What's on Dr. Ardizzone's mind...

This week’s blog appears in the Huffington Post. Dr. A is a blogger there…

A few weeks ago I posted the following to five upper Manhattan list-serves of which I am a member: “Storefront Science wonders where all the girls are?” My rhetorical query was a direct response to the disturbingly low number of girls enrolled in our after-school programs and a plea for more girls to take part in these science programs.
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Post by Storefront Science instructor Debi Linton

Half way between where I sit and the advance guard of Winter Storm Nemo, sits a bucket that contains a lot of formalin and two large freshwater mussels. Also on that table is two bivalve pairs, cleaned out yesterday after we hacked up the mussels inside them.

It was a messy, disorganized process that hit a snag very early on when I handed the kids (aged on a continuous spectrum between 5 and 10) their mussels and told them to prise them open. In the 10 years since I last carried out a mussel vivisection during my undergraduate degree, muggins here forgot about the ridiculously strong adductor muscles that keep the shell firmly closed even in death. What resulted was five straight minutes of me hacking between the shells with a scalpel while fending off such “helpful” instructions as “SMASH IT WITH A HAMMER!”

(Meanwhile, one of our high school interns sliced the second open with no problems.)

At no point did it look like this. Image Credit: University of Wisconsin

Teaching with an age group as diverse as this one isn’t easy. Especially when there are scalpels involved: when the enthusiastic explorers are hacking flesh apart, I find my attention ripped away by younger children who, at the end of a long school day and nearing the end of an even longer school week, are losing their grip on their ‘indoor voice’ button. At the end of the class, one mussel was ripped asunder, and the other neglected and under appreciated.

It certainly wasn’t a textbook example of how a dissection class should go. And even though I’m still improving as a teacher, there are ways in which this class if never going to look like the focused, guided classes I remember from high school and college. And if it ever does, I’ll be doing my kids a disservice.

So why am I ripping animals apart with the help of children as young as five? What could they be getting out of it?

Well, I don’t expect the elementary schoolers to be able to label a detailed diagram of muscle internal anatomy. I don’t really expect them to be able to explain what we found (and didn’t find) when we pulled apart a Grantia specimen a few weeks ago, either. As much as I’m a – excuse me – sponge for facts sometimes, facts are not the point here. There are other things I’m hoping to impart to my students as we pick apart everything from a porifera to a frog.

1. Getting your ‘ews’ out
Dissection is on the face of it, a pretty gross act. Formalin smells. Gut contents can feature heavily when, for example, you’re cutting up an earthworm. We have, learned from the people around us, picked up this idea that anatomy is icky and that animal bodies – and by extension our own – are therefore taboo, disgusting things. We moved past the ‘ew’ phase pretty quickly in our worm lessons, and there’s a culture of respect coming out.

2. Activation of Interest
“Ugh, we going to cut something up?” in the first week from one of the boys, became “please can we dissect next week too?” within the course of an hour. Because, honestly? Getting your hands on a real, once living animal and being able to see a part of it you never have (and, let’s be honest, the ‘ew’ factor) is fun. It’s not something you do often (at least, not until you realize that every meal time is actually a dissection class, and your friends vow never to eat chicken in front of you again) and it’s exciting. Igniting a kid’s interest in science is rarely more complicated than showing them a new way to explore.

3. Experience gives Meaning
It’s nice to know things. But knowledge means absolutely nothing until you’ve seen, heard, felt, experienced something. I’m looking out of the storefront right now at a New York street being covered in snow. I know that snow is cold, but I understand how cold it is and even what cold means because I have stood outside in snow and been cold and wet and felt the bite. It’s all very well telling kids that bivalves have gills that serve the same function as a fish’s gills until they’ve seen, touched felt, accessed those gills themselves. No one wants to hear me lecture. Not when the alternative is experience.

4. Repetition and Familiarity
There’s a reason we started with sponges: they are relatively simple, there’s not too much to see (although, as with everything, what there is depends on the experience of your eye and the knowledge of what to look for.) While I tend to avoid discussion of ‘primitive’ and ‘advanced’ in zoology, getting used to guts and hearts and muscles will come in handy when faced with the detailed interior of a frog.

5. Conceptual Framework
One word I have no intention of bringing up in class is “homology” – although I expect that one or two of the 9/10 year olds will eventually ask a question that will force it out of me. We’re creating a biodiversity catalog, we’re not discussing evolutionary relationships. (We only have an hour a week. We only have time for taxonomy and anatomy.) I’m not going to discuss how bilateral and radial symmetry may have evolved. But we have seen some animals that are symmetrical in a mirror and some that are rotational. We’ve seen that the digestive system has some important similarities among phyla. When it comes to vertebrates, the heart, lungs, skeleton, stomach will be right there. I don’t care whether or not someone will be able to say exactly what a mollusc has in common with a frog, but once you look inside, the similarities are there. And when they are ready to start thinking about the interrelationships between animals, ourselves included, they will always have the memory of exactly how alike we all are underneath.

