Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Why "Hands-On" Anyhow?

April Pulley Sayre’s blog on May 28, “Nonfiction and Hands-On Science,” inspired me to continue the conversation:

The word “author” means “source.” Part of the job of an author is to be able to defend one’s work. So if someone asks, “How do you know?,” an author should have an answer. For writings in history or language arts, for example, often how we know is that we read it somewhere. So authors in scholarly disciplines cite the works of others to lend credence to their own work. Most people are not studious enough to follow a chain of footnotes in a history text back to an eyewitness account, which may not be all that accurate in the first place. And, as nonfiction authors for children, we all know that there is nothing like first-hand experience to enliven our texts and add credibility to our voices. But for science, “hands-on” means something more.

“How do you know?” is a question that every scientist can answer by saying, “Don’t take my word for it. This is what I did. If you do what I did, then you’ll know what I know.” In other words, scientists must be able to provide procedures so that others can replicate the behavior that produced their results, or not. When I wrote the
Marie Curie biography, I was fascinated to learn how the scientists of that day eagerly performed each others experiments, gaining new insights into phenomena about the structure of the atom from their varied perspectives, deepening and enriching their collective knowledge. Science advances because of a community of shared experiences. Everyone who is interested can see for themselves. The knowledge accumulated this way is not merely a collection of anecdotes or hearsay, but an overwhelming body of first-hand evidence.

How we know, in science, is central to what we know. Hands-on experience in observing nature and doing experiments teaches kids how to do science, just as giving kids art supplies lets them be artists. You cannot truly understand science unless you know how it works. Last week I watched a History Channel program called
“The Link” about finding a 47 million-year-old fossil that may be a transitional specie between the primates that became modern lemurs and the primates that became apes and humans. The program recounted the various ways scientists from several disciplines studied the fossil and come to their conclusions about its life and death. It ended with the famed Dr. Leakey saying that he didn’t “believe” in evolution because evolution is like gravity. It is an indisputable fact, not something that may or may not exist so that you can choose whether or not to believe in it. When you see the nitty-gritty of how scientists studied this fossil, there is no way to make sense out of it without the fact of evolution.

The biggest problem I have with some hands-on science activities is that there is little or no connection between an activity and the questions it illuminates, or even why you’d want to know about it in the first place. So many science activity books just gratuitously give directions for things to do without giving the reader any reason to do them. That kind of “hands-on” is only fun if you’re making an explosion or a volcano. That’s why I write with hands-on activities in context. A good example is in
I Face the Wind. Catching air in a plastic bag is a “So what!” unless the reader gets that this proves that air is “real stuff” even if you can’t see it, smell it or taste it, and you can only feel it when it moves or when it is trapped in a plastic bag and you can push against it. Even the most mundane activity takes on import and drama when presented in a context that makes the outcome of an activity significant.

So it is our job as authors who write hands-on activities to create the context through language that makes these experiences meaningful for our readers. This is where our individual passions and enthusiasms shine through and make our writing distinctive.

1 comment:

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

Even though I don't write my own hands-on science experiments for kids, I've gotten a huge kick out of including plenty of elegant, funny, easy-to-understand experiments made by a couple of guys in my books. Many of these use materials you can find around the house and are "hands-on" enough for kids too. (My clever guys are Ben Franklin [How Ben Franklin Stole the Lightning] and Charles Darwin [What Darwin Saw])

I hope that seeing someone famous do science experiments kids can wrap their minds and hands around could be a great incentive for future science types.