Curiosity, dead chooks, science and the S.T.E.M. push

girl scientistAhhh, Science! How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I became a scientist at the age of four when curiosity reared its head. It was the day my mother killed a chook.

My father reckoned its head was still attached by invisible threads. Mum, who was in the process of de-feathering the chook, snorted – so I knew Dad was ‘pulling my leg’. Years later, I discovered for myself the science behind this disconcerting, horrifying feathered spectacle. And now, there’s an almost evangelistic push to promote S.T.E.M. – SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY ENGINEERING MATHS in schools (sometimes to the detriment of the Arts, History et al.

Recently I, along with engineer and author, Andrew King,Senior Lecturer and Australian Research Council Future Fellow at QUT, Professor Michael Milford, Teacher-Librarian and long-time advocate for children’s literature, Megan Daley spoke on a Book Links Queensland panel about S.T.E.M. But MAINLY, pushing the fact that we need children’s authors to provide worthwhile fiction to benefit young readers, to encourage their interest in these areas. I lead the charge for SCIENCE. Here is my talk……

Bringing science into children’s literature

I’m not a university trained scientist, but I did become a scientist at the age of four when curiosity reared its head. It was the day my mother killed a chook. Headless and spraying blood, the animal wobbled and jumped about before flopping on the grass. I was transfixed.

My father reckoned its head was still attached by invisible threads. Mum, who was in the process of de-feathering the chook, snorted – so I knew Dad was being silly. Years later, I discovered for myself the science behind this disconcerting, horrifying feathered spectacle.

An ever-increasing curiosity about the natural world of my hometown in tropical north Queensland also led to my digging up the remains of a dead rooster buried in our back yard. And to poking a stick at a toad to make the white poison bubble from its skin. To wonder why salt grains became a salty, mushy liquid in our humid northern summers. It was also the time I began my first rock and feather collections. This natural curiosity was the origin of my lifelong fascination about science. At age 7, science also taught me a devastating lesson. Tying a string leash around a pet kitten’s neck is not wise – and if that string is shorter than the height of a fence, tragedy will strike.

Queensland Museum fossil lab - that's me covered in dust while working on a dinosaur hip bone.
Queensland Museum fossil lab – that’s me covered in dust while working on a dinosaur hip bone.

At 12, on a school excursion to Porcupine Gorge outside Hughenden, I found a large fossilised shell in the gorge wall. Questions filled my head. Why were shells in the dry outback when the sea was hundreds of kilometres away? Curiosity took hold again. I learned about the shallow inland ocean that covered most of Queensland millions of years ago – the great Eromanga Sea – alive with huge marine reptiles … overhead soared pterodactyl. And roaming the edges of billabongs and lakes, a multitude of Australian dinosaurs. 

It was inevitable that my first novel, Secrets of Eromanga would delve into the world of these intriguing creatures. And that I would work as a volunteer on the Elliot Dinosaur fossil dig while I wrote my work-in-progress. No other writers have had the opportunity to pester the country’s top paleontologists with endless questions … every day … for two weeks. And because they knew it was a book for kids, they went out of their way to help.

Then I married a scientist, an earthquake physicist who was part of a team designing, making, installing and monitoring Strain Meters deep in the San Andreas Fault in California (this video shows the best ever explanation why Earthquakes happen with such devastation, and why scientists continue researching early detection of them).

And now our son is a young scientist computer modelling the melting ice beneath the Totten Glacier in Antarctic. You can see why science is still an integral part of my life. And why I often write short stories with a scientific bent … and entertaining, of course!  21. Parkfield

So … what are some ingredients for linking science and literature?

I’ll use my chapter book, Ali Berber & the Forty Grains of Salt as an example of how to expose children to science in the form of a folk tale, in an entertaining way. 

Rule 1 … never be didactic! Information should never be dumped! Kids should never be treated like sausage skins to be pumped with meaty facts. Therefore, no child thinks they are learning about Physical Science when they read Ali Berber’s adventures – that comes by osmosis and carefully chosen words.

Rule 2 – the story must entertain – that’s an essential. When kids enjoy what they read, they learn – not just information about their world and others, but also what it’s like to be human, and powerful and vulnerable.

Rule 3 – I want readers to connect with my main character. In this book, it’s young Ali Berber and his side-kick, a clever camel called Sufi. Readers need to like Ali Berber, to feel for this young merchant as he faces a huge PROBLEM … solving the mystery of the disappearing salt grains before the King of Alhambra cuts off his head.

A most important aspect in writing Ali Berber & the Forty Grains of Salt was to explain the science behind PROPERTIES OF MATTER … in this case, Matter is Salt. How does salt change its look and feel? Why can it revert back to what it was?

I think this story is a successful combination of Science and Literature. And it’s fun to read. STEM talk1 resized

So, yes, I do think we as authors and lovers of children’s fiction must jump on the S.T.E.M. wagon too – not just to open children’s eyes, and brains, and imaginations about the world we live in, but for science to become an integral part of their lives.

Every human should have access to understanding science … it’s all around us, it’s part of who we are

And never more so than in our millennia. We face the prospect of a world threatened by global warming, but all children and their children after them will face far worse unless ordinary people force politicians to reduce carbon emissions now.

Millions of dollars are being invested in Australian schools to promote S.T.E.M. to teachers, young children and young adults. Much of it is coming from the Mining and Energy Council, and one of the biggest players now, Military-Industrial organisations. They are active in most states including Queensland.

These companies seek their future work-forces, both for the hard-hat, coal face end, and for those who secure ways to increase production. From researching methods to suck gas from the earth with, or without poisoning waterholes; to building drones that drop bombs at the touch of a computer screen, to developing a ray-gun that directs an invisible 100,000-watt beam of energy at humans, burning their skin until they retreat. These companies require more young people trained in science, and they will spend millions to do it. (The 5th biggest military contractor in the world, Raytheon‘s connections in Australian schools. Military connections to schools  ) A sobering thought.

But I will leave you with a more positive thought… we know great stories have the ability to make children think and feel. And question the status quo.

To counter-balance the power of other forces, we must produce more great stories about respecting the fragility of our unique continent, the need to enact laws that diminish the threat to our surrounding oceans, estuarine eco-systems and the Great Barrier Reef. 

To treasure that amazing continent to our south, the Antarctic – a frozen, wondrous land that, unfortunately hides beneath its pristine surface, an unimaginable wealth of minerals. 

We have the opportunity, the passion and hopefully, the commitment to reach out to young Australian children through stories about the wonder of science, and the responsibility for their future custody of this planet.

Great stories, cleverly laced with scientific understanding not didactic waffle.
Great stories to make them feel and think, and question.
Great stories – for the sake of their future on this planet.

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