Monday, June 26, 2017

An Outstanding Series You Must Not Miss: Scientists in the Field

Google “American schools bad” and you get 237 million hits which is simultaneously impressive and depressing. Of course a lot of those hits are thousands of articles repeating the same thing thousands of other articles are saying and a lot of them are dubious conclusions of what “bad” means. (For some folks it apparently means that schools are teaching sex education that includes something other than abstinence; in others it means that American History is too depressing.) But it’s clear that buried in all the hyperbole is a very real concern that much of what is going on in our schools is not nearly as impressive as it should be and as a country, we could be doing a lot better.

The most prevalent topic mentioned to improve schools is a higher focus on STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math). The desire to increase enrollment numbers in these fields of study has drawn the attention of political figures across the spectrum and the targets are everyone: Boys with short attention spans! Girls with low self esteem! Minorities from under privileged backgrounds!. Programs encouraging STEM are discussed ad nauseam but what much of that coverage lacks is perhaps the very thing teens need the most: a reason to want to become actual scientists.

Science itself is a popular discussion topic—”robotics” will get you 65 million+ hits; space travel will get you 439 million and “plastic in ocean” will get you 80 million—but what individual scientists do on a daily basis to tackle these subjects and others like them is a mystery when compared to more straightforward professions like doctor, lawyer or airline pilot. Science is just so big that unless Neil deGrasse Tyson is being interviewed about Pluto again, it’s hard for most adults (let alone kids) to name an actual living scientist. 

Quite frankly, the whole thing can get very frustrating.

But before panic sets in, the Scientist in the Field series needs to be checked out. Launched in 1999 by writer Sy Montgomery and photographer Nic Bishop, these books aimed at older middle grade and teen readers, combine curious writers with talented photographers and the fieldwork of a host of scientists around the world. Winners of dozens of awards highlighting their wide appeal, timeliness and whip smart content, the series shows readers not only some of the interesting and important science happening today but also what actual scientists look like (which is, happily, pretty darn diverse).

Scientist in the Field books tackle a wide range of subjects from volcanic eruptions and ocean trash to the invasion of North America by the destructive Asian long horned beetle, the search for intelligent life in the universe, the dangerous impact of pesticides on frogs and conservation efforts to save animals like the sea turtle, snow leopard, tree kangaroo and bees.

In the 40+ books to date, readers visit urban, suburban and wilderness destinations as the profiled scientists do their work. There are a lot of physically uncomfortable situations (it gets very hot in Brazil while tracking tapirs for example and very cold in Alaska while studying bowhead whales). But the hands-on nature of the jobs requires these men and women be out in the world getting close to their subjects. While labs certainly feature in many of the books, the scientists are clear that they can not find the answers they are looking for online—you have to get outside and, more often than not, you have to get dirty.

The structure for each title is similar: a writer and photographer generally match up with a small group of scientists engaged in single project. Sometimes the books focus on one individual and while in other cases they follow the work of several scientists who are attacking a project from multiple angles. With in-depth interviews and overviews of the scientific methods used, backgrounds of the team members and unique aspects of the problem like history, geography or cultural impact, the series fully immerses readers in places familiar, (a pond in Wyoming or neighborhood in Massachusetts), and foreign, (the cloud forest of Papua New Guinea or mountains of Mongolia). While American scientists often play a part even in the international settings, local scientists are always significant to the narrative as well, sometimes even risking their lives to find answers as in “Eruption!” which is about volcanoes in the Pacific Ring of Fire.

Diversity is, in fact, a byword for every aspect of the Scientist in the Field series. The subjects and locations are diverse, the type of science, (astronomy, geology, biology, forensics, entomology and on and on), is diverse and most refreshingly, the men and women involved cover a vast range of ages and ethnicities. Readers will see themselves in these books simply because somewhere within them is someone who looks like they do.

So what kind of scientists do you meet here? People like Curt Ebbesmeyer who tracks sneakers and toys lost at sea to map and track ocean currents in Tracking Trash; volcanologist Supriyati Andreastuti, who collects and measures volcanic ash in Eruption!; Tyrone Hayes who leads his graduate students out to collect pond water samples so they can study the impact of pesticides on frogs in The Frog Scientist and Hazel Barton who hunts in underground caves for microbes that might hold the secrets to life under the harshest of circumstances in Extreme Scientists.

Mysteries figure large and small in the books of this series, and so do adventures and surprises. The authors don’t sugarcoat the record keeping or statistical analysis that is necessary for good science, but they can’t keep the excitement out of their narratives. More than anything though, they make readers believe that science is possible for anyone; you just have to find the subject that gets you excited and then get out there to learn more about it. The Scientist in the Field series proves you can do it; no matter who you are or where you come from, you can have a life like the people in these books and you can change the world while you are living it. And more than anything, that is a pretty amazing (and inspiring) message for any teenager to discover.


tanita✿davis said...

These look GREAT. I am all about real life scientists, and people actually seeing who they are and what they do.

Colleen said...

It's just the best series - every kid I've bought them for (and I've bought a lot over the years) has loved them. Adults too!

Sarah Stevenson said...

These just look so awesome. I know I would've enjoyed these growing up. Maybe I'll pick up a few for my nephews.

Colleen said...

I bought several for my son and my nieces - they have all been winners. My son is 15 and he still won't part with his!