How Acting Like a Scientist Can Help You Play

playing in the woods and acting like a scientist look pretty similar
I heard this story on NPR recently, and I think it’s the best advice I’ve heard in awhile on how to get out in the woods and explore, relax, and as they say in the article, take time to smell the roses! The answer: make an exploratory game out of it. “Pretend” to be a naturalist. Yes!

In this permanent state of hyperventilation, the issue for us all is not stopping to smell roses. It’s not even noticing that there are roses right there in front of us. Joseph Campbell, the great scholar of religion, hit the core of our problem when he wrote, “People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive.”

But how can we experience “being alive” in the midst of the crushing urgencies that make up modern life?

Well, it might seem strange, but one answer to that question is “science,” at least science with a lowercase “s.” Science, you see, is all about noticing. This is where it begins, with simple act of catching seeing the smallest detail as an opening to a wider world of wonder and awe. And here is the good news. You don’t need a particle accelerator or well-equipped genetics lab in your basement to practice noticing (that would be science with a capital “S”).

You already are a scientist. You have been since you were a kid playing with water in the tub, or screwing around in the backyard with dirt and sticks and stuff.

If you want to rebuild your inner-scientist-noticing-skills, the best place to begin is with a walk in the woods.

There are lots of reasons to take a walk in the woods. To get away from it all, clear your head, smell the fresh air. The problem, of course, is that even if we get ourselves into a park or a forest, we might still be so lost in our heads that we miss what’s right in front of us. Practicing noticing, like a scientist, can change that by binding us to experience in ways that are thrilling, even in their ordinariness.

Noticing can take many forms. One trick is to count things. Scientists love to count stuff. How many trees are there on the sides of a steep hill compared with its crest? How many leaves are there on the stalks of the blue flowers compared to the yellow ones? How many different kinds of birdsong do you hear when you stop and listen, (by the way, this requires really stopping and really listening, which is awesome). Counting things forces you to pay attention to subtleties in the landscape, the plants, the critters.

Other things scientists love: shapes, colors, patterns. Do the rocks at the stream’s edge look different from the ones near the trail? Do the big cattails have the same color as the small ones? Get your naturalist on and bring a notebook. Pretend you are or John Muir. Jot down your findings, make little drawings and always, always ask your yourself those basic questions: why, how, when?

Read the full article.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but scientists are all about creativity and exploration, and noticing things outside of the ordinary, so acting like a scientist is great way to see the world in a whole new way by playing with things, seeing what happens when you mess with something. Kids are natural players/explorers/scientists, so you can even bring one along as it might be helpful to get you in the explorer mode.

I would also argue that it doesn’t have to be “the woods” necessarily to get the same playful/exploratory benefits, it can also be short walks around the block, whatever works to get your observational juices flowing.

Un-geekifying scientists

Español: Investigadores en un laboratorio de l...

What makes a career seem achievable, especially in STEM fields? Image via Wikipedia

Interesting article about making science appealing to youngsters, particularly girls:

Addressing the country’s shortfall of students in the STEM disciplines (science, engineering, technology and mathematics) begins with persuading students that scientists are people, too.

A series produced by the science program NOVA, available online, is a good place to start. The Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers (tag line: “Where the lab coats come off”) features footage of scientists working in their labs and sitting down for interviews. The researchers come off as curious, playful, even goofy — people you might want to befriend, or become. The same process of humanization can work with written materials. Susan Nolen, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, gave two different statistics texts to groups of female students. One selection was written in the remote, impersonal style of most textbooks. The other struck a more accessible tone, sharing the writer’s views and opinions on the information. The text with a “visible author,” as Nolen describes it, prompted the students to engage in mental interactions with the author as they read, a process that promoted their understanding and retention of the material.

Read more: America Needs More Geeks: How to Make Science Cool

Do you agree or disagree with Paul’s assessment? Are scientists scary, unapproachable beings that nobody wants to be when they grow up?

From my personal experience I know that making that kind of job and expertise seem attainable was important to me as a high school and college student. I had a journalism professor in college that I greatly admired, Conn Hallinan. He was so GOOD at what he did; he seemed to know the history of every issue. In his provost house (not even his “real” house) he had an entire room full of file cabinets filled with clippings of stories, and somehow kept track of all of it. It was somewhat intimidating as a budding journalist. I remember thinking a couple of times “I will NEVER be this organized/dedicated/whatever. How will I ever become a journalist?” Thankfully he was very supportive of my budding talents, and I ended up writing for a scientific magazine for several years.

That being said, I think it helps to have the mask removed and being able to see the real people behind some of these professions. At the same time, probably the most helpful course I took in college was a two-credit seminar on writing professions. Each week they brought in guest speakers who talked about how they made money writing, and what they did as side-jobs if/when the writing didn’t pay enough. One journalist who’s name I can’t remember told us that she was a terrible introvert, but loved being a journalist because it gave her an excuse and a reason to talk to people. As a fellow introvert, that helped me a lot.

So, I do think it’s important to humanize jobs if we want kids to pursue them. I was going to say this is especially true for girls, but I think it’s true for both genders.

What are your thoughts? Was there a person that inspired you to get into your current career? What were they like; were they very approachable, or more legendary/iconic? Leave your story in the comments.