by Sophie Wasserman
I couldn’t tell you exactly when it happened. There is no singular moment, no charming anecdote, no decisive before and after. Looking back on my time with Think Elephants International, I wish I could pinpoint exactly when I knew I was shelving my imagined career as an animal behavior researcher and diving headfirst into the role of educator, but the transition was gradual, a steady erosion of my preconceptions as they met with all that I was learning about myself. I was drawn to Think Elephants’ research program but left a crusader for their educational mission.
Don’t get me wrong, the research was fascinating. Just skim our backlog of blogs to understand the passion and enthusiasm our work inspired in all of us. I loved asking questions, debating methodologies, and testing hypotheses. I relished analyzing results, explaining findings, and discussing possible next steps. But what Think Elephants helped me to realize was that subtle distinction between the career I thought I wanted, research as a profession, and the things I enjoyed, research as a process.
Let me clarify: I like curiosity, investigation, discovery. I found myself less attracted to the day-to-day minutia of our study of Asian elephant cognition, and more drawn to the integration of our research into classrooms and public outreach. With these programs, I could share the wonder of scientific inquiry with others, and was equally challenged and invigorated by designing and delivering educational content as experiments.
So it should come as no surprise that I now work as a Senior Science Educator at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in San Diego, CA. We run hands-on experiments for classes on field trips to the museum and bring science workshops to schools around San Diego County, as well as lead programs for the general public like our Saturday Science Club for Girls. On any given day, I can be helping fifth-graders construct roller coasters, teaching nine year-olds to build electromagnets, or exploring sound waves with pre-schoolers.
When not actively teaching, I’m designing viscosity experiments for summer camps, scouring grocery stores for the best parachute material, or perfecting our much beloved recipes for polymer slime. I didn’t leave the research process behind, I fully immersed myself into it: how many linked batteries does it take to fry our circuitry light bulbs (three), which readily available product makes the coolest crystals (borax), will the fog machine set off the fire alarm (not if you’re fast and lucky). It’s a constant progression of testing, tweaking and re-testing, adapting our activities and lesson plans to maximize student engagement and comprehension.
Working with Think Elephants (and now with the Fleet) has cemented my belief that proper science education is crucial to the development of critical thinking skills. Just as we teach children to read, starting with the basics and building every year, so too should we be teaching scientific literacy. It’s not important that my students remember the chemical formula for the Alka-Seltzer that’s fueling their rockets, but that they understand why we need a control, what a variable is, why we only change one variable at a time, how we compare our results as a class, and where we take our experimentation from there. If a child reaches high school without ever having graphed data into a simple chart, it can be just as crippling as reading well below grade level. Science education isn’t just the stereotypical mixing chemicals and dissecting frogs; it should be learning how to ask questions, apply logic to real problems, and objectively analyze the results.
Just as it was working with elephants, I still spend my days anticipating various ways the creatures I work with will try to destroy my equipment, I still come home with mysterious stains on my shirt, and at the end of each shift, I’m still exhausted but excited for the next day to begin.
I owe a lot to my time with Think Elephants: comfort and confidence in front of crowds, interesting fodder for interview questions, and the occasional dream about a talking elephant. My experience showed me the powerful, symbiotic relationship between science and education, and all the positive change that they can effect together. After a year of “thinking elephants,” I realized my passion had shifted into helping students learn to think.