GUEST POSTS: NSTA Linking Literacy, NSTA National Convention, Boston, MA. 9 am – 3 pm, April 4, 2020.
The National Science Teacher’s Association has invited authors of Outstanding Science Trade Books and Best Stem Books to discuss literacy and children’s books at a special Literacy Event. 14 of these authors have contributed guest posts to run from January 7 – April 2, 2020.
See the full author list and the date on which they’ll post at Linking Literacy 2020.
Guest post by Ann Rubino
It’s always surprising to learn about technology in history. People built huge stone buildings, forged armor, ground grain in wholesale lots, designed watches with such tiny parts we need magnification to see them today. How could they do such things, with the little they had both in terms of knowledge and tools? Yet they did. A kid today, set loose in the woods, would be hard pressed to find a stick adequate to hold his roasted marshmallow, yet hundreds of years ago people found ways to cope, often elegantly. The story of technology has deep and wide roots. It is fair to show some of them to our kids. Fair to let them in on a secret: people have always used technology, just not the sort that involves pushing buttons. It’s all about the thinking, the persistence in working toward a thought-out goal and the reasoned use of materials and knowledge at hand.
Stories can make the point, and bring with them a world of historical background as well. The story is the “special sauce” that makes the facts interesting.
I imagined characters based on memories of my former students, placed in a world long gone, a world that was changing rapidly with new discoveries and inventions: the telegraph, the battery, cast iron tools of all kinds.
In Emmet’s Storm I imagined my main character as one of the gifted students that I loved to teach—quirky, earnest, unevenly developed with a great grasp of theory but an inability to keep papers right side up in a binder. I put him in Iowa in a tiny town in 1887, the summer before the disastrous Children’s Blizzard of 1888. Other kids don’t like him. He collects stacks of Scientific American, then a weekly filled with news of new inventions and discoveries. He tries to replicate what he reads, usually to spotty-to-disastrous results. He manages to avoid punishment when his hot air balloon sets fire to a farmer’s hay wagon parked outside the saloon. However, when the school principal, a kindly but prim nun, gets knocked on her posterior while touching his Leyden jar experiment, it’s the final straw. He’s assigned to the country school, newly built after a lightning caused fire. “The school board rejected my advice to install a lightning rod,” nine-year-old Emmet complains. The new school is made of local limestone and is caulked “tight like drum” by a German villager with precise work habits. What happens when the blizzard hits rounds out the plot, with many “hooks” to intermediate science topics, especially electricity and weather. Ultimately dorky, misfit Emmet becomes the hero.
I was getting the feel of semi-mythical Floyd, Iowa, by the time Emmet’s Storm won the Best STEM book of 2017. My granddaughter wanted to know why grandma always writes about boys. She had a point. I had long been interested in the Orphan Train movement and it fit in with my time period, so in memory of my Swedish grandfather, a cabinetmaker and inventor “sold” by his stepmother as an apprentice at the age of nine, I invented Inga.
Inga is an 11-year old girl from Sweden who arrives in Iowa on the Orphan Train and is assigned to the blacksmith and his pie-making wife. She has all sorts of time-saving ideas, some of which work. She forms an uneasy alliance with Emmet who is assigned to help her with English. Most of her scientific challenges relate to mechanics and simple machines, though her emotional journey is difficult. She finds solace in solving problems with her amazing ideas because missing her parents, in her words, “…is too sad. I cannot think on it.” Inga’s Amazing Ideas is a Best STEM Book 2019.
Both books aim to make use of scientific concepts in use in a true historical context, making the point that STEM is just a new acronym for what people have always done in varying degrees: use what they know to solve problems, try out solutions, discard ideas that don’t hold up to reality, and persevere in the attempts. Magic doesn’t solve problems; work does. Science grounds students in the complex and fascinating reality that surrounds them.
While teaching elementary science, Ann Rubino’s team won the OHAUS Award in 1990 for innovations in science teaching. She was an early reader for Illinois of the New Generation Science Standards; sat on the review board of Science & Children magazine; and worked as a consultant for the Museum of Science & Industry, Chicago. She holds an MT(ASCP), B.A.Ed., a M.S. Ed. and an Endorsement in Gifted Education. Her last teaching assignment was as adjunct at Lewis University, teaching science methods. After retirement, she reviewed children’s books for the Recommends division of Science & Children and continued to work for several years on the review board.