Sunday, August 16, 2015

Darkness at the edge of wonder

The starling’s beaks are darkening into a marbleized browny black for late summer. They are no longer the cheery yellow of the breeding season.

As an educator working with high school students in an informal scientific learning environment, our great goal is to inspire students about the wonders of the natural world. We regale them with tales of discovery, dazzle them with biodiversity, and let them experience the highs of self-directed inquiry. This requires an enthusiastic, optimistic, and sometimes histrionic teaching approach.

But, the reality of doing science is not all awe-inspiring. Most times it is the opposite. Most times it is a thankless slog, indistinguishable at the daily level from other detail-oriented, challenging jobs. Most times things don’t work as planned, and there is no discovery, just confusion followed by more confusion, stress, and then disappointment.

It is a life of the lab, of the accidentally dropped 96 samples; a life of the forest, drenched in sweat and not having seen a single species-you-came-for all day. It is a life of the desert, hunched over hunting for fossils and finding nothing. It is a life of awkwardness, bad advice, insecurity, and mountains of other people’s arrogance. It is a life of having to prove yourself, right after having just proved yourself. But it is also, a life of the mind, which is the big yellow hope that guides us through the darkness. Asking a question with an answer that is millions of years old, making a new connection, illuminating a pattern, or uncovering unknown diversity. It is all gloriously bigger than us. And no wasted day in the lab or the field can take away the intellectual euphoria that accompanies this imperfect journey. 

But what can we tell our students, that will speak to the darkness, but not turn them away? And maybe some of them should be turned away. It is not for everyone. It is not for most people. It makes no sense, and yet perfect sense. 

Most times you find nothing, but keep looking darlings. Their beaks will be yellow again in spring.

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