Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Backyard STEM Education

Garden Nutrients

Our 5 year old farmer had a big day of learning yesterday. After a full day of kindergarten, Zhen returned home to a backyard science lesson from Dad.

For the past 18 months, Zhenerbee Farms has been exploring nutrients in our small backyard farming ecosystem. What started with our chickens and garden plots, evolved to include worms and composting in an effort to take more control over the inputs that we use to raise our food supply. We have been giving calcium chips to our birds for some time now as a way of strengthening the shells of the eggs they lay. Additionally, we use the calcium in the egg shells in our tomato garden to help fight against end rot and keep our fruit ready to be delicious in Mom's kitchen. But yesterday we decided we needed more calcium from another local source in order to help preserve the ph and nutrient balance in the grazing area of our chicken coop.

So we loaded up our 4 wheeler with some harvesting supplies (hoes, rakes, buckets, gloves, etc) and headed towards the lake in our backyard where Dad had said there were clam shells that needed to be gathered. Since we like to take our time, we took the long route around the neighborhood and started a discussion that went like this:

"So Zhen, did you know that what makes a scientist smart is not knowing all the answers... but knowing how to ask the best questions?", Dad asked and got Zhen's thoughtful attention. "Since you want to be a scientist, do you know any really good questions?"

Zhen answered, "Who was the first person ever created?" Dad smiles, knowing that Zhen loves this question, and answers "I don't know, do you?" Zhen immediately says "Adam."

Ahh... five year old simplicity. A perfect opportunity appears, so Dad asks, "Do you know the difference between a scientist and someone who believes what they read or hear in a book like the Bible simply because they read or hear it?" To which Zhen responds "No. What?"

Dad continues, "Okay, then let me ask you that same really good question you just asked me. Who was the first person ever created?" Zhen immediately says "Adam". Dad immediately responds with "Prove it."

Silence.

Dad asks, "Zhen, do you know what 'Prove it' means?" Zhen says "No. What?"

Dad then begins a conversation with Zhen about how scientists prove ideas. We talked about the scientific method, and how asking really good questions is the most important work that scientists do. We talked about faith, and how sometimes it is very important to have faith in your ideas and beliefs, but not at the expense of asking really good questions.

As our conversation progresses back and forth, we arrived at our destination lake side. We got off the 4 wheeler and grabbed our supplies to begin collecting clam shells so that we could crush them and turn them into calcium for our soil. All the time thinking that we are scientists, doing what scientists do... and thinking about good questions to ask ourselves.

As we begin, Zhen notices that all of the clam shells are opened and resting high on the shore above the receding water line, and so he asks, "Where do the clams live when they are alive?" We analyze the water line and come to the conclusion together that the clams must live in the soft mud at the point where the sand and water meet, and that when the water level drops, the clams get stuck out of the water and something comes to eat them. This idea pleases Zhen greatly... being a 5 year old in love with creative-destruction!

Zhen takes his idea and immediately tests it with his shovel, digging in the sand at the point where the water and sand meet. Voila! Zhen finds a living clam! Very happy to have proved his idea was right he exclaims, "I'm going to save this clam's life" and proceeds to throw the clam into deeper water.

After filling our bucket with shells we returned to the garage to do the fun part of the job. We grabbed some heavy mallets and started hammering the shells to break them into tiny pieces and pulverize them ultimately into dust that we can use to amend our soil.

At the end of the day, our 5 year old had a very educational day encompassing the science of living nutrients, materials resourcing, organic farming, scientific inquiry, and how all of these things come together by asking good questions to make us smarter about the things we need/ want to know and do. On our way to school this morning, Zhen exclaimed, "I'm going to learn how to ask good questions today Dad."

How's that for prepping the mind of a kindergartner?

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We send Zhen to a public school in rural Virginia for the social values to be found therein. We educate him at home to own his own life and control the context of everything else he is taught at school. The school works for us, and to the extent that their objectives do not match our educational criteria, we side with our own objectives over those of any state mandated board. If Zhen gets a 'D' or poor test scores one day by using the intelligence that we believe is important over that which the school believes is important... my position will be "does that matter?"

Schools are places of employment teaching young people how to participate in a system of employment.

Our backyard is a place of making and ownership, teaching young minds how to make and own their own world in every way.

There is bound to be conflict in our objectives and expectations. As working parents, it often seems that the greatest value school has to offer is child care. Hopefully one day we will have an alternative goal structure in place that rewards students for learning how to be makers and owners. But first we need to change the way we teach our teachers to participate in the world... as makers and owners, rather than mere W2 employees.

Maker mentalities and ownership processes change everything.

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