Cooking up a storm of lessons with fungus, fossils, and bread mold in a kitchen fit for Frankenstein.
I am a teaching biologist. Until a few weeks ago, I kept my work and home life separate. But this year, at my 15-year-old son's request, I am homeschooling him in biology.
What this means is that I am now carting living and preserved organisms, as well as instrumentation, from my laboratory to the house. In some cases I am actually growing the organisms at home. My kitchen, in fact, has become a combination greenhouse and menagerie, punctuated here and there by microscopes, glassware, petri dishes, and other assorted gear, some of it blinking.
Ah, my kitchen, I hardly know ye. And visitors are – well, is "shocked" too strong a word? The other day a carpenter was at the house. I told him to take a cookie from the batch I had just baked. He sprang to the counter with alacrity, but stopped short, his eyes wide. "What," he intoned, "is that?"
What had taken the poor man's breath away was a mass of two-week-old bread, absolutely luxuriant with black bread mold (Rhizopus stolonifer).
"Oh," I said as I moved the project out of eyeshot. "It's for my son."
Further explanation was superfluous. He passed on the cookie.
At this writing, in addition to that beautiful fungus, my kitchen houses a fish tank full of algae, an orange peel adorned with velvety green rosettes of the mold Penicillium (yes, where penicillin comes from), a bowl of mushrooms (freshly harvested), a clump of compost, an infusion of protozoans, five living plants, a mass of seaweed, the proboscis of a sawfish, one fern, two fossils, and a slug.
Anton and I avail ourselves of the cornucopia most evenings, after we've eaten, the dishes are done, and he's finished his other homework. I quiver with anticipation as I pass a magnifier over the bread mold, giving us an instant window into the fine structure of a prolific organism whose spores are literally everywhere, awaiting the chunk of forgotten bread, blooming into a riot of cottony, black-tipped fibers that will immediately go to work devouring what we have not.
I watch from close quarters, guiding my son as he pinches the bulb of the eyedropper and carefully siphons a few drops of pond water from the sample we collected in a pickle jar. He prepares his slide, eases it onto the stage of the microscope, and gazes into the world of the protozoans, recording his observations in his notebook. On another evening I encourage him to be bold in separating the cap of a mushroom from its stem, or stipe, then laying it on a piece of paper to make a spore print.
All of this is very, very good stuff. But it's not so much the subject matter, with its attendant wonders, as it is the opportunity – in the age of computer games like Zombie Attack 3 – to meet my son on the playing field of the natural world for the purpose of learning how that world ticks. When we huddle around a microscope, haul slime from the river, or take a walk in the woods in search of salamanders, we excuse ourselves, however briefly, from everything that gets in the way of learning: television, the Internet, cellphones, and the slew of "i" devices.
This really has been a great adventure for me, an opportunity not only to help Anton connect the dots, as it were, of how living things impinge and rely upon each other, but even more: a chance to learn how my son learns. How does he grapple with abstract concepts? Is he more of a hands-on learner? What is his capacity for reasoned analysis of simple data?
These insights will come to me in time. For now, we are about to examine the moss that grows under the boughs of the balsam fir in our backyard. It has a most interesting life cycle.