Biophilia in the Science Classroom

Some of the most inspirational time for me in Panama last July was our time at the BioMuseo in Panama City. When I heard E.O. Wilson’s voice on the audio tour explaining what biodiversity was, I fell in love all over again–with all the creatures on our planet. And when he explained his idea of “biophilia”–that humans naturally feel an affinity for other living things–I needed no convincing. Although I was already familiar with the concept of biophilia, this time I was listening as a teacher, and wondering how to share the idea with my 8th grade students. Would biophilia resonate with them, as it does with me? Could biophilia help bring an emotional component to science class?  How does one teach biophilia?

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Later at the museum, I worked with Jonathan, Megan and Mayra on lesson planning and was excited to develop a lesson idea, in which students would compare the designs of snail shells for their defensive features. It would be based on a similar lesson published by Shape of Life. http://shapeoflife.org/lesson-plan/sol/shell-shocked-lab-activity-snails-vs-shell-breaking-predators-middle-school-lesson

Little did I realize that this lesson would end up having an unspoken biophilia component.

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After starting the school year with some lessons using the Gatun fossil seashells to teach the Science & Engineering Practices, I asked students to carry out an investigation to answer this question: Which kind of gastropod has the best design for defense against predators? Leading up to this, they had learned about the main groups of molluscs–cephalopods, bivalves, gastropods–and seen video clips of living ones. Quite a few students had not realized that seashells were made by living creatures! Now, they seemed very interested that the story behind the beautiful shell designs was one of defense, predation, and an evolutionary arms race. After all, it’s not hard to see parallels with the social environment at a middle school. My students at risk of not promoting and being lured into gangs were totally engaged, even willing to learn the vocabulary (spire, aperture, protrusions) that describes the defensive features of not-so-lowly snails. They wanted to know the tricks of these creatures! And, of course, they absolutely loved learning about the deadly cone snails, with their venom and ability to engulf whole fish. The students were learning to love these creatures. And they were oohing and aahing over the beautiful patterns of cone shells under the ultraviolet lamps. Studying snail shell designs offered so much inspiration!

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On the day that students talked with Jonathan Hendricks, professor of geology, using Google Hangouts on my classroom TV screen, I was very proud of the great questions they asked. For instance, “Why are the cone snail’s shells so similar to the fossil ones?” and “Did the colors and patterns of cone snails help with defense?” There were moments when the “naive” questions of students proved to be very deep indeed, and Jonathan’s response made them feel like real scientists. This project not only introduced students to doing science like a real paleontologist, it also boosted their confidence that they were capable of doing science. It meant a lot to them that a real scientist took the time to talk to all my classes (170 students) throughout the day. Later, they interpreted data graphs and read an article about research by another expert on fossil shells, Geerat Vermeij. The students’ quiz responses revealed that they had a strong understanding of the rather complex idea of co-evolution. We were heading inevitably to additional, intriguing questions that we would explore throughout the semester.

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Finally, at Back-to-School Night recently, I was surprised to see how eager students were to show what they were learning to their parents–most of whom are farmworkers from Mexico. It was a big hit to have a display of all kinds of fossils up on my front counter. Everyone seemed to enjoy looking at them and talking about them. One mother explained to me in Spanish, with her daughter helping to translate, that she had seen fossil animal bones on a rancho in Mexico where she grew up. Her daughter was so delighted by the conversation we were having, and then asked, “Madre, are you saying that you like science?” Her mother smiled and nodded. The girl looked at me and exclaimed, “She says yes!” It was like permission had been granted to be curious. And to feel biophilia.

 

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