Monday, October 29, 2012

Scientists in the Field, part two

In 2011, I wrote a post on two books in the Scientists in the Field series.  I am a huge advocate for this series - I have raved about it to multiple people and at conferences ever since I first discovered it.  But I haven't written about other books in the series, even though I have continued to explore the series ever since.  I haven't written about them because I haven't found ones that were different from the series formula I had already discussed.  That doesn't mean this is a bad formula.  On the contrary, this is an well-constructed, well-thought-out formula.  All I can wish is that every middle school science classroom had the complete set on their shelves to inspire young scientists.  They show fascinating careers and scientists of all ages and cultures who are passionate about what they do.  Most importantly, they talk about the world around us in interesting ways without trivializing the science involved. The scientists profiled and the authors who create the books take the science seriously and take the time and effort to create something readable but also informative. However, I've read two contributions to the series lately that I believe should be recommended, and I want to talk about those here.

The Elephant Scientist won a Nonfiction Honor from the Horn Book magazine this year, and it is well deserved.  One of the interesting things about this book is that the scientist herself is one of the authors of the book.  Caitlin O'Connell has also taken many of the photographs of her research and field station that are featured in this book.  O'Connell has been studying elephant communication in Namibia, in Southern Africa.  She has been observing elephant behavior with a research team in hopes of deciphering the elephants' calls as well as how they are able to detect noises through vibrations in the ground.  Some of what she is researching has a very practical aspect - farmers in Namibia are frustrated because there is no way to keep elephants out of their farms, where they destroy crops both by eating them and trampling them.  O'Connell believes that elephants' calls may hold the key to protecting the farmers' crops in a non-threatening, inexpensive way.  She has been studying elephants and their behavior for quite some time, and she and Donna M. Jackson (the co-author for this title) find ways to include this incredible knowledge about elephants along with her research and methodology.  Her group creates an incredible field station, and Jackson and O'Connell describe how this field station must function in order to produce credible research, but at the same time, it must not attract negative attention from the animals they are researching.  O'Connell and Jackson also discuss elephant behaviors in this book.  One of the sections discusses male elephants (bulls) and their social structure.  While we tend to think of bulls as aggressive, they also have affiliative (bonding) behaviors and comfort behavior.  The older bull elephants help raise and guide the younger elephants, just as in the female herds.  O'Connell's love and fascination for these animals shines through on every page.  It gives this volume an almost unparalleled intimacy.

In the other volume of this series that I have been thinking about lately, Sneed B. Collard III goes to a reconstructed prairie in Iowa.  I just met Collard at the Montana State Reading Conference a couple of weeks ago.  At that time, I had this book to re-read and review on the blog, and it was hard not to mention it to him.  The grassland that was created in Iowa was the dream of Congressman Neal Smith, who believed that children should be able to see a prairie in their own state, something Iowa had very little of at that time (in the 1980's).  They created the prairie meticulously.  It was a true community effort - there are photographs here of local people helping to sow native grasses and dancing those seeds into the ground.  One of the most unique things about this book is its community - Collard doesn't just profile one scientist in this volume - instead, he emphasizes how many people maintain responsibility for this delicate ecosystem.  There is Pauline Drobney, the National Wildlife Refuge's biologist who carefully monitors the plants and native grasses of the prairie.  There is Dr. Diane Debinski, who searches for one specific butterfly (the Regal Fritillary) on the prairie.  There are the managers who keep the prairie's bison herds healthy, the volunteers who collect and provide seed... this is an ecosystem, and Collard looks at all its working parts in a very compelling way.  This story is one man's dream, but it is the community responsibility, and it brings science to life in a different way than some of the other books in the series.

One of the things that I love most about this series (and if you know me, this is no surprise) is its backmatter.  I believe strongly that students must be able to read a nonfiction title and springboard to additional resources on that subject or related subjects.  I love the bibliographies in these books.  They respect the reader - giving the reader plenty of opportunities to move past this particular volume.  And both books offer readers a diversity of materials - adult books, books written for young readers, web sites and Internet resources, and in The Elephant Scientist, DVD's too.  There are glossaries, indexes and maps to help readers visualize the subject they are learning about.

One of the other things I like most about this series is its design.  The creators of the series are very cognizant of making these books interesting to look at.  The authors and editors present information in multiple ways to readers.  There are sidebars, text boxes and extensive photo captions to pique readers' interest along with the ongoing narrative.  All books in the series are true, contemporary research projects, and as such, are illustrated primarily with rich, vivid photographs.  This choice also brings readers directly into the scientific environment.  These are high-quality books about terrific subjects.  I cannot recommend these books highly enough.

The Elephant Scientist.  Caitlin O'Connell and Donna M. Jackson; photographs by Caitlin O'Connell and Timothy Rodwell.  Houghton Mifflin, 2011.
The Prairie Builders: Reconstructing America's Lost Grasslands.  Written and photographed by Sneed B. Collard III, Houghton Mifflin, 2005.

The Elephant Scientist was loaned to me by a friend; The Prairie Builders was borrowed from the Lewis & Clark Library

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