like a museum. I do love museums but you can’t get the same experience of exploring in a real ecosystem from strolling along wide boulevards and seeing intentionally planted plots that are mostly carefully manicured with non-native plants. After having visited the arboretum so many times, getting the tour felt almost like viewing taxidermied animals under glass. There was certainly something educational going on but my brain was thirsty for something different. Something more wild.

The second thing related to natural history education was reinforced by a talk I went to Monday night by a science writer. This is the role of the non-expert in science education. Now, I am certainly not an expert in science. I have a master’s degree but it is in education so I certainly fall into this category. Also, I would hazard that most science education below the university level is being done by non-experts. But I was struck by the amount of “I don’t knows” given by the tour guide and dubious or downright incorrect information given by the speaker on Monday. There’s nothing wrong with saying I don’t know. It is much preferable to giving out incorrect information. But I had come to the tour to learn about plants and there were very few plants I really feel like I learned anything about. And I cringed several times at Monday’s talk when I heard something that I knew would be taken the wrong way by the average listener.

Both of these experiences got me thinking: what is the role of the non-expert? What responsibility do any and all of us who teach science to young people have to make certain we have our facts straight and that we keep current with new research that may alter those facts? What methods and sources do we use to do this?

For myself I believe in nearly constant learning. I try to read science news on at least a weekly basis if not every day. When I don’t know the answer to a question someone asks me I almost always look it up. But then I have the time and curiosity for this. So I’ll leave you with the photos of arboretum plants.

Umbrella Pine

lindera augustifolia

Linden flower

Lavalle Cork Tree

Katsura Tree

Assorted Cherry Trees

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