About eight months ago, my daughter did a school project on slime moulds. Along with internet research on slime moulds, she searched for live slime moulds in various habitats, and even tried keeping one as a pet. Unfortunately, the weather was particularly dry and warm, so slime moulds were scarce, and her pet died. We considered the project somewhat of a failure.
Except that she has been tuned in to slime moulds ever since, so when she noticed a funny grey substance covering blades of grass in the yard a few days ago, she was primed for it. She brought it inside to look at under the microscope, and correctly identified it as Physarum cinereum, a type of slime mould.
She posted a photo and her identification on Nature Watch NZ, and had her identification verified by several scientists.
Today, she found a similar slime mould, but this one was a mustard yellow colour. In form it was very like Physarum cinereum, but altogether the wrong colour.
She pulled out her iPad to search for it online. No luck…
While she was searching, the sample under the microscope changed colour, from yellow to grey. Based on her knowledge of slime mould biology, she reckoned the grey colour must be spores. She has posted her new photo and identification to Nature Watch NZ, and is waiting to see what the experts think.
Could I ever have devised a better science lesson? Not in a million years. She made an observation, used her research skills and prior knowledge to make sense of what she saw, and got corroboration from an expert.
The resources available to kids (and bigger kids, too) these days are amazing—the opportunities to engage directly with the scientific community, find current information about things (no more 20 year-old World Book Encyclopaedias), and record their observations are so far beyond what I had as a child, it still feels a bit like magic to me.
But of course none of that is possible if we don’t nurture our children’s curiosity and teach them how to use the tools available to them. None of it is possible if we don’t give our kids time to watch the world go by, time to get bored and lie down in the grass. Tom Eisner (famous entomologist, for those who don’t know him) wrote in his book For Love of Insects, “How is it, I am often asked, that I make discoveries? I always feel a bit awkward about answering the question, because I do not have a particular method. The truth is that I spend a fair amount of time looking around.”
So go on. Get out there. Look around. Who knows what you might discover.