Earth Day and Interdisciplinary Projects #scichat #engchat


On Earth Day my students were lucky enough to Skype with Dr. David Haskell, author of The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature.  Over the course of the school year the students have adopted their own mandalas, a square meter of forest space, and made monthly observations.  I work with my biology colleague and the students have been learning how to communicate scientific knowledge to a general audience through informational writing, narrative writing, and poetry.  It’s been a magical experience and one I can’t wait to continue next year.

How did this all come together?

In October 2012 my former colleague Jon Olsen and I read an article in The New York Times Science Times about Dr. Haskell with our freshmen.  The article struck a chord and we reached out to Dr. Haskell on Twitter.  He spoke with the students and eventually we set up a brief Skype session so he could talk about the overlap between the humanities and science.  The Skype session went so well that we decided to use his book as a touchstone text between English and biology this year.  We placed an order for 80 copies of the book and started planning.  We knew we wanted a field study and writing component to go alongside the book and we worked on ideas for the next few months.

In September we introduced the book to our students.  They were a little unsure at first because we were telling them that biology and English would work together during the year, combining our classes at least once each month.  Thankfully, my school embraces interdisciplinary work so they “saw the light” very quickly.

Over the course of the year our current freshmen have read a variety of essays in Dr. Haskell’s book.  In September we broke them into 2 groups of 40 and within the groups broke them into triads.  Those triads worked together all year, finding mandalas close to each other and relying on the buddy system during our field studies.  They observed organisms, practiced using specialized vocabulary, wrote poems, and sat outside during the polar vortex.  We’ve been rained on, sleeted on, snowed on, and now it’s finally starting to warm up.  We’ve seen the circle of life, complete with a dead deer carcass in one mandala and a fierce cardinal defending its turf in another.

Before each class we settled on a seasonally appropriate focus and the students read at least one of Dr. Haskell’s essays.  You can see our schedule below:

  • Sept – perception / selecting & mapping mandalas (preface, April 14th & Sept 23rd): Mike and I chose the same readings and challenged the students to figure out why an English and Bio teacher chose the same ones (without planning it that way).
  • Oct – respect  / identifying a resident organism (March 13th & April 22nd), writing a descriptive paragraph modeled after Dr. Haskell’s.
  • Nov – ecological succession / change / spectrophotometry & color / wavelengths (Nov 5th), writing a poem modeled after a few nature poems we studied in class.
  • Dec – adaptations (structural & behavioral) / breathing / your response to cold (Jan 21st & Dec 3rd,) writing a description of the way the cold infiltrates the human body.
  • Jan – patterns / Kepler’s snowflakes (Jan 17th), studying snowflakes and writing haikus.
  • Feb – habitat / food + cover + water (Nov 15th), creating a photo slideshow and brief description of their mandalas
  • March – equinox / seasonal change, preparing for Dr. Haskell’s visit.


You can see a sample of the instruction sheet here.  Each month it changes based on the focus.

Screen Shot 2014-04-30 at 11.22.55 AM


This is one of the best projects I have ever been involved in.  The biology and English combination is pure magic and I love having the opportunity to teach a bit of science communication.

Dr. Haskell took an hour out of his day earlier this week to read some of the students’ writing, look at their Flickr group, and share his expertise.  It was fabulous and I couldn’t ask for anything better as an English teacher!  Thank you to Dr. Haskell!

Interdisciplinary work is the best.  The world isn’t divided into neat little subject boxes like the constructs we model in schools.  Life is messy, subjects mingle together.  But communication, reading and writing, is vital regardless of the field students may choose to pursue. Appreciating the environment that surrounds them is also vital to our wellbeing as a species.


Full STEAM Ahead with Jen Bryant!

Full STEAM Ahead

I am a huge fan of Jen Bryant’s books. Her prolific career includes books like The Trial, A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams, Ringside, 1925, and many others.  I always enjoy Jen’s books because they involve a great deal of research and often take place in my home state of NJ, or surrounding states.  When I started this blog series I immediately thought of Jen and I am thrilled that she was kind enough to contribute this week’s post.

Trial book cover 2The Trial is one of my favorite books because it follows the Lindbergh baby kidnapping from the viewpoint of a teen living through the news cycle at the time.  The Lindbergh baby kidnapping has always fascinated me.  Last year, while attending the Monmouth Junior Science Symposium, I was privileged to hear a talk by Robert Ferguson, a retired crime scene investigator.  His talk, “Real Life Crime Scene Investigation vs. TV’s CSI” focused on the science behind crime scene investigation, particularly the advances that have been made over the last 75 years or so.  The case he chose to showcase was the Lindbergh baby kidnapping.  I loved that I was at a science symposium and had a student turn around and whisper, “Just like in The Trial!” a few times during the talk.

