Science, mushroom worms and the origins of life

June 2016

Ainaro, Timor-Leste

We want teachers to understand the curriculum concepts and good pedagogy and also the process of real science.  We often bring up religion and their local beliefs to draw a contrast.  A miracle or an extraordinary event is no problem to explain with these other ways of understanding, but not so in science.  If you can’t repeat the experiment, then science doesn’t have anything to say about it.

Some will nod with confidence, mistaking this statement to mean that science can’t touch their beliefs.  So I’ll go deeper and say that a scientist will do everything possible to repeat the experiment, look for more information, uncover more evidence. If none is to be found, then the event must be left scientifically unexplained; hardly a unique situation, and no cause to doubt the rest of science.

We strive to measure and quantify at every opportunity. We brought some mung beans already sprouted so we’d get some serious growth throughout the week.

Here in Ainaro, during the process of discussing our food chain pratika, in which they draw a chain of producers, consumers and decomposers, all anchored back to the sun, we got the chance to chew on the very marrow of science.  The longest chains were 4 to 5 items long, with people eating carnivorous animals – dogs and cats here – which in turn eat birds, which eat bugs, which eat plants, which bask in the sun’s flood of UV energy. Arrows in the chain point along with the flow of energy, and the arrows from the people, as well as a second arrow from everything else, point neatly to an oozing pile of fungus and microbes in the center: the decomposers.

The morning ritual also includes attending to the four plants gathered on the first day. Each is observed and then watered with different liquid: soapy water, salt water, cooking oil and fresh water. Voila: pollution in a cup!

When we asked them if there could be even longer chains, one teacher said that one of her students had brought in a mushroom last year with worms living in the center if it.  Well!  Parasites open up all sorts of new chain possibilities!  Birds eat worms and monkeys eat people’s head lice and the chain is revived.  Everyone was pleased.

But later, a teacher raised the fundamental question: Did those worms come from elsewhere to live in the mushroom, or did the mushroom produce the worms?  It was a tantalizing moment to hold forth on one of the famous and formative moments of Renaissance science. You see, worms are animals and fungi are not, and insects have life cycles that include nearly invisible eggs and small white worms, and these worms need to eat.

Instead, I held my tongue and asked the teachers, all eagerly awaiting a definitive answer from their wise trainers, this simple question:  How could we design an experiment to prove or disprove that those worms come from insects, not meat or mushrooms? To really prove it with good science, what would it take?

6 transpiration
A bag fastened around a few leaves lays bare the process of a plant’s respiration and water output.

It would take longer than the week of this training, but it would be possible in each and every school represented, requiring nothing they could not procure.  We slowly talked it through and I gave them my highest encouragement to go and try it for themselves with a fresh piece of meat divided in two: a control and an experiment.  We trainers had actually done this in a longer training a few years back, and the stench was overpowering.  Not all the teachers actually had the stomach to view the resulting specimens, some crawling with maggots and some rotting greyly under mesh lids, maggot free.

Mestra Alexandrinha explaining her food chain drawing.

Though I was ready for this moment, and I think dealt with it effectively, I marveled again at how I was initially shocked at their lack of ‘knowledge’ and then quickly re-realized that until that training a few years back, I myself had been accepting the said knowledge from a book without ever confirming it personally.

Granted, the info had been the same in every book I had found, and I had understood the scientific process used to arrive at that conclusion, but the lesson is pointed:  It is such a simple experiment and I, who call myself a scientist, had never done it. I was taking info on faith, something I have frowned upon in others. I can thank the teachers for making that clear to me again.

Constructing 2D models of plant and animal cells.

We regularly take things on faith, and it’s not a sin.  Daily life does not necessarily provide easy avenues toward understanding the world.  Who would think to grow mushrooms in a mesh covered jar and see if worms appeared?  If your parents told you that mushrooms produced worms, you’d believe it too.  And even if a teacher here in Timor-Leste wanted to look up more information on this topic, where would she go to find a source addressing this or other phenomena she experiences regularly?  Accessing the internet here still costs far too much to become a ready resource for most teachers.  The local textbooks were written in Portugal, Timor-Leste’s original colonizer, a temperate nation on the other side of the globe; the information in them has only a tenuous connection to Timorese reality.

Our lead bio trainer Isabelita fills in the gaps on the cell models.

And then even good books are just compilations of information. As with info on the internet, you’d best not ingest it all verbatim. Much better to use the methods of science to test what you can, to become a citizen scientist.

We tell these teachers that when they and their students do these pratika – real investigations and experiments – they are not just learning science, they are doing science.  They are being scientists.  Good science teachers do science every day, with careful observations and repeated simple experiments performed on all aspects of the world around them.  That is to say, decent science teachers are also scientists. CG

Mathematics teachers construct polyhedra from their respective plans on paper.
We were called to the district director’s office to present our program to a meeting of all district school directors. Mestra Angela, our lead mathematics teacher, is explaining it to them.



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