Wednesday, July 2, 2008

A Book for a Teachable Moment

As a former teacher, I’m always on the lookout for the teachable moment. I define a teachable moment as one where an external event has caught someone’s attention creating an opening to expand and enlighten. The teacher can then connect the event to an agenda, which, in my case is usually science. There’s a group in Pittsburgh who have exploited this idea. Their mission is informal science education, putting post-it notes on the world. So, for example, they created signs with a physics lesson explaining the forces at work on a rollercoaster and posted them where people wait in line for the ride. I would like to put a post-it near a waterfall explaining how to experience the waterfall illusion (stare at the falling water for thirty seconds, shift your gaze to the bank at the side of the waterfall and it will appear to be moving upwards.) Or write the legends in a zoo explaining the most interesting things about the creature under observation. Or distribute a handout on the fourth of July with a field guide to the fireworks. Since those options are not available to me, I write books that answer questions most people don’t think to ask, knowing that the chances of anyone having the book in the right place at the right time are very slim. One of my series is called “Where’s the Science Here?” (Millbrook Press) And a perfect moment for one of the books is coming in the next few days when fireworks displays abound.

What key ingredient in gun powder (essential to fireworks) has a connection to outhouses? What color of fireworks is the most difficult to produce and is a measure of the quality of the fireworks display? Why don’t workers who assemble fireworks wear any synthetic fabrics? Could you identify a chrysanthemum, or silver willow or a hummer if you saw one? If you take my book to your Fourth of July celebration, you and the kids with you just might learn something.

I always make field trips when I research a project and this book was no exception. The payoff was attending a fireworks extravaganza at the South Street Seaport on the East River of Manhattan produced by the Zambelli family, one of America’s premier families of fireworks and a source of many of the photos in the book. We (I got my whole family invited) had VIP seats to see the action coming from a barge on the water. We heard the perfect synchronization between the music and the display, truly a wonder of choreography. It was the best I ever saw! There are some fabulous perks to this writing business! Happy Fourth, everyone!

No comments: