The 8th installment of “Mr. Caputo Teaches…,” my experience as an extracurricular science teacher in elementary and middle schools across Massachusetts.
I had been looking forward to the pin-hole camera lesson for a while. The thought of making them with my students brought me back to a visual arts class I took my junior year at Stuyvesant high school in Manhattan. The teacher instructed us how to make our own cameras, and I waited patiently to take old-style pictures of the Hudson River.
But had I looked closer at my lesson plan, I would have realized that the pin-hole cameras my class and I were building were models. Everything you needed to take a picture but no film.
I watched as the news zapped the excitement from each of my student’s eyes. “So what do these do?” Asked one of the girls. “They demonstrate… cameras,” I responded pathetically. “I know how cameras work,” she zinged back, “you snap a picture and it shows up on the screen.”
This disappointment caused the kids to be uncharacteristically sassy. I did my best to get through my spiel and decided to just sit down and help them build their projects. Surprisingly, the disinterest in the day’s topic provided some interesting conversation.
“Why are my eyes brown?” asked a 7th-grader after I talked about red-eye in photos. I did a quick survey and none of the kids had discussed genetics or inheritance in their biology classes.
“Well, what color are your mom’s eyes?” I asked. No surprise, brown. “What about your dad’s?” Aha, they’re green. After an brief overview of chromosomes and gene expression, I explained that although both genes are active, the gene for brown eyes from mom is expressed more than the gene for green eyes from dad.
I may be biased, but shouldn’t genetics be introduced before high school? It is so crucial to understanding our bodies that it seems a crime to leave it out of the curriculum. Maybe it’s because genetics involves evolution and reproduction, two touchy-subjects for Americans, or that many elementary and middle school teachers don’t have a firm knowledge of the subject.
All I saw when we had out conversational tangent into chromosomes and genes was curiosity. The kids had questions about the difference between species, the X and Y chromosomes and how human beings are going to evolve.
Bringing genetics into the younger classroom would be easy. It could be done with a story. Some out there include “How the Y Makes the Guy” and “Amazing Schemes with Your Genes.” Class assignments can also include looking into certain family characteristics such as hair color or disease.
Although the pin-hole camera project was a bust, (the second worst after hot-air balloons, said a student), our fireside chat about genetics was kind of fun. I’m not suggesting build a life-size model of DNA, but a tree-of-life tour through a local zoo would be perfect. If only we had the time for a field trip.