That’s why I am glad that Jen Bryant decided to write about The Trial for her guest post today.  I love learning about the STEM work behind an author’s writing!

Technology & History: Telegraphs, Transatlantic flights, and a Missing Toddler.

It’s probably not the best etiquette to begin this post by quoting a previous one, but since I was never big on etiquette anyway, I’m doing just that:

“Science and literature, math and writing—I think sometimes we focus too much on the differences between these disciplines and not enough on their beautiful cohesiveness. It’s fascinating to explore how each subject overlaps and enhances the others.” (J. Khoury, 12-13-12 post)

Thank you Jessica Khoury! I couldn’t have said it any better, and Jessica provides the perfect segue into my own discussion of how science and technology literature and writing complement and enrich one another. And I’ll even take it one step further: In the writing life they are, in fact, interdependent, and in many cases, indistinguishable.

Charles LindberghWhen I write a work of historical fiction (The Trial: my novel based on the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, for example) the role of science, math and technology in the course of human history becomes hyper evident. When I visit schools to talk about that book, I pause in the middle of my presentation and ask the students and teachers to consider this: in 1927, LESS than one hundred years ago (which, in the course of human history, is a half-blink), no one had yet flown solo across the Atlantic Ocean. This year, 2012, we’re retiring the Space Shuttle! Putting those two things side by side should help us realize the ever-accelerating rate of technology and how it affects everything we do.) At the time that Charles Lindbergh—a shy mechanic, a “barnstorming” 25-year old pilot who was unknown to the American public—took off from New York’s Roosevelt Field and began the 3,500-plus mile flight to Paris, many people doubted it could be done. When he landed, “astonished” and sleep-deprived at Paris’s Le Bourget air field, the era of modern transportation had begun.

NYC Lindbergh parade

NYC Lindbergh parade

But so much more happened on that day and because of that flight. Transatlantic communication had recently improved, and for the first time ever, a written message could be sent across the globe, from continent to continent, in just a few minutes. (Again, stop to think that today, we can instantly email our photo, using only our phone, to China or Ecuador.) Why is this so important? What does this have to do with writing and literature? Well, for one, Charles Lindbergh became, for all intents and purposes, our first true “celebrity.” Expecting to see no one but the airfield crew upon his landing in Paris, his “astonishment” was as much because of the thousands who gathered along the runway and stormed the plane, once he’d landed. Upon his return to the U.S., huge crowds lined the sidewalks along Broadway in NYC to see him honored in a tickertape parade.

Think about that . . . . Today, we have thousands of people whom we consider “celebrities” in fields from entertainment to politics to athletics. And yet—the concept of “celebrity” itself is based on the ability to share an image and a message widely and instantaneously. No communication capacity—no sharing of image and message—no celebrity. See what I mean?

My writer’s awareness, and hopefully my readers’ awareness, of this interdependence between technology and human events deepens as the novel progresses. Lindbergh’s life changes forever on that day. His quiet mechanic’s life is exchanged for a life in the flashbulbs of reporter’s cameras and a lack of privacy that he finds deeply disturbing. He accepts a job with the government, marries the Ambassador to Mexico’s daughter, and they have a son, Charlie Junior. Craving some sort of “normal” family life (for they are, in fact, the Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie of their time), they build a weekend home in the woods of rural Hopewell, NJ, where they escape the demands of their celebrity status as often as possible.


first ransom note

first ransom note

Then, one windy night, March 1st, 1932, the Lindbergh’s nanny goes into the child’s bedroom to check on him and finds an empty crib. Between the hours of 7:30 and 10pm, someone placed a home-made wooden ladder against the side of the Lindbergh’s house, climbed into the child’s bedroom, lifted him out of the crib, put him into a sack, climbed down the ladder holding the sack, and drove off. They left the ladder, muddy footprints, and the first in series of more than a dozen ransom notes.

This is human tragedy at its most intense—and yet all of it is true. And all of it, the kidnapping and the way the criminal investigation unfolds in the months to come (I would argue,) happens because of the presence–and the lack of–technology. Lindbergh’s historic flight, his immediate and ubiquitous fame, and the hunger of the American public for news of any kind to distract them from their daily worries during the Great Depression, combine to create a media frenzy around this event. That’s one view. You can say, I think, that Lindbergh’s fame (unwelcomed and unwanted as it was) made his first-born son the target of a heinous crime.


