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Full STEAM Ahead with Eliot Schrefer, author of Endangered

Full STEAM Ahead

The past summer, I read Eliot Schrefer’s Endangered in one sitting.  (My review here). I’ve been thinking about it ever since, so when I decided to query authors for Full STEAM Ahead, Eliot immediately jumped to mind.  The research he conducted for the book took him all the way to a bonobo sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  You can’t get more hands-on in science than sitting amongst the bonobos and interacting with them and their caretakers! And what I really love is that the story began with Eliot researching where the name of his favorite store, Bonobos, originated.  Talk about real-life applications of research!

Eliot contributed some Q and A about the way science influenced his writing.  Specifically, he is here today to talk about the time he spent at Lola ya Bonobo Sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  He has even shared some video clips of the time he spent at the sanctuary!

Q: Did you make any surprising observations about bonobos at the Lola ya Bonobo sanctuary?

A: One thing I discovered while I was at the Lola ya Bonobo sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo was that the orphans really don’t like men. I’m a smaller guy, so they didn’t mind me too much, but whenever I had an orphan on my lap and one of the larger men on the staff—a gardener or a guard—would come over, the orphan would immediately be on his feet and crying for her surrogate mother to come over and hold her.

Of course, it was mostly likely men who came into the forest and killed that orphan’s mother. The young creatures receive so much love at the sanctuary, and have such a good time playing with one another, that it’s easy to forget where they all came from. But the immediate, visceral fear on an orphan’s face in the company of men made it all come back. They are 98.7% human, and extraordinarily sensitive. They’re as likely to forget about losing a parent as we would be.

Esperance Tsona and Anne-Marie Ngalula, surrogate mother and nurse, respectively, at Lola ya bonobo, Kinshasa. (Video taken by Eliot Schrefer.)

 

Q: Did it concern you to write about animal welfare in a country with so much human suffering?

A: Jane Goodall, who no doubt gets asked this question all the time, wrote a wonderfully articulate response in her memoir, Through a Window:

Often I am asked whether I do not feel that it is unethical to devote time to the welfare of ‘animals’ when so many human beings are suffering. Would it not be more appropriate to help starving children, battered wives, the homeless? Fortunately, there are hundreds of people addressing their considerable talents, humanitarian principles and fund-raising abilities to such causes. My own particular energies are not needed there. Cruelty is surely the very worst of human sins. To fight cruelty, in any shape or form— whether it be towards other human beings or non-human beings—brings us into direct conflict with that unfortunately streak of inhumanity that lurks in all of us. If only we could overcome cruelty with compassion we should be well on the way to creating a new and boundless ethic—one that would respect all living beings. We should stand at the threshold of a new era in human evolution—the realization, at last, of our most unique quality: humanity.

I feel like being a sensitive adult leading an examined life entails a low level of guilt— this nagging feeling that we’re not doing enough to help others, that there’s so much to be improved but no clear way to help. Normally that guilt can be ignored, but it’s brought to the surface when we face suffering directly. One of the ways to hide that guilt back away is to say that some sufferings are outranked by others and can therefore can be ignored. But that’s a sure route to not doing anything about any of them. At some point you have to trust in compassion and the support of others, that someone else might take care of the rest of the world’s woes if I help this specific creature in front of me.

Bonobos also serve as the ambassadors for a number of less adorable species. Congo has one-eighth of the world’s forests.1 By protecting them for the sake of the bonobos and chimpanzees and gorillas, we’re also protecting the insect, amphibian, reptile, plant, and mammal species that reside there. Benefitted, as well, are the tribes that live within the forests and steward a huge plant biomass that tempers global warming.

Bonobos at the Lola ya Bonobo sanctuary, outside of Kinshasa, using rocks to crack nuts. Video shot by Eliot Schrefer.

1Wolfire, D.M., J. Brunner and N. Sizer (1998) Forests and the Democratic Republic of Congo. World Resources Institute, Washington, DC.

I love that Eliot Schrefer devoted so much time to the biology and zoology of the bonobos, determined to get it right for the book. It was certainly worth it!  I knew very little about bonobos before reading Endangered, but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about them since  I finished reading it.  The science and research aspects are so realistic and I imagine they will inspire many readers to learn more about the great apes.  Maybe Endangered will even guide some readers into conservation or zoology!  How great would that be- students reading about math, science, or engineering and then jumping into a career inspired by that reading!

But even if the reader doesn’t become a zoologist or an environmental scientist, Schrefer’s book (and the story behind the book) will bring the bonobos to the forefront in many readers’ minds.  STEM may seem like an overused buzzword, but it is vital that our students understand the world around them.  Reading about bonobos, an endangered species, will hopefully inspire our students to protect the world they will one day inherit.  And understanding science and conservation is vital to being someone those in charge listen to.  As English teachers, we can introduce our students to STEM, compassion, and empathy at the same time.

Be sure to check in next Thursday, when another author will be sharing their experiences with STEM and how it may have influenced their writing!

