When we were kids, my older sister went through phases hunting butterflies around the yard so she could run inside panting to look up and record the different names of what she found. She also took to rummaging around our bedroom and the kitchen for different materials to examine under her new microscope. Young Emily, however, took to her own modes of inquiry without books or scientific tools (yet). Specifically avoiding the brightly painted toy with various shapes and sizes of blocks and corresponding holes, I decided to practice my spatial reasoning with different household objects and electrical outlets.
This isn’t to say that my parents were neglectful, or ever let me successfully stick anything conductive into an outlet (not that I remember, anyways). However, they did tire of my unwillingness to accept a simple explanation of why I should not try it, and what exactly it was that I was not supposed to be trying.
‘So, you’re telling me I shouldn’t stick anything inside the light socket?’
‘What about next to it?’
‘What if it’s not a fork, but a spoon?’
‘Can I touch the wall near the outlet?’
‘What if I lay it across the hole, but it never actually goes inside?’
Although at this point, they were likely not thrilled by my questioning nature, they were supportive enough apparently not to have dissuaded me from my current career choice in science where I get to spend all day asking questions and trying experiments just to see what happens.
When I was old enough to go to school, I started learning about electricity and batteries and how to make a light bulb light up. I wrote a third grade biographical report about Thomas Edison and his experiments. Throughout my schooling, the topic continued to come up from time to time, all of the way through college, where I took advanced electricity and magnetism courses towards my physics degree. These lessons provided me with some facts and fundamental concepts like the flow of electrons and voltage differences. They helped me in my head to form a picture of what was going on way back those two dark holes that my parents were always so picky about my interactions with.
But, these facts never painted a whole picture for me. I learned a lot about what is required to light a light bulb when I was put in charge of locating the dead bulb that had killed a string of our Christmas lights. Between a finals-week induced lack of judgment at home and a misadventure in a hotel in Rome, I also learned first-hand (quite literally) how a difference of 100-volts feels.
I have of late become very interested in the idea of free-choice and informal learning – the notion that learning doesn’t stop when we stop deliberately asking questions as youth, nor when we walk away from our final educational institution, degree in hand. Learning continues through everyday experience and daily problem solving, and very frequently through play – even for adults.
As a child, the play involved testing what interactions I was and wasn’t allowed to have with electrical outlets and how much of the water I could slosh out of the bathtub just by moving my arm back and forth at different rates. As an adult, those games have turned to how can I get the stupid outlet to work, or how many appliances can I plug into this power strip before it fails. I also play the game of how to time when to cross in front of a headland without getting wet when I walk the beach near high tide.
Despite the number of texts and articles and lectures that I am studying about oceanography, these games and short trips to the beach often do as much for my understanding. The ‘two’ pieces are inseparable.
This realization, though simple, took me a long time to explicitly come to. Especially for a bookworm like me. I used to dread school science because everyone would get really noisy and excited and all the extra materials would make a huge mess of water or wires that took forever to clean up. The play part of learning can be different for everyone. I know a lot of the other students loved the science experiment days that I so loathed. It takes all types. This is why designing exhibits for museums and science centers for broad audiences is such an interesting challenge.
I love to write as much as I’ve always enjoyed reading, but I’ve also found a niche interest for myself lately in designing other modes of communication. Developing exhibits and interactive games based on science and learning concepts has been a fun way for me to reach out to broader audiences than I’ve been able to before (even some family members can understand these games whom I have been unable to otherwise teach in words about what I actually do). It’s also surprising how much it is helping me to learn about the science as well – I continue to find more and more as I have been teaching math, science and writing over the past 7 years: to teach is to learn. To think what my parents must have learned about microscopes, outlets, and waves from my sisters and I when we were children!