Commentary – It’s about giving kids the tools

Joe McWilliams

I came across a sheet of paper on the way home the other day. Picking it up [I’m a compulsive litter cleaner-upper], I found it was a handout for a Grade 9 science quiz. The unit was astronomy, and I must say those kids are learning a lot of stuff I never did –in Grade 9 or anywhere else!

At least I hope they are learning it!

It’s obviously in the curriculum, and any student who makes the effort will end up knowing the difference [for example] between asteroids, meteors, meteoroids, meteorites and comets. I never learned in school how to distinguish those things. Maybe that was the day I had to stay home after cutting my forehead with a chainsaw!

Another story. I could look it up, of course. The trick these days is not learning things, but remembering them the next day.

If a kid of 14, though, latches onto a bit of data at that age, it is likely to stick. That must be why I can recall all sorts of things I learned in the first decade of my life [names of birds and plants, for example], but new information seems to go in one ear and out the other.

This Grade 9 astronomy stuff is impressive. Useful? That depends, but the next generation of astro-physicists has to come from somewhere. Who knows which kid is going to get inspired by junior high school lessons on red supergiants and white dwarfs and make a beeline for a career in study of the stars. There’s a lot out there to be discovered, and somebody has to do it.

“Be able to describe and explain the following” advises the handout. The difference between solar sails and ion drives. What? The difference between heliocentric model and geocentric model. The three basic parts of a rocket. Hmmm!

It continues. Estimate star location using azimuth/zenith/ altitude. Explain some basic differences amongst the planets [all nine]. The lifespan of a star. The difference between light years and astronomical units.

I can hardly wait for the next quiz paper to turn up, dropped by some careless junior high student. I might learn something else.

In the meantime, kids are also learning a bit of entrepreneurial – that word is hard to type! – via the Lemonade Day program, put on by Community Futures. The kids are quite young, and likely their parents are doing a big part of the work, not to mention making sure their junior business boys and girls show up on time and stay focused.

The experience probably won’t make much of a difference in the lives of most of those kids, but you never know. Somebody might develop an interest in that sort of thing, find out he or she has an aptitude, and away they go. The next Steve Jobs, or whoever.

You can lead a horse to water, as the old saying goes, but you can’t make it drink. True, maybe, but you can at least put things in front of the youngsters, and encourage them to try it.

Opportunity first; then maybe, inspiration, and confidence through experience.

These are valuable things.

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