Monday, March 4, 2013

Life-long Learning

When I was a kid I missed the message that science could be fun. Somehow I came to believe that science was only for nerdy brainiacs, but not for the rest of us. I thought that scientists were born smarter than everyone else. (Meanwhile, I collected butterflies, loved wildflowers and being outside, and had a great time at the Natural History Museum. Those things were fun and I never associated them with science.) My uneasiness with science was reinforced in middle school where I earned my first "C" in a class taught by a grim woman, known for being tough. I remember studying blood types and being unable to poke my own finger with a razor blade. She grabbed my finger, jabbed it hard and sent me away. In high school, our biology class was taught by the football coaches. The class focused on memorizing long lists of terms for multiple choice quizzes and tests and dissecting fetal pigs, frogs, earthworms and grasshoppers. I don't remember anything that I learned from either teacher, except that I hated science. After those two experiences, I spent most of my time in school avoiding anything that looked like a science class and tried instead to fill requirements with the classes that sounded like something that I, as a "non brainiac" could handle. In college, I was able to get by with science classes that were more historical or philosophical than "scientific". I majored in English. I'm glad I did, because I love to read and write, and I love the language. I can still recite the first 18 lines of the Canterbury Tales from memory! But it never felt like the perfect fit.

Along the way, I met and married my husband, who is a really smart and creative person, but is very far from being a "nerdy brainiac". He was not a scientist when we met, but after the first few years we were married, he went back to college and developed an interest in chemistry. He went on to get a Ph.D and is now a professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. I realized from observing him over the years that 1) science is really interesting and cool, and 2) that you don't have to be a brainiac to do it, but you do have to work hard to learn it well, and 3) that I wish I'd figured this out before, because I should have studied entomology or wildlife ecology.

I observe and photograph flowers and butterflies in our Butterfly Garden
Of course, it's not too late. I could go back to college in my 50's, and I may still consider it.  But meanwhile, I've discovered numerous other ways to study. First, there is Informal Education. The Cooperative Extension offers a Master Gardener program that I got involved with when we first moved to Florida. Later, I learned about the Master Naturalist program and have completed the three main courses for that. I attend nature walks, lectures and workshops whenever I can and get my education outside of the formal class setting. As I've learned more, I've gotten the confidence and mastery to able to share my knowledge with others. I volunteer with several organizations where I get to be a naturalist interpreter or teach lessons about nature. I also take photographs of what I see and this has turned into a passion. I spend many hours searching out the perfect photo of a migrating bird, special butterfly or unusual native plant, and follow that up by researching what I've seen. I love just going out and taking the photos, but I've also been able to share my work with parks, nature organizations, friends and family. Some of my photos are even in a nature viewing app! I have a couple of children's books in progress, using my photos and knowledge of local flora and fauna and I hope some day to be able to share them with local organizations.
Insect Trap in our yard--part of the Wildlife Survey
Then, there is Citizen Science! Over the years, I have gotten involved in numerous projects where I can make observations and report my findings to help scientists with their research. I've observed birds, flowers and butterflies. I've offered our yard to scientists studying Zebra Long-wing Butterfly clustering behavior, Mockingbird Nests, and currently, a 3-year Survey of Wildlife in yards with Native Plants. Research dollars are very tight these days and scientists need help from the Citizen Scientists to get out in the field and observe and collect. (Basically, they need people to do the fun stuff while they have to spend their time writing grants and papers!) Next on my list: Native Bee Nest Habitat Project!

Bee Housing (Some of the apartments are already rented!)
What I'm getting at here is that it's not too late to follow your heart and do what you love. If you missed the first chance, follow the next. There are many paths to happiness and fulfillment. You just need to find yours. Or if you can't find a path, make a new one.

Here are some links to Citizen Science and Self Directed Study:

Project Feeder Watch

Mapping the Brain at

NPR Story about Creating your own education path

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