It Ain’t Linear, Baby!

OK. Once you get me started, I cannot stop. I am on a blog roll today. Actually, if I keep reading other blogs and writing posts of my own, then I can continue to avoid housework. We are at the front-end loader stage in my house. Do not laugh–I am serious. I need a wife.  

The same blog post to which I referred in my last post used a term that always rubs me the wrong way. Remember how science textbooks and (ahem) more “veteran” science teachers used to tout the concept of SCIENTIFIC METHOD? If I gave a quiz on good old SM right now–I would bet that many of you could pass it with flying colors. That’s SM–scientific method–not S & M. Something entirely different, friends.

Follow the bouncing SM ball: Formulate a question–frame a hypothesis–create a plan for an experiment–collect necessary materials–run the experiment–collect data–note the results–analyze said results–reach conclusions–make a statement about your findings.  Ta-da!

Many science teachers recognize that the concept of scientific method is passe.

Talk to any working scientist. This is not the “method” that they follow.

We try to teach our students these days to think, act, and talk like scientists in order to make the learning more authentic and the science literacy more long-lasting and genuine. The old-fashioned scientific method was useful if one was replicating an experiment–it’s way too linear and way too sequential, too step-by-step to represent SCIENCE, even to the youngest students. It may be one way of presenting information about a “classic” science experiment–like the ones created for a science fair. 

It seems to imply that there is one way of “doing” science. That cannot possibly be true–how many fields of science are there? More than one can even imagine–thousands. One METHOD would hardly be suitable. One size cannot fit all. Today, we do not want children to just learn a particular set of science facts. We want them to become life-long learners. We especially want to create adults with at least adequate science literacy skills and strategies for understanding the evermore complex world of modern science. Science is everywhere and in everthing we do. Just ask any of my students.

Today we deal with and teach SCIENCE PROCESS SKILLS like observation, measurement, communication, classification, prediction, experimentation, analysis, and inference. I first heard about SPS during a summer school course at Del Tech about 20 years ago. 

In the 6th grade kit, My Body and Me, we take a look at Dr. Joseph Goldberg’s 1914 experiments on the causes of pellagra. Fascinating stuff. Pellagra was a terrible disease that killed and crippled thousands of children and adults every year. Its incidence was greatest in the southern United States. Even then, Dr. G. used SPS–even though he did not recognize it as such.

He made observations about pellagra victims in Mississippi. He kept notes of all he saw, all his conversations with pellagra victims, and his thoughts about his observations. He communicated with other scientists and with the press. He observed that rich people did not get pellagra. He inferred that pellagra was an illness of people whose diets were not only poor but repetitive: corn bread, cornmeal mush, fatback, and syrup–day in and day out. He made more observations. He inferred that perhaps pellagra was related to nutrition. He narrowed his thinking to describe the cause of pellagra as something other than the result of eating corn or filthy living conditions or insect bites–common theories for possible causes. He finally inferred that perhaps pellagra was caused by the LACK of something. This was an amazing idea for its time–that rather than an illness being caused BY something, it was the lack of something that could make one ill.

Goldberg designed a simple experiment. The Governor of Mississippi gave him money to improve the diets of children at two orphanages. The children got milk, meats, fruits, and vegetables added to their regular diets. Over several months, Goldberg noted that every child with pellagra–a disease common to institutions like orphanages, asylums, and prisons–got well. Their symptoms of pellagra were gone. (The symptoms were horrible. It caused disfigurement, pain, debilitating weakness and fatigue. Long-term pellagra led to insanity and death.) And, there were no new cases of pellagra in these two locations. Goldberg was delighted by his findings. Southerners, on the other hand, were dismayed and resentful that he associated this disease with their “way of life.”

A second, more scientific, and quite disturbing, experiment was designed for “volunteers” from the Rankin Prison Farm. Surprisingly, no prisoners at Rankin had pellagra. They raised all of their own foods: fruits, vegetables, pigs, dairy cows, etc. For the experiment, prisoners were moved to a separate building that had been scoured clean. They got clean clothes every week. There were screens on all of the windows–an unheard-of improvement. In other words, Goldberg tried to limit the variables that might influence the outcome–might spoil the experiment.

Goldberg’s volunteers, who were promised freedom at the end of the experiment, but who had no idea what this experiment entailed–no concept of informed consent in Mississippi in 1914–were placed on a strict diet of corn bread, corn meal, fatback, and syrup–the “yellow diet” of the Sounthern Frontier.  Morning, noon, and night. Within two months, seven of the eleven volunteers showed clear signs of pellagra. Voila! Goldberg was sure that he had proved that pellagra was related to diet and that there were clear indications that the “yellow diet” lacked something that was essential for good health. He was sure that his findings would be recognized as a great success and that he could move on to managing a program to cure pellagra. That did not happen. 

Year after year, I have seen the nodding of heads of scientist parents during my Open House presentations. These visiting scientists affirm for me that science process skills are the real way that science happens. Science jumps all over the place–back and forth–a little of this and a little of that. It is anything but linear.  

 The true cause and cure for pellagra came a decade after Dr. Goldberg’s death in 1929. Turns out that pellagra is caused by a lack of niacin–Vitamin B3. Since the 1940’s, niacin has been added to many food products, especially those made from flour. Enriched flour in breads, crackers, and other baked goods has led to the virtual end of pellagra in developed countries. Niacin is also found in a variety of foods, including liver, chicken, beef, fish, cereal, peanuts and other legumes, and can also be synthesized from tryptophan, which is found in meat, dairy and eggs. Niacin occurs naturally  in: eggs, avocados, dates, tomatoes, leaf vegetables, broccoli, carrots, sweet potatoes, asparagus, mushrooms, nuts, whole grain products, and Vegemite (from spent brewer’s yeast). OMG. Vegemite is definitely an acquired taste.

I did not want to leave you hanging. No need to cause undue anxiety about pellagra, which can still be found in a few truly third-world societies with limited access to a variety of foods in their diets.

Class dismissed.

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5 Responses to It Ain’t Linear, Baby!

  1. Mike Matthews says:

    Loved this story when you first told me, Jenner. Going to spread this far and wide. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Wolfe Gary says:

    Now I know why we speak the same language, Science, as we both live and breath it. Thanks

    • John Young says:

      great stuff, and a great science story to boost my knowledge!

    • Frederika says:

      My world is framed in science. I recognize that I have loved it since I was eight and my Aunt Jane sent me a subscription the National Geographic. There was an article about a volcanic eruption. I was hooked. I especially love geology and archaeology, but chemistry and biology are fascinating as well.

  3. Frederika says:

    It’s a great story. It is used in the kit to demonstrate how science works; how modern scientists developed and improved scientific inquiry; how much a critical role the scientific literacy (or lack thereof) of the public matters to human health; ethical issues of experimenting on humans and animals–we later watch a video clip about the initial work in Canada towards the discovery of insulinm and understanding of diabetes; a look at science history; and a story about a terrible disease that has been all but wiped out. One side line that is not missed by 6th graders are the issues of the haves and the have nots–pellagra was a disease that did not affect middle- or upper-class Americans. They also ask amazingly insightful questions like: (1) What happened to the orphans once the 3-month experiment was ended?, (2) What happened to the eleven prison “volunteers”–were they cured of pellagra before they were released or just released to fend for themselves? We can only imagine the answers, and neither of them are pretty. Plus, there is always a very astute child who suggests that even if the prisoners were “cured” there may be lingering effects of ever having suffered from pellagra. Is this not what we want them to be doing in public school science classes composed of students from almost every social economic background, every culture, and a full range of academic abilites?

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