Brookline, Mass. — THE introductions prove just as important as the visit. They certainly are to my guide, third-grader James Rosicky, as he gives me a tour of his classroom. Midnight, the black guinea pig, hides inside a well-chewed shoe box. ``No lettuce today,'' James says matter-of-factly, giving an understanding pat to the trembling fur ball. He taps on the glass of the terrarium, to show that ``the lizard is real and not a fake.'' Plenty of brown sugar for the ant colony. Then, a quick count of the goldfish, to see ``if any died last night.'' Inside the tank, oblivious to the census being taken on the outside - ``seven, no, eight'' - the orange shapes dart in and out of green plants and air bubbles, as self-contained in their water world as Rosemary McKinney's 18 third-graders are in their learning world at the Edward Devotion public elementary school.
De rigueur with the conclusion of his tour, a stop at the ``Ink and Wink'' publishing corner for a quick scan of the scientific opus ``My Snake,'' by science writer James Rosicky.
When I finish looking at his book, James introduces me to his classmates. Then, two decibels above a loud whisper, Mrs. McKinney announces that the geography lesson is over. Next will be a scientific experiment, ``colorization,'' she tells the world explorers, instantly turned scientists.
Sitting with desks and chairs in one large circle, eight ``research'' teams of two spring into action (James's partner is not in today). Eyedroppers, test tubes, kits containing the three primary colors, dishes of liquid soap and corn oil, and plain tap water appear as if by spontaneous generation out of cabinets, off of countertops (and with the assistance of practice teacher Neil Brick). The materials make their way across the room onto the children's desks, which are all of 26 inches in height. Defying gravity, not a drop is spilled - so far.
The children have been studying what happens when different colors are mixed, McKinney says. Today, they are going to experiment, hands on, with how the transformations occur. More important, and even though they may not realize it, these youngsters are going to think scientifically.
Like thirsty hummingbirds, empty eyedroppers hover above test tubes. McKinney quietly, yet directly, reminds the students of the three questions they should be asking themselves as they conduct their experiment. The questions are posted on the wall:
1.What do I know?
2.What do I think I know?
3.What would I like to know?
Of such come Nobel laureates. McKinney has no doubt that two, at least, will get their start right here in her classroom.
``If you mix a little red, a little blue, a little yellow, you get a rainbow,'' Cicily Keona-Carpenter says. Then, proving her point, ever so carefully three drops trickle from her eyedropper onto a paper towel. Colors fan out like the spokes of a wheel.
``The more colors you add, the more colors you can see,'' she says as her eyes, opening wider, mirror the spreading drops.
Rainbows are there for Katherine Ferris also. Lost in wonder at the sight of ``a whole rainbow'' right in the small test tube she holds aloft to the light, two wonders compete with her emotions. One, that the colors of the rainbow have materialized because of what she did; the
other, that she is holding an entire rainbow in her hand.
Science writer and tour guide James pronounces he ``even has rainbows in the bubbles.'' Shortly after, speaking to no one in particular, but music to any teacher's ears, he utters a single word - ``How?''
For Joey Delgrado there are no rainbows. Instead, he has ``discovered a new color.'' Showing it off proudly, he is ready to accept his Nobel Prize in Chemistry right now. ``Awesome! It's like root beer,'' he exclaims.
The hour progresses.
As the initial thrill of seeing colors change before their eyes subsides, a quiet, more serious bent spreads. Jeremy Wong realizes that what now interests him most is not the color but the process as drops of color cut their way through the tap water, corn oil, and liquid soap, leaving a trail like seaweed in the ocean.
Without saying the word (vocabulary words hang on the walls around the room - ``laminate,'' ``museum,'' ``priority,'' are a few), Jeremy has discovered the concept of density. Different liquids react and move more quickly or more slowly than others, and also occupy space in different ways. From the mystery corner by the teacher's desk at one end of the classroom, to the special reading booth by the door at the other, young faces look the question ``Why.''
Till Bossmeyer compares the green liquid in his test tube to the ocean, with different levels of color and light at the top, the bottom, and in the middle. He can't remember just what colors went into his test tube to create the seascape. His partner, Monica Miranda, reminds him.
But the ``whys'' on the intense young faces fade as quickly as they came. Enthusiasm in mixing too many colors too quickly, rather than measured experimentation, gets the best of everyone. More and more test tubes take on the brown appearance of Boston's Charles River, or the sludge-green of its harbor.
Monica reminds McKinney that snack time has passed - proof positive of the high interest held in the color experiment. Matthew Christian has red hands that match the red on his Boston Red Sox shirt, even though he's ``a Mets fan.''
Time now for McKinney to gather everyone together in a circle on the floor. She has been teaching for seven years in this affluent suburb of Boston, where excellent schools are a given. The district has an elementary science coordinator to help with lesson plans. But the class climate and quiet style are all hers.
``Who has something to share from their experiment?'' she asks. Hands shoot up. Comments and observations abound. Everyone listens.
Later, individually, students will check in at ``Ink and Wink'' publishing, take out their folders, and record their experiences. To encourage writing, students may put written thoughts in their folders any time of the day.
Cleanup is orderly, as orderly as a mess and 17 pairs of small hands making it go away can be. McKinney doesn't even blink when one, then two, entire experiments wind up on the floor.
The shadow of Albert Einstein falls over the class. Math is next. This must be James Rosicky's favorite subject. He doesn't see me to the door.
Jim Bencivenga is the Monitor's education editor.