Sometimes the questions matter most

School science projects aren't always about the answers.

Elliot J. Sutherland/Ottawa Herald/AP
Wonder: A girl reaches out to a model of the solar system at an elementary school science fair in Ottawa, Kan.

Recently, a mother and son searched diligently through our local library's books about science experiments. The mother complained, "Another project, why are they assigning him another project? They know that he can't do it alone. It requires parent involvement, and we just finished a project!"

Her son seemed unfazed by her negativity and offered his counterbalance: "This looks interesting. What about this one?"

She saw me nearby and seemed to invite a comment. I admit that I love to talk with people, so I asked, "What was the assignment?"

"It isn't anything that will teach them anything. They aren't learning about science. They're answering stupid questions," she said.

Well, of course I needed to know what stupid questions, and she thought a minute: "What color seed will a bird prefer – red or blue?"

It was one of those moments when I wondered: If my science teacher had asked such questions, would I have learned to embrace the subject? Because at that particular moment, all I wanted to do was rush to the bird section and see if anyone had written a book about such things.

I turned to the woman. "I wonder if they do have a favorite and why. I think red. Most berries are red. Yet again, there are blueberries and mulberries. I suppose most birds just eat what's available. But I wonder ... Do birds see colors? If given a taste test, would they choose a seed because it had been dyed blue rather than red or green or purple? Or do they smell them? How much would depend upon a bird's nose? Do they have noses?"

Forty-five minutes later, I returned to the same area. The woman and her son sat on the floor between the bookshelves still discussing the merits of several projects. Her attitude had changed. No longer railing against the project, mother and son were devoted to finding a great experiment.

"Here!" she said, triumphant, waving a book under his nose. "I think this is a good one."

She saw me and added, "We would use different fabrics to test the drag in water to determine which of the fabrics would be best for swimsuits. We have a pool."

The son looked thoughtful, "But we'd have to buy all those swimsuits...."

"No, we'd just use fabric from all those we already have."

He looked a little deflated, but nodded acquiescence. After sitting for an hour, I think he would have agreed to anything. But his mother wasn't completely convinced they'd found the perfect experiment. She frowned at the book and muttered, "Well, it has already been done. We must come up with unusual...."

Together they checked out an armload of books and continued discussing the project as they exited the library. Attitudes had changed from grumpy resistance to total immersion.

I did a little Google search on birds' seed preferences and found that others had researched the question. A report on more than half a million seed choices made by 30 species of common birds concluded with this paragraph: "Like any good scientific experiment, the Seed Preference Test has left us with more questions than we started with."

And that's when I realized how brilliantly alluring the boy's science project was. It wasn't about answers; it was about questions – about teaching children to think and wonder.

Those years of my childhood spent lying under a tree staring at birds, leaves, clouds, ants, grass, dirt, and earthworms are now becoming mandatory in the classroom. Because kids nowadays don't have time to "just look," teachers assign it.

So now I want to hear more questions. I might have spent those childhood hours looking, but I wasn't asking questions that led to more questions. Maybe if I had had a mentor who mused, "Which do you suppose the ant will prefer – the potato-chip crumbs or the chocolate-cake crumbs?" I might have taken a new delight in ants at our family picnics.

But it isn't too late to learn.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of 5 free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.