I recently attended a conference for biology teachers at my stateís Department of Education. It seems like the education czars want to ďunburdenĒ the science curriculum to only focus on what they feel is the most important, mainly cell physiology, genetics and evolution.
The presenter had a few choice words to say about teachers who focused on butterfly migration or dinosaurs, instead of, say, the dark cycle of photosynthesis. He didnít mention studying birds or birding, but I imagine he wouldnít approve of that, either.
In my day biology was a lot different. It was basically a course in zoology, with each animal phyla observed, diagrammed and dissected. Although we usually never got much past the frog in Phylum Chordata, Class Amphibia, I do remember learning briefly about mammals in 7th grade. I never had any formal book learning about birds, and in fact, canít even find a college level ornithology course that actually runs (and there are a lot of colleges within commuting distance in my part of the country.)
So this leads me to my question this week. Should ornithology or birding be part of the biology curriculum?
On one hand, there are few jobs in birding. Most nature sites run on volunteer and student intern employees. If our goal as educators is to prepare our students for the job market, we should focus more on healthcare related branches of biology. Even I will admit that doctors and nurses are more important than ornithologists. (OK. I admit it grudgingly. But it wasnít an ornithologist who saved my motherís life a few years ago.) I can understand the push to focus on cell metabolism, as it is essential knowledge if you want to diagnose a disease or write a prescription to cure it.
On the other hand, by focusing on abstractions and very tiny, invisible things like atoms on chemicals, much of the joy of science is removed. A kid can see a bird. You canít see the electron transfer cycle in the mitochondrion. Heck, you canít even see the mitochondrion in most school microscopes.
We hear that the United States is in a math and science education crisis, and that it is the fault of the teachers. It isnít. A teacher canít motivate students to love what is dry and boring. A graph of activation energy over time will be just that--dry and boring--to most kids, save for a handful of science genius/nerd types.
But a bird feeder with pretty birds? A trip to a birding site, or maybe even a boat ride to look for birds? Dissecting owl pellets and looking at feathers under a microscope? That may not be interesting to everyone--there will always be kids who would rather text about Snooki under the desk--but it is tangible. You can see the birds and hear them sing, and maybe--just maybe--studying the birds will lead to a desire to study something else in science. No, not for everyone. But probably more students will be motivated by that than by the active site on an enzyme.