Stump The Scientist

“Where did the moon come from?” It’s a good question. I’m glad I know the answer.

“The moon used to be part of the Earth.” This gets the class’s attention. “Four-point-five billion years ago, before there were animals or plants or even oceans, an asteroid—a huge rock from outer space—came crashing into the Earth. It hit the planet so hard that a big chunk flew out into space. That chunk started revolving around the Earth and became our moon.” They seem satisfied with the answer. Twenty-four wide-eyed first graders now eagerly raise their hands, each hoping to ask the next question in our weekly “Stump the Scientist” challenge. I pick another student.

“When a tree falls in the forest with no one around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

I’ve gotten this one before. “Scientifically, no. It makes vibrations in the air. For it to make a sound, those vibrations would have to enter an animal’s ear.” I’m guessing that one came from Maddie’s dad. Six year olds rarely come up with questions that originate from an 18th century denial of materialism. The hands go up again. I choose another, and they go down.

“What’s light made of?”

“Light is a type of energy—radiation, actually—that’s different from matter. Light doesn’t have mass, but it behaves like both a wave and a particle, which is something scientists are still working to fully understand.” The explanation is probably a little much for Jonah, but there’s no time to elaborate. The sea of right hands is already at high tide.

“Why do giraffes have long necks?”

I get that at least once a week. “Giraffes have long necks so they can reach fruit and leaves that are high up in trees.” That’s as deep into evolutionary biology as I want to get with a classroom of elementary schoolers. I try to leave it there, but they’re not satisfied.

“But how come?”

“Scientists believe that over a very long time, giraffes adapted long necks, which let them reach high-up plants that other animals could not. It helped their species survive.” “Scientists believe” is how I begin a lot of answers. Technically, I’m not allowed to teach evolution; there’s some rule that says Darwin has no place in my elementary curriculum. I’m not sure if it’s a rule set by the district or by the education company I work for. It doesn’t really matter to me—I’ve found a workaround.

I can’t say, “Giraffes evolved to have long necks because it gave them an evolutionary advantage,” but if I tack “scientists believe” onto the sentence, I’m not stating a scientific theory; I’m stating an indisputable fact about scientists. If you don’t want to agree with the men and women who spend countless hours researching these things, that’s your problem. I can say, “Scientists believe in anthropogenic climate change,” “Scientists believe the universe was created in a big bang 13.7 billion years ago,” and “Scientists believe human beings evolved from apes,” and their parents can’t disagree with me.

Luckily, the word scientist is one most of these kids hold in high regard. By virtue of wearing a lab coat, I’m universally respected—they don’t know or care that my scientific qualifications consist solely of a 15-credit environmental science minor at a small liberal arts college—I have a pair of safety goggles on my head, so I’m an expert. If I were holding a beaker in my hand, I could probably convince these kids that earthquakes are caused by unicorn farts. But I try not to abuse my perceived infallibility.

It’s time for another question. Oh no. I’ve called on Kaitlin. Here it comes. “Why can’t I see God?”

Every week Kaitlin asks me something about God. It was only a matter of time today. I tell her what I tell her in every class. “Scientists generally don’t try to answer questions about God. That’s something you should ask your parents about.”

The thing is, I don’t really want her to ask her parents about God. Chances are they’ll just tell her exactly what they believe with out any explanation. Sometimes I hear kids talking about religion on the playground.

“Jesus is our savior,” Mason tells his Hindu classmate, Dhruva. “He died to save us. He’s saving me right now.”

“Saving you from what?”

There’s a pause. “I don’t know. Lots of stuff.”

“But how do you know?”

“It’s just true.”

Hearing things like that almost hurts. I can understand the value of faith, but without really understanding what you believe or why you believe it, that value disappears. These kids can barely tie their shoes, let alone understand the theological underpinnings of belief in a higher power. I guess that’s how it works, though—get in there and indoctrinate before they learn to think critically. That rejection of critical thinking makes my job much harder. Questioning beliefs and challenging assumptions is what science is all about. When religion comes up I try to steer us back towards non-God-related inquiries as quickly as possible. “Who has another question?”

As I’m about to choose another student, I check the clock and realize my time’s up. The kids’ regular teacher is ready to take them to lunch. While most of the class lines up at the door, a few of the more curious students rush me. As always, I’m barraged with queries. “How do bees make honey?” “What are my clothes made of?” “Where do rainbows come from?” “Why is it colder in the winter?” “How do our bodies make bones?” I quickly answer what I can and send them back to their line. They leave the classroom and I begin to tidy up.

I don’t doubt that by the time they reach high school my students will have forgotten most of the facts I’ve taught them. I’ve accepted that, because remembering facts isn’t what’s important. What’s important is that these kids understand the value of curiosity, imagination, and critical thinking. Somewhere along the way to adulthood, though, most of us lose that constant desire to know more about our world. I only hope that through their efforts to ‘stump the scientist,’ my students will be able to hold on to theirs.


BEN DEEB writes and lives in Los Angeles. For some reason, he is trusted with the future of today’s youth.