And yet . . . it took more than two years for the local, state, and federal investigators to locate and apprehend a suspect. Today, with advanced methods of fingerprinting, chemical testing, and DNA analysis, a detective could send a stray hair from the

Lindebergh case files at NJ State Police Museum

Lindebergh case files at NJ State Police Museum

baby’s nursery floor to the crime lab in Trenton, and be knocking on the suspect’s door in less than a day. Period. End of case. But because there existed very few reliable scientific methods of doing criminal investigation at that time (especially because the crime scene was not immediately quarantined and members of the household trafficked through the room and the house for hours after the kidnapping occurred) based on physical evidence, and because no one actually SAW who climbed into that window on that windy night in 1932, this case, and the subsequent execution of the suspect Bruno R. Hauptmann, the German carpenter accused of kidnapping and murdering “Little Charlie,” continues to be the subject of fierce debate.

This is just one example of how human history and technology are enmeshed, intertwined and interdependent. I could cite dozens more, just from my own novels and biographies. As Sarah pointed out in her initial post for this blog, many of us who write or who teach writing for a living, do not consider the humanities and the sciences as separate entities; on the contrary, as we research our topics and create characters, settings, and dialogue for stories spanning the decades and centuries, we’re constantly made aware of their interdependent nature. In doing my research, I cross back and forth over innumerable imaginary boundaries between disciplines that our educational system classifies as either an art/ humanity or a science. In reality, however, these boundaries are blurry waves of light— moveable, overlapping, and often indistinguishable.




profilephotoJen Bryant writes biographies, poetry, picture books, and fiction, including the novels Pieces of Georgia and Kaleidoscope Eyes and the picture book biography A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams, illustrated by Melissa Sweet and awarded a Caldecott Honor. Jen and Melissa have recently collaborated on A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin, about the self-taught African American painter who was also a wounded WWI veteran. A graduate of Gettysburg College, Jen grew up in Flemington, NJ but now lives in Pennsylvania with her family. To learn more:

Full STEAM Ahead is Back Tomorrow!

After a brief holiday break, Full STEAM Ahead will be back tomorrow.  Our special guest will be Jen Bryant, prolific author!


I am also looking to line up more authors for Full STEAM Ahead.  Are you an author with a book that involves science, technology, engineering, or math in some capacity?  I’d love to hear from you!  Please email me- thereadingzone @ gmail(dot) com if you are interested!

Full STEAM Ahead with Chris Howard

Full STEAM Ahead


Chris Howard, author of ROOTLESS ...

I am thrilled that Chris Howard, author of the fascinating Rootless is here today for Full STEAM Ahead.  I first read Rootless a few months ago and fell in love with the world Chris built.  As I read, I was swept into Banyan’s world, full of mechanical trees, pirates, and genetically-modified corn.  I had nightmares about locusts with a taste for human flesh.  And I wanted my own mechanical tree.  Thankfully, we still have real trees so mine would only serve as decoration.

When I finished the book, I found myself thinking about the genetically-modified corn that plays such a big part in the book.  I first heard about genetically-modified food during my first-year composition course at Rutgers, when our TA had us read an article about the Monsanto Company.  I’ve kept tabs on them since that time (2001) and it amazes me that science continues to progress but that humanity has not come to a consensus on genetically modified crops.  Talk about a human issue!  Are genetically-modified crops safe for human consumption?  How do they affect the ecosystem around them? Do they disrupt pollinators? Do they contribute to climate change? How do they affect the economy?

My first-year composition course was through the English department, but my TA was a science minor.  I was lucky to have a TA who shared my interest in STEM and he brought that passion into our writing class.  Debating the Monsanto Company’s policies was a great intro to argumentative writing and helped many of my classmates dive into science when they might have avoided it in the past.  And I think Chris Howard’s book can do the same.  It brings up big questions about climate change, conservation, human progress, and genetically-modified crops that will keep readers thinking long after they finish the book.

I had a few questions for Chris Howard and he was kind enough to answer them for today’s edition of Full STEAM Ahead.

Hi Chris!  First, I am wondering- What made you focus on trees? Did writing Rootless involve any extensive research on tree species or anything like that?

