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Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#617: How About a Little Perspective?

More than 40 years ago when I was head of the science and math departments at the Catalina Island School (Toyon Bay), I developed an integrated science curriculum designed to give students a better understanding of Life, the Earth and the Universe as seen through the eyes of science. Starting in 1969 when I began teaching there, I wanted to use the island and surrounding waters as a "natural laboratory" to teach science.

During my entire high school education (at one of the top 50 public schools in the nation), I can only remember one field trip to study outside a school laboratory... and that was to a very large vacant field across the street from my school. I had spent my youth wandering the creeks, cornfields and forest preserves of suburban Chicago looking for snakes, lizards, snapping turtles, rabbits, butterflies and other critters. Even while studying biology at Harvard, I only remember two field trips... one to New Hampshire's sea shore where I first encountered the critter with one of the then longest scientific names (Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis) and one to dredge the waters of Boston Harbor where we ended up with a fisherman's boot and a lot of old cans and tires.

I was determined to have my students spend most of their time exploring the island and conducting field exercises to understand the wonders of ecology, animal behavior, marine biology, geology, astronomy and other sciences. Except for physics and chemistry, very few of the classes involved classroom lab work, and even those focused on the physics and chemistry of the environment. I was fortunate to have the assistance of other great science teachers like Jack McAleer (fresh off the America's Cup races on Ted Turner's American Eagle in 1970) and Chris Graham.

The core curriculum began with astronomy and field geology in the freshman year, followed by physics and chemistry of the environment and ecology in the sophomore year. Advanced electives included evolution (with creation myths from many cultures and religions), animal behavior, marine biology, physics, chemistry, introduction to scientific literature, etc. We were very pleased when the Western Association of Schools and Colleges accredited the school and commented favorably on our unique curriculum.

I wrote all the textbooks for the series of classes I taught with the exception of astronomy and animal behavior. Although I had been an amateur astronomer since the days of Sputnik when I purchased my first telescope, I had not kept current in that field so it was a bit of a learning experience for me as well. In the early years as these courses were evolving, students would often hear my typewriter wailing away at 3:00 in the morning. Due to my unique typing style, they referred to it as "the sound of one hand typing." Back in the early days at Toyon, my Harvard classmate Al Gore had not yet perfected "his" invention of the Internet so my research was restricted to the texts I had available from my Harvard classes. Of course these were written by icons in the field such as Drs. E. O. Wilson, George Clarke, Ernst Mayr and James Watson so I had some pretty good sources to go by.

The organization of these classes was in part triggered by an article I read in a magazine entitled "Proving We Are the Stuff of Which Stars are Made." I can't remember what magazine it was printed in, nor could I find it via Google. However, it was a seminal article for me. The basic premise was that the early Universe was composed mostly of hydrogen (H) and helium (He). Now we don't have any life forms here on Earth based entirely on those elements. Life as we know it is carbon-based, and requires the elements carbon (C), oxygen (O) and nitrogen (N) plus a host of others to form DNA, cells and tissues. How did these come about, you may ask? Good question.

These heavier elements are formed deep in the center of stars through thermonuclear reactions, and when a star explodes as a nova or supernova it scatters them out into space. The earliest first generation stars were composed of H and He. Through their lifetime (millions to billions of years), they generated light and heat through nuclear energy. Heavier elements accumulated in their cores. Then, when they exploded, interstellar space was peppered with heavier elements like C, O and N. New stars eventually formed out of these enriched gasses and even heavier elements such as iron (Fe) and nickel (Ni) formed. Second generation stars like our sun are composed of H, He, C, O, N, Fe, Ni and other elements because they coalesced out of enriched interstellar gasses from prior generation stars. Earth and the other planets likewise formed from these gas clouds.

So, in order for life as we know it to evolve, stars had to create the elements necessary for it. Thus "the astronomical perspective," co-taught by Chris and I, was the first course in my science curriculum and included this important concept. Then Jack took over with his knowledge of geology and explained how the "non-living" features of our planet (and our island) came about as the Earth formed from these cooling gas clouds in "the geologic perspective." Jack and Chris continued the next year by discussing the physics and chemistry of the environment that living things depend on and the following semester I taught "the ecological perspective" to show students how living things interact with that environment and with one another.

Once this core curriculum was completed, upperclass students had a series of science electives they could choose from. "The evolutionary perspective" explained how, over millions and billions of years living things, and the ecosystems within which they functioned, changed over time through the recycling of matter (the chemical elements and compounds) and the renewal of energy, mostly from the Sun. We looked at how evolution occurs as well as how the Earth's climate, physical structure and ecosystems changed over the years. I'm sure many of you are familiar with the concept that we may be breathing molecules of oxygen used long ago by dinosaurs or that the calcium in our bones may have once formed the skeleton of such creatures. Of course mine must have been from an ocean-dwelling plesiosaur since I dive so much.

I entertained a guest, a former dive buddy (Heather), last spring and she became stranded on the island when the boats stopped coming due to strong winds. She and her friend practice Zen Buddhism and were intrigued by a series of 12 images I have arranged on my dining room wall in a circle like the hours on a clock face. I call them the "Organizational Perspectives of the Physical and Biological World). They begin with the subatomic particles that make up atoms, and then progress to molecules, cells, individual organisms, ecological interactions between critters, ecological landscapes (the island), bioregions (the Channel Islands), Earth, the Solar System, the Milky Way, the Hubble cluster of galaxies (representing the Universe) and then a star supernova creating the fundamental particles and thus completing the circle.

Thus to me, the Universe is interlinked. As I quoted on one of my tests from the Toyon era, "We're all one and life goes on, within you and without you." You probably think the Beatles came up with that first... so what! It saddens me to see that science is often still taught as separate disciplines when there is an important linkage between all such perspectives on the Universe. We need to understand this interconnectedness and find joy and security in it just as the Zen Buddhist does. Does this negate the God common to the Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious traditions? That's way above my pay grade, but I certainly don't see them as incompatible.

© 2014 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 29, 10:00 AM weekdays and on Charter Communications Cable channel 33 at 7:30 PM on Tuesdays in the Riverside/Norco area. You can also watch these episodes in iPod format on YouTube through my channel there (drbillbushing). Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my DVD's (see this link). Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

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Tracks of sub-atomic particles and "ecological interaction;" Andromeda Galaxy
and gas cloud from supernova explosion..

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2014 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia