Blog post: Kids are sponges

“Kids’ minds are sponges.” So then let’s give them something to soak up.

Completing my Ph.D. from Yale marked the end of an amazing 7 year journey through graduate research and study. During those years, I had finally begun to explore some of the questions about the world that I had had since I was a kid. What are living things made of exactly? How do they work? What gives materials their properties? Why are things the way they are? Despite having some inspiring teachers throughout K-12 and college, the curriculum in school and even most of college just didn’t answer these questions. It was only towards the end of college, and especially in graduate school, where the door began to open for me into the spectacular inner world of proteins—the molecular machines that are responsible for the biochemical processes that constitute life itself. Do you have a question about life? There’s a protein for that—an answer. But why had I never been taught about proteins over all those years, other than perhaps in passing? Apparently, it was the subject of biochemistry that I had been seeking out all along. But was I the only one?

I was one of the few kids who never gave up their interest in science. But for most, the early fascination towards science begins to fade in middle school, and kids stop asking why things are the way they are, and instead begin asking, “Is this on the test?” I began to wonder whether changing the curriculum could have helped this. Could an unorthodox subject like biochemistry be used to reverse the apathy that most kids develop towards school and especially science, as middle school approaches? When I became a biochemistry professor five years ago, I began to test out this idea. I created classes and utilized learning tools that I had used in graduate school, such as 3D molecular modeling software, to show elementary school kids how proteins and other biomolecules were structured, and also how they functioned. And I developed a style of teaching that could reach any student, that is based on music and art pedagogies—but that’s a subject for a future blog post! It turns out that virtually every one of the 1000+ students I’ve worked with over the years, gravitates towards biochemistry. I was apparently not the only student who wanted to know the answers to these great questions about the world.

The resulting curriculum that I’ve been developing ever since those early pilot projects is something really special, and we’ve begun documenting the classes and their impact on kids. It’s something you have to see to believe—or maybe not. Maybe it’s obvious that this should work. Kids’ minds are sponges, after all.