Teaching Science through Cultural Processes

by John Jamieson

Science instruction within an aboriginal culture may often lack vision, enthusiasm and an effort to bring culture--prehistoric, historic, or contemporary--into the school system. Stale, linear, dysfunctional curricular objectives are not going to motivate or produce the type of student who has an appreciation for the dynamics of science, or an enhanced view of aboriginal culture. The focal point of science instruction is not meeting the needs of aboriginal students.

Working in small northern communities can be one of the most exciting times in a teaching career. But the curricula may produce more shuttering than supporting. Perhaps it is best to set aside the curriculum (remembering where you placed it) and turn to the community to determine knowledge and resources available and attempt to survey what is possible, then relate this back to the curricula, finding the contact points and looking for ways to bridge the voids.

The aboriginal culture should be placed in a position of pride. Delving into prehistory is one method which allows aciivities to be extracted which spur scientific investigation and yet allows a cultural appreciation to be developed by the students. A story that I like to recount occurred in an Inuit community in the eastern Canadian arctic. The cultural instructor at our school has told the children that in the "old" days, the people use all parts of the animal, and often it was used more than once as the material aged, until it was of no use and it was returned to the ground. The instructor stripped the sealskin off an old kayak and she had the girls make leather baskets for berry picking from the discarded skin. As we were walking outside to take a picture of the students and their products one of the girls said,"History! This is history! John, what is history?" I was taken aback at her use of the word history. I told her that it was the object in her hand, but perhaps more importantly, it would be her picture with the basket framed on the school wall. This incident also highlighted two traditional aboriginal concepts: avoid waste and use all parts of the animals. These aboriginal environmental ethics can be further elaborated and compared to presently held views on the environment.

One unit that my science students developed this year was on hide glue. Although our science curriculum does not include hide glue (do any?), it does include Household Science. After some mental juggling, it was decided to convert this unit into Prehistoric Household Science and try to cover the conceptual points of the science required by the curriculum, but to integrate more science and extend the concept into interesting areas. This required a major scramble to find information.

Glue is a material that aboriginals utilized. They used hide glue to attach sinew to the back of bows to allow tension forces to be shared between sinew and the wood. Glue was also used to haft projectile points to arrows, along with sinew. A dry glue "stick" was part of the hunting tool kit, activated by moistening in the mouth. The resins from coniferous trees were used to patch and adhere birch bark for canoes, and served as a waterproof coating for hide glue.

Contemporary glues, or mastics, are a high-tech industry and within a few years over 95% of houses will be fastened with mastics rather than mechanical fastenings (nails, staples, screws, etc.). Thus adhesion technology is quite con-temporary, permitting science and engineering concepts to be derived, and yet it also highlights prehistoric aboriginal culture. A smashing together of these two fields enhances learning, and in no way detracts from either.

My students extracted glue from hide in water by heating at a low temperature. Some glue was wrapped on sticks when very thick and hung to dry. Several experiments were conducted with the students to compare the relative adhesion of commercial "white" glue and hide glue. These experiments presented some interesting problems, especially the type of substrate, temperatures when applied and concentrations of glues. Newton scales were used to test adhesion and results tabulated.

The parts of the body yielding glue were discussed which includes antlers, hooves, tendons, sinew, bones and skin. The students studied the structure of skin and the part which may have yielded the glue. Since hide glue is a protein, three major categories of biological molecules were discussed: fats, carbohydrates and proteins, and their importance in the body and foods containing them. Polymers, the generalized structures, were presented as were the reasons why cells store polymers rather than a mass of single molecules. Some interesting colloidal properties are observed with glues, and their solubility involving polar covalent bonds and surface area of polymer exposed to water were discussed. Electrostatic forces, or polar colvalent bonds, give the glue a "stickiness." The strength of a glue is related to the type of material to which it adheres and to the orientation. An experiment which immediately came to mind was applying glues parallel or cross grain and relating this to molecular structure. Are there engineering units which can express physical parameters in glue technology?

Perhaps the most valuable part of the exercise was a spawning of future experiments, including the most frequently asked question, "what makes it smell?" But unfortunately, it places this teacher in an unusual position of having to obtain more factual information. Building more knowledge using experiences closest to the students requires some support. The adhesion of materials to various molecular arrangements, including metals, presents another concept requiring a base of knowledge that I don't possess, but it probably introduces new science concepts. Teachers need information which might be unavilable through regular library channels, and requires a lead from scientists or other knowledge holders. [Just a few years after this was written, of course, the WWW has become an obvious and valuable new tool! --Ed.] . . .

