by Whit Gibbons

January 25, 2015

I 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."

A dozen 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.

This particular 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.

Lichens 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."

I asked 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.

As for 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?

They had 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 find plenty.

"How 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.

Teaching 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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