If you have not seen this TED talk, go there today. It is short and well worth every second.
When I got to the end of the talk one memory from childhood came up and it was a pivotal moment that shaped me as I am.
We were living in Ontario and for some reason dad left his language lab and took his family on a field trip with some colleagues. While I don’t know where we went I can describe it like it was yesterday (or at least how my brain remembers that day, which, of course, may be a little different given that the neurons that made the initial recording have probably been “recycled” but I digress).
The forest was growing over a vast expanse of limestone and this rock had been eroded deeply so that we had to leap over fissures. The thrill of doing this was tremendous, thrilling, dangerous. And when I think about a recent mishap with my young family when my wife stumbled on a limestone wave cut platform and fell while holding our youngest…
Still, the memory from Canada stuck with me. No-one was hurt, but the dopamine that flooded my system was strongly associated with a hundred “whys”. Why was the rock cut so deep in places? Why were we walking on a platform and not over a series of spikes? How did the trees on that platform get enough water? Was there evidence of animals that had stumbled and fallen into the cracks?
As an aside, the caves along South Australia’s coast offer a tremendous amount of information to anyone game to rappel down because they are well endowed with the bones of fallen animals; perhaps a little gruesome when you stop to think about it but the opportunity that these animals had to rot quietly has meant that their carcasses are reasonably complete.
Would I be game to run a science trip on such a terrain? Perhaps not because with a sufficiently large number of children the chances of having to call an ambulance becomes a near certainty. I mean, I drove a group of university students up the coast of Western Australia and one had to go to town urgently due to something that happened in the field. Coasts can be treacherous.
I have hung from the side of a cliff while scooping fossil echinoderms out of a narrow strata. What I found very sobering was that that particular unit slumped some years later as a child walked under it, with their father. While a geo is trained to see boulders at the bottom of a cliff as a warning of more to come the general public are not primed to appreciate the danger.
But what of exposing children to danger? Are we playing it too safe?
I’d love to market a bioreactor kit but there are serious safety barriers to acknowledge.
How many schools have fume hoods in their science labs? And how many kids are taught how to work with a naked flame? When I was a child these things were taken for granted, but in touring schools locally I have found that science labs look alien to me, as though the plan now is that children will learn all that they need to via a tablet.
Danger teaches us caution and it provides a wonderful rush of excitement. Surely it is our job to help students to experiment more safely at school than they are likely to experiment at home.
Playing it safe might not only be tempting children to do dangerous things in their “own time” but it might also be losing children from a life in science because “nothing exciting happens in our classroom”.