It’s the Experience that Counts!

By Anita Brown, Program Officer, UNE Discovery Voyager

I recently caught up with Dr Jean Holley, exploring the idea that there’s nothing like a hands-on experience for deepening our understanding and appreciation of all things science.

Dr Jean Holley is an entomologist and insect ecologist. She is also UNE Discovery Voyager’s Schools Liaison and Booking Officer, as well as a developer and facilitator of several of our activities, including Plants, Poop and Pollinators and Busybots. During her undergraduate years Jean undertook a major in Zoology before completing her Bachelor of Science (Honours). Her PhD focused on insect behaviour.

When Jean has a story to tell, her smile broadens and her infectious enthusiasm lights up the room, or more recently, during our weekly Zoom meetings, the screen. This week she was excited about red cabbage. What?! So, let’s give this excitement some context: pH testing, acid and base/alkaline levels, power of hydrogen, and the fact that the juice from red cabbage can be used as a pH indicator.  For our Creative Chemistry activity, students use a red cabbage indicator to determine the pH (power of hydrogen) level of five mystery substances. Adding several drops of the indicator into mystery test-tubed liquids creates a colour change, which indicates the pH level of each substance. It’s a bit magical.

Back to Jean’s story. She’d recently steamed some red cabbage for dinner and the water became a blackish-purple colour. “I got excited. I knew cabbage juice could be used as a pH indicator so I got some jugs and poured in the liquid and then I experimented. I put dishwashing powder in one jug, lemon juice in another and vinegar in the last one. Even though I knew exactly what was going to happen, I still got really excited because I saw it with my own eyes!” The colours changed and with reference to a pH chart she could have determined the pH of each of her substances. More context – we don’t boil cabbage to make our own pH indicator to use in schools; we buy the powder extract and mix up fresh batches for each Voyager visit. Jean had of course used various pH indicators before but in this ‘I made it myself!’ kitchen moment, her bubbling satisfaction came from the realisation that the byproduct of her cooking vegies for dinner was the surprising manufacture of red cabbage pH indicator!

Jean explains her reaction like this. “I get super excited if I see or experience something with my own eyes or my own senses, something that I know is a scientific fact that I’ve never experienced before. And when I see it happen in front of me, I lose my mind to be honest.”

Undertaking experiments is an essential part of studying science and provides students with a hands-on experience of scientific phenomena. While appreciating their importance, experiences in the lab haven’t always provided Jean with the ‘aha’ moments. “In a lab environment you are looking for an outcome, you know how an experiment is supposed to run. It’s controlled. When I’m out in the field or just going about everyday life and see something unexpected, that’s when I get excited.”

After Jean’s pHun pH tale, I wanted to explore this idea of how observing and experiencing scientific phenomenon can help us to understand and appreciate stuff we may have only read or heard about. Did Jean have any more insights for us? It turns out that Jean is attuned to noticing things in her everyday life and in nature that many of us would miss. She has retained a child-like sense of wonder that allows her to hone in on the marvellous.

Another story: “Camponotus ants were crawling all over me because I’d disturbed their nest while trying to dismantle a pond in my garden. They were all over me!” Now these ants don’t have stingers but they do spray venom. She began to feel a stinging sensation on her hands and assumed that the ants were spraying her. She noticed that the stinging was located where her skin was broken, cracked from the winter cold. “Another possibility was there was another species of ant that was stinging me.” But the point for our resident enthusiast was that, although she was experiencing being stung, she was more struck by the fact that it was happening to her! “I’ve heard about ants being able to do this but I’ve never seen it happen before! It was like, oh this really hurts but that’s really cool!” She laughs. Not that Jean is advocating disturbing ants’ nests in order to experience being stung. As she sees it, she was stung, so there was a learning opportunity!

Camponotus Ant. Photo by Judy Gallagher.

It seems to be about perspective, about noticing what is happening while it is happening, about cultivating curiosity and holding onto the moment. My focus would have been to get out of the ants nest, strip off and jump into the shower!

Noticing things is a normal part of Jean’s life. It’s as natural as breathing. The more unexpected, the more excited she becomes at what she’s witnessed or experienced. A couple of months ago Jean noticed a ladybug munching up some aphids on a plant. Again, she knew this happened in nature but she hadn’t witnessed it herself. “There was the poor little aphid on its back trying to struggle and get away and I thought, gosh, it’s a killing field! It’s so interesting!” I was chuffed that I’d recently had a similar experience, although I was more excited about the ladybugs de-aphiding my roses – very friendly of them to undertake this process, meaning I wouldn’t need to spray my roses with some kind of insecticide.

A helpful ladybug munches up some aphids (photo – Anita Brown)

How does Jean manage to witness so many exciting scientific phenomena? She consciously takes the time to notice. Aside from the red-cabbage euphoria, it’s usually natural history that excites her…. and it seems her exuberant curiosity is infectious. Her niece recently found a praying mantis ootheca, or egg case. She had to stop her toddler-niece from eating it.

I wondered if Jean had worked at developing her ability to notice, wonder and celebrate nature’s surprises. Has that sense of awe always been present or did her science background open her up to appreciating stuff at a heightened level? It seems that, for Jean, it is innate and perhaps was the very thing that drew her to studying science. She recently watched her toddler niece spinning around a verandah pillar for 10 minutes and remarked that it was a shame that we lose that childhood ability to gain so much pleasure from the simplest things like running up and down stairs to spinning endlessly around a pillar. Her family turned to her, reminding her that in their eyes she’d never lost that ability, that she always gets excited about the little things.

So it’s not just children who have the ability to stay curious, to notice nature’s surprises and get excited. Adults take note. Is Jean a freak of nature or can we all find those connections which prompt the ‘aha’ moments in our everyday lives? Reading, studying, watching and listening will fill, and often open, our minds to the wonders of science and the natural world. Staying tuned to noticing and experiencing, to being surprised and gob-smacked, can take us to a whole new level of understanding and appreciation.

“Let out the bottled excitement!” says Jean, also acknowledging that not everyone feels as excited as she does.

I think of Jean as an artist – she says she ‘dabbles’. Artists are drawn to pattern, colour and movement. Perhaps this helps her to be a keen observer. Artists take the time to stop and notice things that catch their eye. Jean suggests that “when you look at a lawn, really look and observe how many things are moving in it, instead of it as just one big chunk of grass. We can make the time to do it…it really doesn’t take long.”

A study in gum leaves by Jean Holley

Jean says that, for her, “experiences make what I know, or have learned, more real.” We can know theoretically what happens but when you actually observe it, like Jean lighting up at her cabbage juice experience, our understanding is cemented. Recently Jean stopped to view some wattlebirds feeding what was clearly not a wattlebird (it was too big!) in a garden bed. She became curious, asking why these two little wattlebirds were putting so much energy into feeding this large chick. She had an inkling the feeding bird was a cuckoo chick and verified this in her bird reference book. She noticed, her curiosity was raised, she questioned, she researched and confirmed. But the actual experience of observing the bird behaviour was what cemented her understanding.

I think we can learn a lot from Dr Jean, from her bubbly enthusiasm and her habit of stopping to notice and appreciate. As communicators, educators, parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents and friends of the young, we can allow and provide children and ourselves the time to experience science. We can foster our collective curiosity and playfulness, remembering that those experiences are what expands our understanding and appreciation of facts, figures and phenomena.

Thanks Dr Jean!