Introducing……Full STEaM Ahead!

Full STEAM Ahead

As a humanities teacher in a STEM-based school, I frequently hear from students that they “hate English” and “will never need to write papers or do research” when they become engineers or scientists.  After I count to ten, I always list off the many examples of friends and colleagues who work in those fields and are responsible for reading and writing more than they ever imagined back when they were high schoolers.  For the past few months I have been brainstorming ways to show my students that the world isn’t divided into cubicles and that the real world combines math, science, reading, writing, language, health, speaking, listening, social sciences, history, and so much more.

Take me, for example.

I am a reader, writer, teacher, blogger, social media user, therapy dog handler, and citizen scientist.  I wouldn’t be happy if could only work in one field. And in the 21st century, we need to prepare our students to be more than paper-pushers and solitary worker bees.  Another issue I frequently think about is the need for our students to be innovators.  STEM- science, technology, engineering, and mathematics- is the new buzzword for schools around the country.  I love what my colleagues and I do at our school and I think the cross-curricular opportunities we provide our students with are priceless .  My students need to be innovators and thinkers, brave enough to try fail and then try again, over and over. And they need to learn how to fail in school.

For a few months now, I have been working on a new series for the blog.  I am a STEM-loving English teacher who often feels caught between my love of science and my love of literature.  While I have managed to find a job that allows me to embrace both, and hobbies that do the same, I meet far too many students, teachers, and parents who believe that life must be lived within the confines of either/or scenarios.  Either you are a scientist or a writer.  Either you are a linguist or an engineer.  Either you are a mathematician or a reader.  While I know that this could not be farther from the truth, it is still a stereotype I butt heads with on a  regular basis.

That’s when I started reading about STEAM.  I spent a lot of time exploring STEAM-notSTEM and found myself agreeing with almost everything they stand for.  As they say on their website, “creativity enables innovation”.  We need innovators and that’s a skill that needs to be cultivated in our students.  If we want to succeed as a country, we need to encourage and incubate innovators. So what is STEAM?  It’s a call for the addition of a national arts curriculum to the science, technology, engineering, and math focus that is the focus of many educational institutions right now.  The arts are proven to be a key to creativity, which in turn leads to innovation.  According to  STEAM-notSTEM

The future of the US economy rests on its ability to be a leader in the innovation that will be essential in creating the new industries and jobs that will be the heart of our new economy…STEM is based on skills generally using the left half of the brain and thus is logic driven. Much research and data shows that activities like Arts, which uses the right side of the brain supports and fosters creativity, which is essential to innovation. Clearly the combination of superior STEM education combined with Arts education (STEAM) should provide us with the education system that offers us the best chance for regaining the innovation leadership essential to the new economy.

I’m not an artist by any means.  I can barely draw a stick figure, bubble letters leave me frustrated, and my coloring leaves something to be desired.  But I love doodling, sketchnoting, and writing. I completed a NaNoWriMo novel, writing 50,000 words during the month of November.  My art is usually related to writing or reading, with a infrequent Pinterest-inspired craft thrown in the mix.  But that NaNoWriMo novel I wrote last year? It is focused on the migration of the monarch butterfly.  Science informs a lot of my writing and my teaching, and I realized that many of my favorite books also include real science.  This was a eureka moment for me and I had an idea.  Why not reach out to writers who delve into real science in their books and have them share their stories?  Those authors, of books that I would classify as lablit, as this NYTimes articles details, have become experts in a STEM-related topic in order to write the story they needed to tell.

Science and art have not always been relegated to separate corners.  Leonardo Da Vinci and the renowned Persian polymath Omar Khayyám, both of whom I study with my freshman humanities students, were readers, writers, poets, astronomers, inventors, designers, and scientists. . One of Carl Jung’s mythological archetypes was the artist-scientist, for heaven’s sake!  The artist-scientist archetype represents builders, inventors, and dreamers.

Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci, Galleria d...

Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci, Galleria dell’ Accademia, Venice (1485-90) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And according to Scientific American, “Nobel laureates in the sciences are seventeen times likelier than the average scientist to be a painter, twelve times as likely to be a poet, and four times as likely to be a musician.”   It’s time for us to recognize these geniuses and those who are among us today, moving effortlessly between poetry, science, design, math, and much more.

I reached out and a fabulous group of authors agreed to share their experience with STEM as part of my new blog series, Full STEAM Ahead.  It’s time for the STEM world to embrace the arts, and reading and writing are a great way for teachers to bring STEM and STEAM together in the classroom.  The feature will be running weekly, with the first author scheduled to share his story on Thursday.  Eliot Schrefer, author of the National Book Award nominated Endangered (one of my favorite books of the year!) will be sharing how he researched bonobos and spent time studying them while working on his book.  Please be sure to come back on Thursday to read the first entry in the Full STEAM Ahead series here on TheReadingZone!

Weekly Diigo Posts (weekly)

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

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