WANTS TO BE AN -IST?
decided the session had been a success when I heard one fourth-grader
say to another, "I want to be an 'ist' of some sort when I grow
up." His friend replied, "So do I. That's what I'm going to
do in college."
students had just left the third session of a science club at a local
elementary school. I had agreed to be an adviser, which really means
being an after-hours teacher. The experience has been simultaneously
challenging and most gratifying. Second-, third- and fourth-graders
make ideal students. They don't yet have in-depth knowledge about any
topic, including science, which means they have nothing to unlearn.
What they do have in abundance are curiosity and unfettered imaginations,
which lead to open-minded thinking well outside any proverbial box.
day was rainy and cold. I had wanted to take the science club outside
to see what living plants or animals we could find associated with trees
in the schoolyard. Fortunately, I had taken the previous day's weather
forecast seriously and prepared for an indoor exercise. I had gone into
my backyard and a nearby wooded area and within minutes picked up 20
small limbs. Each one had lichens growing on it. Although lichens look
like a single organism, they actually represent a complex relationship
between fungi and algae.
became the science topic for the day. I asked the students if they knew
what a scientist who studies lichens is called. Up went a third-grader's
hand. "A lichenologist." I was a bit surprised and asked how
he knew that. "I didn't really know," he said. "I just
guessed. Someone who studies science is a scientist, and someone who
studies biology is a biologist."
the class about various other groups of organisms. Most of them quickly
concluded that mammalogists study mammals and that parasitologists study
parasites. I did not expect them to know that a person who studies butterflies
and moths is a lepidopterist or that someone who focuses on mussels,
clams and other molluscs is a malacologist. But they all got the point
that when speaking about science, "ist" refers to a person
who does something related to a group of organisms or a field of study.
the indoor session with lichens, I had plenty of sticks to go around
so everybody had one or more to look at up close. I told them we were
going to be like biologists and ask basic questions about lichens that
any scientist might ask - who, what, why, where, when and how?
already answered the "who studies lichens" question with "lichenologist,"
but hands shot up immediately all over the room when I invited them
to ask other questions. Someone asked, "Where do lichens live?"
From the Arctic to the desert and they can be found on virtually every
tree or other flat surface in the world. "When do they grow?"
Year round. Their ubiquity and constancy make lichens ideal organisms
to show students in a classroom because any biology teacher can always
do they get their food?" Lichens are composed of algae, which has
chlorophyll that is able to get energy from the sun. "What colors
are they?" The children answered that themselves as they pointed
out lichens and other fungi on the limbs that were red, gray, green,
white, black, yellow, blue and purple. All were fascinated with lichens,
as was I.
grammar school students in an after-hours science club should lead anyone
to a deep appreciation of and respect for school teachers. Except for
the stimulus for learning provided to young people by pre-college teachers,
we might not have anyone at all who wants to go to college and become
an "ist." Kids love lichens, and as for the science club,
I would not be surprised if at least one of them becomes a lichenologist,
which leads to their final query. "Why don't more biologists become
lichenologists?" Good question indeed.
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