Monday, October 19, 2009

The history and the mystery

We were thinking recently that part of being inspired to science is having an inkling about the history of discovery. Not that ABC discovered XYZ in 1892 but knowing about the passionate lives behind the discoveries and the politics and pain of ideas battling for acceptance. One author that does this beautifully (for grown-ups) is David Bodanis. Hear him speak about his book E=mc2 here. Another writer that always throws in a smattering of animated history is Julie Rehmeyer. Here's one of her posts in her column MathTrek on

Can we find ways to bring the stories of scientific lives to kids?

Classifying our books

One of the things we hope to do is to create something of a new genre of book: science through picture book fiction. It’s not exactly ‘science fiction’ since it’s not so much futuristic as much as it is science told through stories with fictional elements. We’re not really sure yet what to call it. Every one of our books, however, needs to meet at least one out of two scientific criteria (preferably both): introduce a concept beyond our sensory experience and/or touch on the unknown. They also need to meet at least one out of two literary criteria (again preferably both): strong characters and/or story line. We also ensure that our books have high quality illustrations comparable to main stream picture book fiction. The bottom line is that given that fiction is not generally divided up based on the topics it covers, we are hoping over time to convince booksellers and libraries to classify our books as fiction rather than science on the basis of their literary quality. After all, if a book about a talking animal that teaches the child about good behavior is fiction, why not a book about a mischievous virus that teaches you something about infection and contagion? Fiction has long been accepted as a medium to help children understand how to relate to other people and understand societal norms. Why not as a means to understand our relationship to the microscopic and physical world as well? In the greater context both science and humanities encompass themes that impact our view of the world and our role in it. Classifying our books as fiction and not relegating them to the one ‘science’ shelf at the back that barely anyone visits will widen the audience. We really want to reach children who would otherwise not be exposed to science outside the classroom either because they think they don’t like science or because their parents are science phobic. We believe that every child is born with curiosity about their world and, in the end, understanding ourselves and our relationship to the universe is what science is all about. So ‘science’ or ‘fiction’? Tell us what you think.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

A new approach to science education: Start with the unknown

Magic World’s mission is to inspire a new generation of scientists that ask big questions. This means a new approach to science education, both formal and informal. Typically, we see education as gradually leading a child along a path of acquiring mankind’s knowledge. For 20 something years you learn more and more complicated and difficult things until at last you are proclaimed ready to enter and contribute to the world at large. This is particularly true for science. We learn a large body of knowledge and if we are good at acquiring that knowledge we may study it further until we reach a point where we are thrown into ‘academia’ where we are now meant to participate in advancing that knowledge. Except that most scientists arrive there clever and knowledgeable but having lost the wonder that drives true discovery and the bold thinking required for revolutionary advance. Why is that and what’s to be done? What we have set out to do is to introduce children to science by first showing them the unknown to feed their imagination. Not high school children, not middle school children but preschool and elementary age children who are not afraid to ask the most absurd of questions. A child that knows that all is not known, we think, will revel in the imagination of possibilities and is more likely to see a role for themselves in the process of discovery. Once a child has imagined a role for themselves in pushing the boundaries of human knowledge they will be less deterred by difficulties or hurdles along the way that might otherwise dictate their career path. They will be scientists already and school will be a place where they can learn the tools that will help them further their quest. Contrast this to the way we work today. We plod up a staircase of learning step by step motivated largely by the pats on the back we get along the way in the forms of grades and prizes not even realizing that the stairs vanish somewhere in the future leaving us staring into a wide open space with few cues as to where it leads. By then unfortunately we have learned how to climb stairs, not to build them and certainly not to imagine where they might eventually lead. Instead, what if we always knew that it ended and what if we always imagined where they could lead, wouldn’t we be more prepared at the top of the staircase in our choice of how and where to build? We hope that through our books and other media we can captivate the imaginations of young children and help fuel a generation of scientists who enter science purposefully, for the beauty and joy of discovery.