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Information Highways and Scenic Drives
by Wendy Saul

Those not yet connected stand like farmers in the 1920s awaiting rural electrification. And for folks already on-line, the computer, like the light bulb, has changed our lives forever. Knowledge of the World Wide Web, CD- ROMs, even word processing has shifted not only the places that can be accessed but also our very expectations -- even our sense of time. I find myself, a "slowish" person, becoming annoyed at how long it takes to locate the information I have requested.

And then I catch myself, remembering a different sort of travel. Growing up in New England, we enjoyed "scenic drives." Rather than taking the quickest way home, people would take the long way, just to round a leaf-draped corner in autumn or follow a road that paralleled the Housatonic River. One summer my father found a spring of clear water that opened up out of the hillside. He wasn't looking for a spring, but he was looking. The same spot, snow-whitened and sculptured with black twigs, became a site for memory and anticipation.

So what does this have to do with learning science? Simply, that the fastest and most efficient way from here to there is not always the best route. If you are looking for an idea to capture your imagination -- a story that coheres, a format that allows you to browse, a voice that inspires -- a slower journey may serve you better. When I am in the mood for the intellectual equivalent of a scenic drive, I turn to science literature.

While significant dollars, time, and effort are now targeted toward technology, few people these days seem to be championing books. I realize now, however, that although there are important things to be said for the physicality of printed matter -- the gloss of the paper, the ability to return to favorite images, the pleasure of reading in bed, the immutability and craft of the text -- it is the notion of the journey that matters most.

I still believe that books, really good trade books, are especially well-suited for scenic drives. In both purpose and style, they represent the authentic curiosities and passions of their authors. Unlike textbooks, trade books are meant to be savored, not doled out in assignment-sized portions. And unlike their Internet-based information equivalents, they are crafted by a person whose skill as a content expert and teller of tales has been recognized by editors, publishers, and reviewers.

In a good trade book the reader feels the author's presence, both in voice and perspective. Children familiar with Seymour Simon's titles on astronomy or animals recognize and trust that his new volume on the human body will be of interest -- able to fascinate, to show more than they could ever see on their own. Jean Craighead George or Jim Arnosky, in contrast, enable children to move in close to look at the world which surrounds them -- George through her amazing skill as a narrator, Arnosky with his artistŐs eye. Laurence Pringle or Fred Bortz in their biographies of scientists help us realize that biology or engineering is what real people do. Books as different in mood as Kathryn Lasky's She's Wearing a Bird on her Head or Come Back Salmon by Molly Cone give young activists hope for tomorrow. Sometimes children find science in the most unlikely places. A student in Charles Pearce's fifth-grade class was reading Betty McDonald's Mrs. Piggle Wiggle. The protagonist, sitting on the grass, begins to cry buckets of tears. "Would grass watered with tears grow or die?" the student asked.

"How could you find out?" replied Mr. Pearce.

The child planted grass seed in five different pots and varied the salinity of the water she used to care for them. She was surprised that the one with a little salt did better than the one watered with H20 from the tap.

Look at your science program: Are scenic drives encouraged? Are books near the aquarium or the weather measuring equipment? Are science books used for read-alouds? Is there an author's corner that celebrates the work of authors of science-related literature? Do books relevant to a soon-to-be- introduced unit shown off before the topic is even mentioned? Are children's questions that arise in non-science settings honored? In short, what in your classroom insures that students think of science as more than a "quick search?Ó

Science IS questions and answers. But it is also a story, a series of experiments, wrong turns, twists, garbled data, and sometimes elegant explanations. There's much to be savored on this scenic drive.

Wendy Saul developed Find It! Science, a database that creates individualized bibliographies of science-related trade books from The Learning Team, Armonk, N.Y. She is a professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County in Baltimore.

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