Benicia Education

As you know, our group has several tentacles. The Benicia group is very active. You may remember that Dot’s article about population growth even “made” the Benicia newspaper. Now I bring you news of two more actions from Benicia, California. The first is Marilyn’s letter in answer to my recent rant about education. Her letter is posted below.

The second activity is a lecture series sponsored by The Community Sustainability Commission, collaborating with Solano Community College. The lecture series is intended to help us understand and fulfill our obligation to create a more sustainable community and economy, to reduce our impacts on climate and respect, repair and restore the natural world around us. The series is entitled:

“Stewards of Our Children’s Future: 2011… For Ecologic + Economic Health = Community Resilience.” CSC.flyer for lecture series.3.21.11

The lectures begin April 12, run for 6 weeks, and will be posted on UTube and we will plan to maintain copies in our library at the Peach Clubhouse. The commission is also planning a longer series beginning in the summer.

But today we hear from Marilyn in Benicia.

Last night, several of us Sustainability Commissioners on the edu workshop, attended Mary Farmer Elementary school’s science fair, which was set up in a multipurpose room at the school in Benicia, California. There were about 12 long tables set up, and each one had room for about 4 projects, each done as a panel display, (main panel in the center, two wings on the side). It was clear that the science teacher had given guidance and limits as to the formatting of the displays, which did remind me of an international cell-biology conference held in San Francisco, which several of us had been invited to drop in on, to view the displays. The studies involved hypotheses about sources for evolutionary changes in various critters (for instance, about evolution of dorsal fin structure in dolphins).

Anyway, I was impressed to see the kids’ displays and what they’d chosen to investigate. Each display outlined, in the child’s own words, (this varied, depending on age and whether info was sought by computer search, etc) a subject problem that would be probed by investigation, observation and experiment. Also noted: the hypothesis, the chosen method that would be pursued to accomplish a comparative study; tools involved; controls and limits, including time frames; journal entries of observations made, and finally, a conclusion that restated the hypothesis and the “result” derived. The last statement was “what I learned” from doing the experiment. I think you would have been moved. There were kids at all grade levels up to 6th grade involved, yet the requirements for the studies were consistent, so that even a kindergarten level project demonstrated that the child had learned about the nature of an experiment and how to think through the process of investigation, how to observe, etc etc. Some of the projects were very simple to accomplish. For example, to show how an egg could be made to float, the child only needed a wide beaker, water, an egg, and lots of salt. Photos were taken of the egg in the glass as more salt was added to the water. The last photo showed a floating egg. The project had been defined in terms of a question to be answered: “What is density?” There were other pictures explaining the concept–of a fist being pushed through a bowl of popcorn, and by contrast, a fist being “stopped” by a hard popcorn ball. There was a brief statement about the molecular character of different materials as related to the idea of density, so that the invisible structure of water and that of an egg could be compared by virtue of how much space a particular molecule occupied in relation to others in its vicinity. So, even a very simple experiment, to float an egg, had huge import for learning about the physical world.

What was evident was the level and quality of instruction by the several science teachers whose classes were represented.

The problem you cite about the quality of science education, or lack thereof, (teaching by memorization–too true, I imagine, in undergrad training for medicine!), is not limited to the physical sciences. Twenty-five years ago, studies in liberal arts became “fuzzied up” or politicized, “PC’d” or what have you, until you could hardly think why you were bothering to read a book rather than its annotated “deconstructed” version produced either by venerated lit critters installed in various named chairs at ivy league schools, or, echoed by the lower level acolytes of same, stuck and underpaid at Podunk State College. Sociological analysis trumped any tribute to feeling for the ineffable qualities so intrinsic to great works of art. (Example: a third-rate etching of sowers in the field could be rendered “equal” to a Van Gogh or Millet, if a work’s cultural value is made equivalent to its social content and “lessons” thus derived about class and whatever other topical issue prized. Apparently, there’s hope that this fashion is waning… none too soon. It’s a dismal situation, but havoc is being wrought, departments are being dismantled or drastically cut, so that maybe all that will be left is the facsimile, “edu online”. If there ever was the opportunity for serious teaching, (and there were always noble teaching efforts made by a few who really stood out, looking back) now there’s going to be even less opportunity and hope for real mentoring and apprenticing… well, the worst case scenario may be the only affordable option anymore.

Your rant about people not being able to discern FACT from OPINION with regard the physical laws of the universe, and also, about the applied uses scientific research is driven toward and where we’ve ended up without sense of restraint or judgment as to long term effects, etc. etc., speaks to a VERY DEEP problem of communication, considering the propaganda for status quo, and given the enormous deficit in people’s grasp of the interrelatedness of all things and beings on the planet, and how utterly dependent we are on a maintained healthy diversity of life and living systems on land and in the oceans. It seems there’s hardly any discussion of the concept of a closed system and LIMITS. I’m especially sensitive to the kind of casual banter about promoting “sustainability” as if discussion of ecology were a sidebar discussion not central to conceiving of a “more sustainable” way of life. So few seem to understand the fundamental necessity of the concept of LIMITS. We seem in a rush to talk about making a “green economy” while avoiding the third rail discussions pertinent to how, in a short space of time, in no more than 150 years, have we reached such a point of accelerated declines of all earth’s ancient resources. After 30+ years, even after the second book “Beyond Limits to Growth”, it’s still difficult to get anyone to spend more than a few minutes talking about “overshoot” of the planet’s carrying capacity by expanding populations. (The “Story of Progress”, the single reignite story we continue to tell ourselves, according to Greer is the most destructive mythos humankind has ever promulgated.) How to bring people toward deeper understanding of the core problem is a central question for those of us who find ourselves working with others on projects that might invite such learning, such as the aquaponics project proposed to us by Randy, as we gardened on Wednesday.

A project such as aquaponics suggests invites curiosity, and a learning opportunity about closed systems–at least, until you take a fish out of the water and eat it. That, too, is a lesson! Perhaps there should be an altar nearby, where a ceremonial act of gratitude could be performed to acknowledge the taking of a fish from its tank. The utilitarian function of such a project, e.g., to provide food for others and also plausible income for those operating it, can also shed light on the problem of producing more food for more people — when do we stop having so many mouths to feed anyway? Why not fund birth control centers everywhere instead and build schools for girls and get women into colleges?

Well, as always, your meditations and “rants” open up whole realms of questions to ponder. In the end, we address both the immediate sense of urgency and emergency (I love how the word “emergency” suggests an emergent “thing”, no matter whether a crisis or the bloom on a rose in spring), but we can’t help ourselves but look way farther out and around, beyond our own deaths, about the fate of our wondrous world and to that “end”, what our brief time here means.

Marilyn talks about aquaponics because that is another of the education proposals of the Benicia Council. More about that very active group in an upcoming blog.

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