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Story Time | Please Take Turns With the Scalpel!

Whether it’s a cactus, a live animal, a scalpel, or a power drill, here’s why I know that kids can handle it. I’m a science educator, consultant, and storyteller and this is my Ignite Phoenix 19 talk.

Devon C. Adams for Ignite Phoenix 19 (

Twenty 1st-3rd graders are strapping on safety goggles and rolling up the sleeves of their lab coats over their short, little arms. I’ve got a bucket of sheeps’ hearts and some Anatomy college textbooks. They whisper excitedly to each other. They flip through photographs and diagrams of the heart. Their small hands carefully open their dissection kits.

The care with which these young scientists organize their workstations. . .like they are preparing for surgery. Each cut and observation must be precise. Speaking of precision, they have learned a new word today — scalpel. Yes, I am about to let them use scalpels. To show me that they deserve this responsibility, they have to come up with their own rules:

First, “No running.”

Then, “If you don’t want to use the scalpel, that’s okay, because it might be too gross.”

And finally. . .“Take turns.”

No fingers were lost that day. Not a single one of their self-imposed rules were broken. What did happen, however, was discovery — of how exquisitely the heart is designed for its singular job of pumping blood; of how a picture in a textbook represents something real.

Whatever I’m teaching, I expect a lot from kids. I believe that if you ask children to perform just beyond their ability, they will concentrate harder, display better teamwork, and ultimately do better. Think of it as the kiddie table — if you put a child at the kiddie table, they will act like a kid. If you tell them they get to sit at the grown-up table, but only if they use their manners, how does their behavior change?

And what do they find, at the ‘grown-up table’ of science?

Authentic materials. Breakable things. Sharp things. And not just scalpels. Teaching science here in Arizona can be very sharp! And don’t forget live things. . .like dragonflies. Dragonflies are perfect for kids. First of all, they are completely deaf, so they aren’t bothered by kids screaming at them. They also repeat their flight patterns, while they hunt. So, they will land in the same spots over and over again. Here are two ways I can teach about dragonflies. One: I can stomp around a pond, by myself, catch a dragonfly, put it in a box, and bring it out for kids to look at. Two: take the kids to the pond! “We are going to learn about and observe live dragonflies; you are entomologists for the day and we will only get to look at a dragonfly if you are able to catch it.” And, you’ve never seen children being so gentle and timid as with a live dragonfly they have caught in their own net. Helping each other step across pond rocks, to show me the little winged treasure they’ve found, standing in a little circle, so everyone can see, and so that the dragonfly has room to ‘breathe’. And then kindly releasing it: “bye, dragonfly!”

Ah, it’s just so fun! And, it’s more like real science fieldwork.

I’ve also got to give kids authority. I’m not here to tell them the answers or how to do science.

I already went to college. I’ve done dissections. I don’t entertain questions like “Miss Niki, what’s this?!” when they extract some weird, little piece of something from their sheep’s heart. “Open the textbook,” I say. “Find the picture that looks like that, and read the words next to it.”

“What’s faaa-seee-ah?”

There’s a question I’ll entertain. “Fascia. It means ‘muscle’. You found muscle!”

And they must expect failure. Not just to cope with failure, but that failure is part of the process of discovery.

For example: Cloud in a Bottle. Also known as making alcohol spontaneously vaporize into a cloud by changing the air pressure. It’s not easy. I lay out materials, give them safety glasses, and ask them to discuss their plans and difficulties with me along the way. I want them to fail and then try again; break their design and then rebuild.

Cloud in a Bottle is noisy, messy, and frustrating. But, in the end, they always get it. There’s a really satisfying ‘pop’ when the alcohol bursts into a white cloud of vapor. And sometimes, the cap just shoots off, and that’s fun too! (That’s what the safety glasses are for) And, instead of being jealous when they didn’t get it first, I see kids being excited for each other. I see them asking each other for help.

That is the moment I’m always chasing.

It’s the moment when a child takes control. They stop following me as an instructor and they own the situation. And kids are immediately ready to do this. It takes almost no persuasion. But every time they hear “be careful” or “no, don’t do it like that” a small part of that eagerness, confidence, and curiosity…is silenced. It gives power to what they don’t know.

And the unknown is already a powerful thing. It can paralyze us with fear…or it can be a powerful motivator. As a good educator, I don’t need to have all the answers; I don’t need to teach science in a linear, step-by-step fashion.

A good educator should simply shrink the power of what those kids don’t know.

So, let’s step into the unknown together. Let’s make a cloud, catch a dragonfly, and take turns with the scalpel.

All of my talks and videos so far can be found here.