My background is in ecology and environmental sciences. I studied Natural Resources Management at Colorado State University, before working for the National Park Service, teaching Forest Ecology, and leading wilderness adventure trips for teenagers. I took a lot of classes in college about trees and forests, and my love for them, as well as my education, certainly informed the writing of the book. The initial idea for ROOTLESS came when I was hiking in the mountains of Colorado and found myself surrounded by lodgepole pine trees devastated by the Mountain Pine Beetle (a big problem in certain areas of our state). I started to imagine a world where every tree, as well as all the plants and grasses and animals, had been wiped out by insects. That initial idea led to a fantastical story, but it’s definitely rooted in my scientific background 🙂

And what about the mechanics of building trees? Where did that idea come from? It must have STEM roots somewhere along the way. 🙂

Banyan (the main character who builds trees from scrap-metal until he uncovers a clue to the whereabouts of the last living trees) certainly has strong engineering skills. His forests are not just beautiful works of art, but real feats of ingenuity: towering above the dusty plains, his trees come to life at night with elaborate lighting, and the branches and leaves create music as they turn in the wind. I must admit, I have no idea how to build such forests myself! But there are people out there who do! Check out this guy!

And I think this is fascinating – these huge new artificial trees in Singapore generate solar power, act as air-venting ducts for nearby conservatories, and collect rainwater.  

The idea of a “tree builder” occurred to me almost as soon as I imagined a world without trees or nature… I thought people would build trees as a way to remember the world that once was.

Finally, I’d love to hear more about the GenTech corn in Rootless. Did you spend a lot of time researching genetically modified food? Do you have any thoughts on GM food in our world?

You know, GenTech and the corn are, at the end of the day, intended as metaphors. But as soon as I imagined locusts consuming everything in their path, I pictured one thing surviving: genetically engineered corn. I imagined it becoming the only source of food and fuel. And I imagined a single corporation controlling it…

I do believe we’re losing biodiversity as a result of corporations developing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Such companies engineer crops to be resistant to disease, insects, even pesticides. Then they slap patents on their GM seeds and release them into the environment where they outcompete and interbreed with non-GMOs, reducing biodiversity and increasing the patent-holders’ control over our food supply.

It’s too serious a subject to play around with in story-form and not do any research. And one of the most interesting things I found was this “super worm” that’s evolved to be able to resist the pesticides that Monsanto has put INSIDE corn. The GM corn in question is engineered to produce a protein that’s fatal to the rootworms that ingest it. Yet pesticide-resistant rootworms are now showing up – outsmarting the genetic engineering that was supposed to keep them away. That’s similar to how the all-consuming locusts in ROOTLESS evolved in response to GenTech’s corn.

It’s a very complicated issue, but I hope ROOTLESS will inspire some readers to think about the potential dangers that can arise when we overly-manipulate the natural world. To me, it’s not so much about the science, it’s what we do with it that’s important.



17-year-old Banyan is a tree builder. Using salvaged scrap metal, he creates forests for rich patrons who seek a reprieve from the desolate landscape. Although Banyan’s never seen a real tree–they were destroyed more than a century ago–his missing father used to tell him stories about the Old World.

Everything changes when Banyan meets a mysterious woman with a strange tattoo, a map to the last living trees on earth, and he sets off across a wasteland from which few return. Those who make it past the pirates and poachers can’t escape the locusts . . . the locusts that now feed on human flesh.

But Banyan isn’t the only one looking for the trees, and he’s running out of time. Unsure of whom to trust, he’s forced to make an alliance with Alpha, an alluring, dangerous pirate with an agenda of her own. As they race towards a promised land that might only be a myth, Banyan makes shocking discoveries about his family, his past, and how far people will go to bring back the trees.


Before he wrote stories, Chris Howard wrote songs, studied natural resources management, and led wilderness adventure trips for teenagers. He currently lives in Denver, CO, and ROOTLESS is his first novel. Join him at







Full STEAM Ahead with Jessica Khoury

Full STEAM Ahead

At BEA last May I picked up an ARC of Jessica Khoury’s Origin.  The cover caught my eye as it sat on a shelf and the blurb talked about genetic engineering, scientific ethics, and undiscovered flora and fauna in the Amazon rainforest.  I was immediately intrigued and took it home.  I read it later that summer and it did not disappoint.  It’s been making the rounds in my classroom this year and has gathered together a nice little following.  So when I started planning Full STEAM Ahead I immediately reached out to Jessica to see if she would share some of her STEM experiences.  As a young writer she really impressed me with the science that she wove in her debut novel.  (If you haven’t read Origin yet, be sure to pick up a copy!)

