The Merlin

January 7, 2012

The Merlin

Filed under: Welcome! — Matt @ 8:06 am

Welcome to The Merlin, an online journal of our efforts to teach Science and Math to our children.

Each of us was at some point in our childhood inspired by a specific person or people to find joy in the world of science and math. I was fortunate to have parents and teachers who were excited about the natural world, and who transmitted that excitement to me.

My fondest childhood memories include the times when my father–an engineer who has always been interested in math and computers–showed me the rudiments of geometrical construction, how to use his already antique slide rule and (later) his programmable calculator, and how to solder circuits onto a single-board 6502 computer. I’m not sure if I learned, much less retained, many of the details he was showing me, but the effect of these discussions was to impress me with how deep even basic math is, and how much fun it can be to explore.

As a family we spent many weekends tidepooling at Point Reyes. Or we’d hike around the shell mounds at Coyote Hills, or visit the Lawrence Hall of Science, or shoot rockets off in the Laney College parking lot. I also remember elementary school field trips to the Oakland Museum, which at the time had an entire floor representing a transect across California’s ecological zones. A summer science camp at the Chabot Observatory not only gave us the opportunity to play in the planetarium, but to net Daphnia from the pond and onto a microscope slide and, occasionally, to play primitive games via teletype terminals hooked up to the mainframe computer. Later at Chabot, volunteer teachers showed students like me how to grind and polish a telescope mirror. (I still have mine–and still have plans to someday finish the telescope.)

The feature common to all of these childhood experiences is the presence of adults who took me seriously, and who started with the assumption that I wanted and was able to learn. They engaged my innate childhood curiosity, and playfully conveyed the elements of their intellectual lives that they found exciting.

This project- and play-based approach to teaching and learning is especially important for math and science. Those subjects are weighted with such heavy reputations that children often become intimidated before they have the chance to discover that math and science are simply elegant ways to ask questions about the world.

Teaching in a project-based or play-based fashion takes a lot of work, though, and requires that teachers have time to interact with their students one-on-one or in small groups. While I have been impressed by the energy and passion of the teachers my daughters have had so far, I am concerned that resources are becoming less available for the kind of project-based, small group instruction that is needed to allow a connection between student and teacher.

I am also dismayed when I hear about proposals to eliminate honors classes in San Francisco middle schools. These are often accompanied by credibility-straining assurances that ‘differentiated learning’ in math and science can take place in a completely heterogeneous class. In theory this may be true, but it is hard to believe that teachers under increasing pressure to address the needs of the lowest-performing students will simultaneously be able to challenge the students who are at the higher-performing end of the spectrum.

Every child deserves to be challenged to reach their full potential. It is falling on the parents and other community members to provide more of this challenge.

At Sunset Elementary school in San Francisco the Principal and PTA strive to emphasize science education. We have a wonderful outdoor science curriculum that takes place in our small teaching garden. We are introducing kids to artistic expression using computer technology. We have a lunch-time science opportunity every week, and every week we send students in grades K-2 home with a “Science Sack” that contains materials encouraging exploration with their parents of (for example) mineralogy, sound, or embryology.

But we can do a lot more. We can of course spend more time sharing our interests with our own children, but we also need to make sure that all children are challenged, regardless of their parents’ education, interest or available time.

On this blog we will be documenting our experiences in sharing our passion for science and math with our children and other kids in our community. We’ll present these as experiments, describing our goals and methods, and measuring how well we’ve met those goals by interviewing the children. Some of these experiments will be failures, but we will learn what works and what doesn’t.

Throughout the process, we plan to include links to the resources we use, and hope to solicit advice from our readers and stories about their own experiences.

Please join us, check back frequently, and let us know what you think.

-Matt

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