There is a wealth of prehistoric, historic and contemporary aboriginal processes which should be part of our northern school programs. They can be used to present a majority of western science concepts in an exciting fashion. For example, the process of using brain tissue for tanning skins is still practiced on moose skin. It would be wonderful if the students could generate samples of non-brain-tanned and brain-tanned skins and study their stiffness, absorbency, and other physical proprerties. If samples could be forwarded for scanning electron microscopy and thin sectioned for electron microscopy, then perhaps the students could derive some conclusoins about the process. At present, one theory from the practitioners is that an oil in the brain lubricates the dermis fibers. But perhaps there is a lysis process.

In addition, what is the function of smoking the skin, from a scientific point of view? Some practitioners seem to believe that the fibers become coated with a smoke film and this prevents the fibers from absorbing water. Or is smoking only a method of reducing chances of destruction by vermin and bacteria?

The process of twisting to form cordage for bow strings and for use in rabbit skin blankets and baskets is also very interesting. It would be a nice piece of physics for a student to establish or use a graphic computer model of the process along with some physical measurements to test various types of twisting. Is it simply friction which adds strength and, if so, can a physical value be determined for the coefficient of friction? Unfortunately, teachers may not have the information necessary to approach the problem, but perhaps resource people can be found. In fact, the concept of twisting recurs constantly, including a non-strengthening use when wringing and weaking moose skin fibers as part of moose skin tanning.

Teachers are investigating the science of cultural processes in a few communities, but the efforts are limited by the lack of knowledge, required both from scientists and aboriginals. Many view traditional aboriginal knowledge and western scientific knowledge as mutually exclusive and therefore find it inappropriate to study them at the same time in other than a hostile atmosphere. Unfortunately, neither of them taken in isolation will produce the quality students that we want graduating from our small communities.

Perhaps a science exam of the future should include the following questions:

  1. Urine was often used by North American aboriginals in preparing skins and in clay for pottery. Discuss the effect of acidity on one of the processes.
  2. Preparing the bottom of skin boots requires both mechanical and chemical effects on the skin. Describe the process on the skin and end results.
  3. Traditional Dene environmental knowledge as outlined through surveys with elders incorporates a series of established practices. Outline the practices and discuss the relevance for contemporary urban society.
  4. James Lovelock's GAIA hypothesis describes a tight coupling between all parts of this planet: air, water, rocks, life. Compare this with the traditional Dene view of these things.
  5. What physical property of sinew makes it ideal for sewing?
  6. Bow strings should be "warmed" before using, by repeated pulling of the string without releasing. Outline an experiment which might be conducted to show the effect of "warming" on the string.
  7. Drums are prepared by rubbing with a damp cloth before using. What effect does water have on the drum?
  8. Sealskins used for kayaks require a period of anaerobic fermentation and mechanical agitation for approximately five days before sewing. What properties were added to the skin through this process? Extension: Suggest a plausible hypothesis for the discovery of this unusual process by placing sealskins in a closed sealskin bag for five days in front of a tent door and having people walkover it!
  9. Hertzian cones are developed from fracturing rocks. Diagram striking angles of antler billets and angles of rock surfaces which will produce flakes required to make successful cutting blades.
  10. Compare ovulation in rabbits and foxes and discuss how this affects population growth rate.
  11. Alaska and Canada selected two completely different ways to transport gas and oil in pipelines. List advantages and disadvantages of both systems.
  12. When given a preference, some Inuit fishermen would select a red fishnet over a similar green net. Outline the physics of this seemingly empircally derived observation. Extension: Derive an experiment, which does not involve surgery, which would determine if fish discriminate colors.
  13. Why does the medical community argue against aboriginal midwifery? What are the arguments for both sides? Extension: How can people be effectively informed about midwifery?

Curricular objectives must be freshened and schools resuscitated. A concerted effort is called for to make science instruction the shared preserve of teachers, aboriginals and scientists. These three communities working together can increase awareness of aboriginal culture and of science more efficiently than if cultural processes and science are taught in isolation. The students are waiting.

John Jamieson teaches in Sanikiluaq, Northwest Territories, Canada. This article originally appeared in The Roger Lang Clearinghouse for Circumpolar Education Newsletter 3(#2, Winter 1992): 6-11, and is reproduced here through the kind permission of the author.

The SHiPS Teachers' Network helps teachers share experiences and resources for integrating history, philosophy and sociology of science in the the science classroom.