I was lucky enough to have parents who loved science. They weren’t scientists. They didn’t even go to college. But they were inquisitive and creative and they shared their desire to “know the world” with me and my brothers.  I like to joke that as a working class Italian kid I learned three important things: 1) how to fix a toilet, 2) how to make a lasagna, and 3) how to throw a punch.  They’ve all come in handy over the years, and well, they all involve science.

 My understanding of the mechanical and built world and my curiosity for “how things work” was fostered by my dad, who only recently retired as a mechanical contractor. He taught me how to fix a toilet as well as how boilers worked, how to read blue prints, how to calculate estimates, etc. And these practical applications of science set me on my science path at a very young age.

My mom, who had aspirations to be a doctor, loved life science and invited me into the world of health and how the human body worked.  Pictures of her dissecting a rat may have unwittingly led me to my undergraduate research on red-spotted newts. My mom and Nonna and Aunt’s all taught me about food and cooking. I am happiest when in my kitchen and love the “science of creation” when I get to make meals for family and friends.

I continue this tradition of ‘Science as a Family Affair’ with my daughter Rafaella. In NYC, and especially at Storefront Science, we are constantly engaged in playing “Why” (but we play “Wii” at home).  “Why does that happen?”, she asks. “Why do you think?”, I respond. And back and forth until we reach a conclusion or another question.  We also get out of New York every summer and go exploring.  Our explorations are multi-disciplinary – geography, foreign language, history and…you guessed it, science! This summer in Italy, we explored the sea and her creatures, we stared at the night sky and saw stars we rarely see because of city lights, we saw baby peacocks frolic among cacti, we bought pesce spada (swordfish) cut fresh from the fish, and we visited the Pantheon and marveled at its structure and function.

Every day, my parents, daughter and I engage with and realize the power of science and so can you.  Parents, ask your kids simple questions about complex things and kids, challenge your parents with your own observations of the world. You don’t have to be a scientist to engage in scientific thinking. Just ask WHY?!

Please join me and my family at StoSci for the wonder and excitement that is SCIENCE!

I’ve been an educator for over 20 years; I have an undergraduate degree in biology, a Master’s degree in science education and a doctorate in International Educational Development. For most of my professional life, I’ve worked in science education – as a middle and high school teacher for high-risk youth, as a museum educator, as a university professor and as a non-profit executive.  After 20 years in the science education business, the only conclusion I can draw is that science education doesn’t seem to matter to the American public and the folks that run our public school system.  So many of the schools that I have worked with relegate science to “enrichment” sometimes by choice but more often due to state and local policies that drive the school-level de-emphasis of science, like yearly high stakes tests of literacy and math. 

So few places actually offer REAL science to kids. And fewer still have highly qualified instructors leading children on their science journey. When science does happen, it usually focuses on content (and very narrow conceptions of this – really, how many times can kids study the water cycle or the life stages of a butterfly?) and getting “right” answers (uh…while truth is the ultimate goal of science, making mistakes are wonderful bumps in the learning road!). Where is the exploration? Where is the curiosity? Where are the errors? Where is the mess? Where is the PROCESS?

So, last spring, with my frustration at a head, my friend Tory suggested I open a science education center. I thought that was an awful idea! How could I pull that off? With what money? While I was finishing up my work at the Salvadori Center I started to seriously consider the idea of starting my own education center. Maybe I could do it after all. Why work for someone else when I have my own VISION of what I want science to be for children and families? If I wanted to see some real change, I should do what the little girl inside of me always loved to do (and, well, still loves to do): PLAY SCIENCE.

 And then the moment arrived. Sitting on the beach last summer with my daughter Rafaella, I decided to go for it. Rafaella had just dissected a squid at the Block Island Maritime Institute and then we went collecting hermit crabs…and I looked at her and said “what if we did this all the time, with city kids?”

Her natural curiosity and optimism bubbled up and the ideas started flowing. Within a week, we had written our business plan (yes, Rafaella threw in many great ideas), concocted a name, explored start-up funding, located potential commercial real estate and called my designer to come up with our “brand”. The fast and furious pace paid off and we opened our doors in January 2012.

In many ways, Storefront Science is a dream come true. I may not have carried this idea as a “goal” my whole life, but I have carried my love of science and my passion for inviting children into my “world of wonder” for so many years. Finally, after years of working inside a system that just didn’t get it, I can do science how it is meant to be done – with a focus on QUESTIONING, EXPLORATION, and PROCESS. I invite you and your family to come play with me. We have a ton of fun and you will also see your children understanding complex science concepts by making meaning for themselves.

As ole Albert Einstein said, “the important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”