Today, Jessica is sharing a bit about her journey to appreciation of the STEM subjects.  She sounds a lot like many of our students!



Not gonna lie, science was one of my least-favorite subjects in school. In my mind, I had divided all the subjects into two basic categories: fun and not-fun. The first category included reading, writing, spelling, physical education, and art. The second included everything else, but most of all math and science—mainly because, frankly, I sucked at them. Still do. They were the subjects I “got by” in, rushing through the homework so I could get back to the fun stuff. In college, math was the only subject I had to get tutoring on—which I hated to admit to people, since I actually worked in that same tutoring lab helping people with their English and Spanish and stuff. I truly, honestly believed that all that math and science was for nothing, that I would never use it again, that it didn’t matter if I did well so long as I passed with a respectable grade. I want to be an author, I’d think. All I really need to focus on is language and literature, right?

Wrong, Jess. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

I became an author, and that’s when I realized how wrong I had been. In a dizzying turn of events, I found myself writing science fiction and suddenly, all the science and math I’d failed to learn came back to haunt me. After all, you can’t very well write science fiction if you know nothing about science. Now, I knew a little bit. I did enjoy topics like forestry and astronomy, because they were cool. But when I began writing Origin, I had to go deeper than that. I had to spend hours studying genetics and eugenics, historical movements in the scientific community, ecosystems and animal experimentation. And as I moved on to other projects after Origin, my research expanded to include psychology and neuroscience and biotechnology and even string theory. And the strangest thing happened—I found I actually kinda sorta liked this research. All the formulas and theories and terms I’d once thought dull or too hard to understand became interesting. I think it was because I could finally put them into a context I enjoyed, and there was a level of creativity involved with research that I’d never experienced before. I got to tweak the information I found and reinvent it, take the technology a step further and imagine worlds in which theories were fact, and a very important change took place in the way I approached math and science—my imagination got involved. And that made all the difference.

I began watching the science channel and TED talks and documentaries and before I knew it, I had become a science geek. Soon, I began reading about science I didn’t even need to know for my writing, and from the things I read, new ideas began to grow. Now I can’t watch the science channel for more than ten minutes without getting a new idea for a book. The new technologies being developed, the untested theories and the groundbreaking discoveries of new principles—these things became my inspiration.

Guys, science is cool. I think more and more people are catching on to this. Take the Avengers, for example. These aren’t just superheroes—these are scientists saving the world with, well, science! And muscles. There are plenty of muscles, too.


I came to realize that science and math and writing aren’t as compartmentalized as I’d thought. I had been under the impression that if you wanted to be a writer, it was okay to kind of suck at math and science and not care if you did. But really, these disciplines are inextricably linked. Think about it. Science, math—these are about finding patterns and explaining them, about translating abstract concepts and invisible processes into communicable words and formulas. It’s about making sense of the world we live in. That’s exactly what writing is! Even writing fiction is the same process, sometimes in reverse—using words to create patterns, to explain the intangible and explore universal truths in condensed, controllable environments. When I approached my research with this in mind, I found I really enjoyed the subjects I’d once written off because the part of writing which to me is really fun—the ideas and the methods and the looking at the universe in a new and exciting way—were the same things I felt when I dug into other subjects!

Science and literature, math and writing—I think sometimes we focus too much on the differences between these disciplines and not enough on their beautiful cohesiveness. It’s fascinating to explore how each subject overlaps and enhances the others. You can’t just dismiss a subject because it’s boring or too difficult, or all the others areas of study will suffer. Since becoming a writer, I’ve gained a much deeper appreciation for everything that isn’t writing. Mechanics, cooking, chemistry, string theory, psychology—writing in and of itself is empty if you don’t have something to write about. By expanding my interest to every discipline, I found a bottomless well of inspiration. I had to eat crow, as the saying goes, and finally admit that math and science and those subjects I’d always wrinkled my nose at—were pretty darn cool after all.

-Jessica Khoury

Reading Jessica’s post made me so happy!  This is exactly what I try to emphasize to my STEM kids every day.  No one is just a scientist, or just an engineer, or just a CPA these days.  You must be able to read, write, and think critically for all the careers that exist today and those that aren’t even in existence yet.  Life is not compartmentalized, so school shouldn’t be either.  We need to reach across the aisle to our colleagues in the content areas and create opportunities for students to see the connections between STEM and English!

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!

If you are an author interested in contributing a post  to Full STEAM Ahead, please contact me at thereadingzone @

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!