getting the big picture

One of the keynote addresses at the Biolive 2009 conference talked about systems thinking: helping students to see the interconnections that link the various concepts they’re learning – to ‘get the big picture’, to recognise that any given system (whether it be an ecosystem or a digestive system) tends to be rather more than the sum of its parts.

This struck a chord with me because I’ve always been a ‘big-picture’ thinker, & it’s something that I try to develop in my students. And it also got me thinking – how did I get that way? Over a good cup of tea (real tea!) with a friend, in a cafe near the Dunedin railway station (the weather was awful & we decided to skip the field trips…) I decided that it was an intergenerational thing – my mother had a lot to do with it.

Both my parents had science backgrounds & a love for the natural world, but looking back I think it was probably my mother who did the most to pass that on to me (& my brothers & sister). As I talked with my friend, I realised that this mostly happened when we were growing up in Wairoa, over in the Hawkes Bay. We had a big old place on a true half-acre section: great expanses of fruit trees, lawn, & flower & vege gardens. But the house also came with what I remember as a lot of outbuildings: garage, workshop, store rooms, chook house, laundry – & a room by the laundry that became our ‘museum’. (That must be where my tendency to hoard stuff ‘in case it comes in useful’ comes from!)

Mum & Dad encouraged us to keep all sorts of stuff there, & talked with us about it. We had shell collections, bones that Dad might have brought home from one of his farm visits (he worked for the Ministry of Agriculture), interesting stones, dried plants, insects, & things in jars. A lot of it came from the regular family outings to Mahia or Waikaremoana. We’d be driving along, & then Mum would say ‘stop the car’, & she’d pile out & grab whatever had caught her eye (usually a plant) for us to look at. Or we’d fossick at the beach & bring our bits & pieces back to talk about. When we got older the collections became a bit more systematic – I remember making quite a large shell collection, all carefully boxed & labelled, for a Girl Guide badge. It wasn’t just the shells, either. I know I picked up a lot of ecology just from talking with Mum & Dad about where we found them, what the animals might have eaten, how they fitted in to the beach ecosystem.

(It wasn’t just those trips, though – in the family photo albums there’s still a picture of one of my brothers in the garden, head down & bottom up, studying the snails…)

As I said to my friend in the cafe, when I think about it, I probably picked up quite a bit about what science is from those childhood days: observing, discussing, hypothesising – & developing that idea of complex connected systems without really realising what was going on. I wish I could share that realisation with my mother, but then, I think she probably recognised & was proud of what was happening, in the same way that I’ve been happy to see my own children developing their understanding of the complexities of the world around them. Science really is intergenerational, building on what’s gone before for those who are yet to come.

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