I am exhausted. Today was Science Co-op. Science Co-op tends to wear me out, but I love it. I confess that I am an artsy-fartsy science geek posing as a suburban homeschool mom. Long ago when I was eight, I had dreams of being a lab-coated mad scientist, mixing chemicals together, exploding things and being on the cutting edge of something. Lack of a systematic temperament and intense math skills unfortunately made that hope unrealistic, but my interest remained, and now every week at Science Co-op I get to pretend, which is almost as good and probably more fun.
We are in a chapter entitled, "What is Life?" We have diligently learned the five questions to ask to determine whether something is a living organism: Does it move? Does it grow? Does it respond to its environment? Does it breathe, eat, digest, and poop? (i.e. carry on metabolic processes), Does it reproduce? My friend made up a catchy chant to remember these questions, and I put it to a tune, so we sang it at the beginning of our co-op meeting. This was fun, not least because that was the one time in our home that you are allowed to use "poop" in a song.
Then we moved on to our experiments. Up first was a rather tame procedure in which we put iodine on a slice of potato and noticed how the iodine turned the potato black. Then we put iodine on a leaf, which also turned black. These both indicated the presence of stored starch and hence, criteria Number 4! Potatoes and leaves might possibly be living organisms! Then we got a little rowdy and even though our experiment instructions didn't say to, we dropped some iodine on some ham and cheese to see what might happen. Nothing! Ham and cheese do not primarily contain starch and therefore, the evidence as to whether or not they are living organisms is inconclusive.
Then we moved on to our earthworm experiment. Would they turn out to be life forms?? The boys were dispatched outdoors to dig up some worms for what would be the most exciting day of their lives. The goal was to determine if and how they might respond to their environment. So the kids put them in a jar with some dirt and put it in under a light. By golly, those earthworms responded!! They burrowed and slithered and hid down in the dirt! Then, aha! we changed their environment. We added some water to their dirt, turned off the lights, and hid just around the corner. They responded again, those genial earthworms, and came back up top now that the danger of drying out was all over. After that we thanked them for their kind services, pronounced that having met Criteria Number 3, they might well be life forms and we would let them know, and we released them into the wild.
After that we turned to the highlight of this week's co-op: The Cell. Our book states that there are roughly 100 trillion cells in each of our bodies. I love that word "roughly." That somehow seems a rather cavalier word when you are dealing in the trillions, don't you think? The children were quite impressed that they possessed such a great number of something. We labeled the various parts of the cell on diagrams. It was like greeting old friends at a high school reunion. With delight I recalled the fantastic names that had enchanted me in long ago biology class: Endoplasmic Reticulum, Mitochondria, The Golgi Body.
After we labeled them, we looked a few different types of cells under the microscope, and in the frog blood cells the nucleus was very visible! In the plant root tip cells we could just make out some of the other organelles as well. Which brings me to the word "organelles." Isn't that word just cute? So teeny tiny that their parts aren't organs, they're only organelles.
Then, the piece de resistance: we made large, edible models of an animal cell out of gelatin and candies with a cherry for the nucleus (the pit is where the DNA is kept.) Gumdrops for the vacuole, M&Ms for the lysosomes, a gumball for the centrosome, dried cranberries for the mitochondria, and sour and sweet gummy worms for your favorite and mine - the Endoplasmic Reticulums. (Reticula? Reticuli?) - rough and smooth respectively. The kids loved it and ate a lot of extra organelles as they squished them into the jello...er, cytoplasm. I told them they could as long as they used the proper organelle name. Which led to little Hermes asking sweetly, "May I please eat another Endoplasmic Reticulum?"
So after we'd put them all inside the cellular membrane (ziploc bag) and let them gel in the fridge, the kids polished off the rest of the organelles and the three mamas flopped wearily onto the couch with some coffee, Science Co-op was over for the week. We had succeeded in completing our experiments without harming the earthworms, staining anyone's clothes with the iodine and keeping the toddlers amused. Our kids had certainly learned about the structure of a cell and the sugar high would wear off in a few hours.
In the beginning of our science book there is a good chapter on the history of science, with a line that has stuck with me: from the Greeks and Romans to our day, Scientific progress depends not only on scientists, but it also depends on government and culture.
I will never be a nuclear physicist or a molecular biologist, and perhaps neither will any of my kids (although I secretly hope they will!) but I still have a part to play. As we learn about earthworms and Endoplasmic Reticulums and all the other amazing things about how creation works around us, my enthusiasm for understanding it is part of a culture that makes further scientific progress possible. Maybe I actually am on the cutting edge of something. Maybe I can be a not-so-mad mad scientist after all.