Training the Little Scientists

By Kate Thompson, Safina Center “Kalpana Chawla Launchpad” Fellow

In Tanzania, I think we’ve inadvertently led students to believe that all animals worth protecting and studying live in National Parks. Parks are synonymous with conservation. Parks are praised as refuges for Tanzania’s wildlife and resources for Tanzania’s economic future. We haven’t taught young Tanzanians that nature is in fact all around them. That scientists aren’t only foreigners who venture through the parks with clipboards and khaki pants but that any child with the drive to learn can be a scientist right in her own backyard.

On Friday we rang the bell and gathered the kids in the open-air dining hall to start a new unit of Wildlife Club.

“What is a scientist?” I asked and Gideon translated. We got a flurry of answers. A person who receives good marks in biology. A person who is a teacher for science class. A person who likes to learn about the world. I latched on to that one.

“A scientist is someone who watches the world and asks questions to learn how it works” I said. “Science is a part of loads of other jobs too. Sharifu says he wants to be a pilot—” the ten-year-old boy smiled bashfully. “He’ll need to know science. Doctors and nurses study science too. Even artists are scientists when they watch people and animals in order to draw them.” The smaller girls like Lucy and Njiloti smiled. I promised them I’d tie in coloring; their average age is eight and everything goes back to getting to color.

“We are going to train to be wana syansi wadogo,” Gideon says. Little scientists.

“To begin, scientists do three things: they observe, they think of questions, and they write down or draw notes to help them understand what they see. We are going to use our science skills to explore our environment here,” I gestured outside to our garden and courtyard. “On Sundays we’ll go on local nature walks. After two weeks we’ll go explore Lake Manyara and in December we’ll go on safari in Tarangire.” I’m interrupted by cheering— field trips are always received well.

Taking the kids on safari requires a herculean amount of planning and coordination. In order to flex their new skills without breaking the budget, we decided the kids would first practice by watching nature documentaries with their thinking caps on. Their job was to pretend they are in the wildness, watching the animals, to ask questions, and to take notes. We have children ranging from ages three to thirteen, so we emphasized that drawing is a form of taking notes too. Our little guys can draw what they see.

We turn on an episode of BBC’s “Planet Earth” and the children sat with their pencils poised. Periodically we paused it to talk and ask questions. Why are animals that live in the snow white? Why do the other animals run when wolves howl? Why are there many caribou but only a few wolves? Why does the horse have such big fur? As the end credit roll, our kids rush to the front to turn in their notes. We do the exercise again the next day and again the results are impressive.

Saturday we also talked about how to find animals.

“After all, in order to observe animals you have to find them first,” I say and Gideon translates.

“A good scientist looks for clues in nature. These clues tell us about who lives in each habitat,” Gideon adds.

When explore nature we use (almost) all our senses; this weekend we focused on how our eyes and ears help us find animals. The kids practiced looking for footprints around our farmyard and guessing who made them. Mixing flour and water we made casts of the prints they found. We talked about all the different things footprints tell you: what kind of animal passed here, how many, how big, how did it move? Then I unrolled a big spool of paper and asked for volunteers: we painted the kids’ feet in bright colors and took turns covering our eyes as they hopped, ran, skipped, and tip-toed across the paper. Then the other kids guessed what kind of movement the volunteers had done.

After this (took make sure everyone got a chance to be messy and paint-covered) we made a club banner and took a family picture as the sun began to set.

Creating the Wildlife Club banner

The Wildlife Club!


As we adjured Wildlife Club for the day, I poled the audience. Mmna skiaje? How are you feeling? Lazaro and a cluster of preteen boys beamed— mzuri! Awesome!

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