Monday, January 4, 2010

Meet Jupiter's Mother

Happy New Year! I'm pleased to welcome Tracy Zollinger Turner, of Tiny Mantras, to Mama Joules. In a recent issue of the Carnival of Space, she described her relationship with astronomy like this:
"[My son's] interest in space has been unyielding for as long as he's been able to talk. Therefore, I spend a lot of time reading astronomy blogs to try and become more scientifically literate, as well as riding imaginary space elevators out to Proxima Centauri and other stars in search of exoplanets. And smoothing flour and cocoa powder in a large bin so my son can throw rocks in it and make craters. Or making special trips to Big Lots to buy a bright yellow bucket for a $1 so he can keep his pretend meteor collection safe. You get the idea."
I was fascinated by her description. Reading further into her blog, I discovered that Tracy's son has a special affinity for Jupiter, and has even dressed up as the planet for Halloween.

Jupiter goes trick-or-treating
Photo credit: Tracy Zollinger Turner (used with permission)

When thinking of blog topics for Mama Joules, I often focus on how to engage a child's love of science. But Tracy's blog got me thinking: How do parents and educators sustain a child's interest in a scientific topic, especially when his or her fascination goes beyond our own? So, I invited Tracy to Mama Joules for a visit.


Today, we welcome Tracy Zollinger Turner, of the blog Tiny Mantras, for a chat about raising scientifically literate children. Tell us about yourself, Tracy.

I'm a longtime freelance writer and editor, technology lover, journalist, blogger, art and music appreciator, wife, mother, home-based career woman, learner.
You write in Tiny Mantras that you are "mother to a fanantical four-year-old astronomer." When did you realize that your son's interest in outer space was unusual for his age?
It's been a consistent interest for as long as he has been able to speak. When he was about a year-and-a-half old, he learned words in groups - colors, shapes, animals. Since he just seemed drawn to spheres and pictures of planets, he learned the solar system next.

I think I kind of always realized it was unusual. I do remember it really hit home for me when we went to the bookstore on his second birthday and he pointed at a big coffee table book up high on a shelf and said, "Get the 'bero galaxy book, Mommy." I pulled the thing down, looked at the inside flap, and found out that the picture on the cover was of the Sombrero Galaxy, which I wouldn't have known.

Sombrero Galaxy as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope.
Image courtesy of NASA

He either picked it up through the space documentaries we were watching ("The Universe" on the History Channel was in its first season) or one of the space books we had begun to accumulate. At the time, he was far more interested in books full of space telescope images than space books that were created for kids.

I have always been prepared for him to lose this interest or move on to something else. Other parents told me that sometimes two-year-olds get really into something then forget all of the details they once knew as they move on to other things. At times, he's gone pretty deeply into learning about other (usually science-y) things, like anatomy and weather, but now, at four and a half, space still prevails.
Do you have any tips for how to encourage children to love science, especially when their interest in a specific topic exceeds your own?
I let his questions lead me. I learn a lot of this stuff with him. Like a lot of people - and women, especially - I grew up thinking that I didn't have much of an aptitude or love for science, and one of my son's real gifts to me has been teaching me that I actually do!

With a couple of exceptions, I don't think that most of my elementary or high school teachers knew how to make science relevant to students' lives. Yet it is so relevant and so common, and can be so much less intimidating than we make it. I see a lot of parents tripped up thinking that they have to know something to teach it, when learning it together - giving them some of the power to realize that grown-ups don't have all the answers - can make it so much more memorable for the child.

When I want to set [him] up with something I don't have to help a lot with, there are so many great resources and ideas out there when it comes to creating projects and experiments. Like putting flour and cocoa powder at the bottom of a big plastic bin, smoothing it, then letting him throw rocks in there to see what happens when meteors hit the moon, or Mercury.
Thanks, Tracy, for giving us such wonderful suggestions for making science fun!


You can learn more about Tracy's adventures raising her mini-astronomer at her blog, Tiny Mantras. Join us next week as Tracy shares some of her family's favorite astronomy websites and places to visit!

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