In college, I took a course called “Teaching Science” where we spent class time creating our own scientific journals and carrying out experiments that our teacher created and that we created ourselves. While these were happening, discussions happened of how we can apply this to teaching our students about science, and how we can incorporate science into different aspects of our curriculum such as writing or math in order to see more of it in our school year.
My professor for the course was truly one of my favorite professors throughout my entire college career. He reiterated over and over as often as possible that the goal with science was to be so influential that students picked it up and continued to use the scientific method on their own, beyond school. He told us that if we were teaching science correctly, students would be excited by the subject and want to know more, their learning would go well beyond the walls of the school.
While I respected him greatly as a teacher, I never believed that I could be the type of science teacher to instill this in my own students. My emphasis for my degree was in language arts, and I had a hard time choosing between that and reading. Math and science were so far off of my radar. I knew it was something I would have to teach, but science wasn’t a subject I saw myself being so excited about that it shone through to my students.
One day in class we were studying our long term science experiment, a flower we had planted. A colleague of mine brought up a childhood story of her sister and herself planting popcorn kernels made for air popping in their sandbox, and how they would grow tall enough that their mom would rip them out of the sand. My professor looked at us with a confused look and told us this was impossible. He said that the popcorn kernels we buy from the grocery store is processed and wouldn’t grow in soil, let alone sand. He claimed she must have been given corn seeds or some other type of seed because having any result from popcorn kernels was not possible.
Maybe it was the stubbornness in me, maybe it was my growing love for science, but whatever it was, there was a burning fire in me to prove him wrong. That night I went home and found a bag of popcorn kernels in my pantry, planted them in a pot of soil, and left them in the kitchen window. I didn’t tell him about it at first, because obviously I wasn’t about to be embarrassed if he was right and the popcorn seeds didn’t yield anything. Days and weeks went by with no sign of improvement, but I continued to water them and wait for the day they grew into something.
One day I woke up to one little green leaf sticking out of the soil, it was incredible! It was actually working! I continued to take care of my plants until they grew bigger and stronger, strong enough to take a trip up to campus with me during my class.
I walked into class that day holding my pot of popcorn seeds that had turned into real plants with the biggest smile on my face. I plopped it down on my professor’s desk and after he looked down at the plant, he looked up at me waiting for an explanation of what this was and why it was on his desk.
“You told us popcorn kernels wouldn’t grow anything, you claimed that they were processed enough that they wouldn’t turn into anything when planted. Well, here you are, this is what happens when you plant popcorn kernels.”
Immediately his eyes lit up and I distinctly remember him jumping up out of his chair in excitement. I was waiting for his praise on what a great plant caretaker I was and how right I was. I was also waiting to hear those precious words come out of his mouth, I was wrong. But that’s not what happened next.
“You get it! You did it! You see what I’m saying now, this is genuine science, this is the ultimate goal as a teacher! You wanted answers about popcorn kernels and instead of going to the internet or accepting my answer, you conducted an experiment using the scientific method yourself! You did it!”
At the time I was somewhat dissatisfied with his reaction, I wanted him to admit how wrong he was. But later on, when I looked back, I realized the full impact of what had happened. He knew from the beginning that popcorn kernels would grow, he just wanted to test us. He wanted someone to prove him wrong all along, and that ended up being me.
That semester I may have planted popcorn kernels, but a seed was also planted inside of me. A seed that helped me understand why we teach science and how we teach it. I grew up thinking science was memorizing vocabulary and mixing vinegar with baking soda once in a while, but now I know that teaching science has evolved into inquiry and wonder of the world around us, how it works, and why it works the way it does and putting it to the test when we want to understand something deeper.
It took until my senior year of my undergrad education before I could grasp this concept, so my only hope is that I can inspire students to learn it much younger than I did and to plant the seed in them as well.