Science, technology, and mathematics are not all about test-tubes and equations. Great scientists and mathematicians are able above all to think scientifically and mathematically; in other words, they are able to perceive patterns and relationships and to pose deep questions about what they see. In the end, being a scientist or a mathematician is simply about observing experience and then thinking about it. To a perceptive young person, quantitative and causal relationships will begin to emerge where least expected, and the youngster who is inclined to apply even more thought to these relationships is on the path to truly thinking like a scientist.
The activities in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math section are designed to foster scientific and mathematical approaches to otherwise ordinary day-to-day experience. Some require more rigorous or disciplined action—record-keeping, for example—but all are designed for the simple purpose of helping the young person see common phenomena in new, more insightful ways.
IDEA #7 . Learn to identify five (or ten) different types of trees.
In a world in which the study of biology in schools is largely confined to the molecular and cellular level, the old-fashioned study of nature by observation and classification is something of a lost art. Nonetheless, many students are interested in various kinds of field biology, and the ability to recognize different species and families is an important skill to acquire.
Even if the youngster may not be heading toward graduate study in biology, it is both useful and satisfying to be able to recognize different elements of one’s environment. In most locales the variety of trees is still linked to an older variety of purpose: some trees were planted for shade, others for the timber or firewood they produced, still others for their ornamental qualities. In a few places the tree population is as it was prior to the development of the land by settlers; cottonwoods and willow mark watercourses, or the giants in virgin forest are preserved as relics of natural history. The successive growth of particular species marks the historical sequence by which nature reclaims cleared land.
Good field guides to the study of trees (dendrology) abound, and any library or bookstore should be able to provide choice. The better ones will provide not just pictures and names but also explanation and history, perhaps explaining the suitability of its wood, seeds, sap, or bark for uses in an earlier time. The guide might also refer to some of the more urgent issues confronting modern tree populations—blights and insects whose spread has been made possible by human agency, or invasive non-native species that thrive opportunistically in ecological niches once occupied by other species that they have in effect driven out. Rather than representing a constant in nature, trees have life cycles and crises, and the more one can learn about this, the more effective a steward the thinking youngster will be.