Gonna Soak Up the Sun

An old lady, garbed in ill-considered swimwear, ambles down the beach, searching for sea glass.  Had you been watching me, that’s how you might have described me, and you’d be right….partially.  While I was moseying, the hamster on the wheel that is my brain was galloping furiously.  “Hmmm….that cut on my shin (long story) might still be bleeding a little.  If some red blood cells spill out into the ocean, will they A) swell…B) shrink…C) scream for help?  And what is the proper name for that phenomenon?  And what were the steps that my body took to stop the bleeding?”

So off we go!  The ideas just kept coming:

  • I’m getting quite a tan!  Why are the melanocytes in my skin frantically hoisting their tiny umbrellas?  What layer of the epidermis do they live in?  What is the ABCD rule for identifying melanoma?  How is this sunshine making me wrinkly?  How does it help my bones? In what class of molecules is Vitamin D?
  • I have nice footprints…no, really, I do.  Why are they skinny in the middle?  Why do we have arches in our feet?  How many are there?  What is the proper name for the big toe?
  • I’m getting thirsty.  What would happen if I drank sea water?  Why doesn’t the blood in my feet get salty as I walk in the surf?  How does my skin keep the water out of my lower limb tissue, but let the sweat out of my neck and forehead?

Then I began to imagine what different colleagues might find to muse about if they accompanied me on the same walk:

  • Scott, my physics and astronomy buddy, might think about the waves and their motion, the light refraction that makes the sky and the water such a beautiful blue.  He might explain to me how the moon causes the tides. How do those pelicans get enough lift to stay aloft?
  • Thomas, the historian, could tell me about the Plate Fleet that sank just offshore in 1715, scattering treasure intended to provide King Philip V of Spain  with the astonishing list of jewels required by Elizabeth Farnese, Duchess of Parma, to complete her dowry before consummating their marriage. That stuff is still washing up around here, but I never find any.  Who were the Ai Indians, and what happened to them?
  • Derek, explainer of all things zoological and especially ichthyological, could tell me what these fish are, how the sharks can detect my blood in the water, and what all these pelicans are after.  Oh, and how is it that the turtles that are nesting on the beach right now find their way back to their own birthplace after navigating the world’s oceans?
  • Pat, what are algorithm patterns that form the shells and pack the grains of sand?  How do I convert the temperature from Fahrenheit to centigrade?
  • Dan, maker of music, what composers have been inspired by the sea?  What’s your favorite sea chanty?  Do you play any beach or ocean songs?
  • Kristen, computer goddess, what kinds of spreadsheets could I make from my beach-combing strolls?  Numbers of shells? Types of swimsuits? Could I make a brochure for my new business as a sea glass hunting guide? (And, really, can you believe I actually posted and linked any of this?  Thanks, Friend!)

If we love what we do and what we teach, almost any day can provide a sand bucketful of ideas for illustrations and problems that we can use in our classes.  At a recent conference, I enjoyed hearing Andy Goodman talk about the power of stories in engaging people.  Too often we think that the story must be a novel, but I believe that even a small vignette from our own experiences can draw our students into the worlds that we love.


Do you find inspiration for discussions or problems for your classes in ordinary moments?  Please share!


4 comments on “Gonna Soak Up the Sun

  1. Derek Sims says:

    Ah…, The beauty of an unbelievable ability to detect infinitesimally small concentrations of blood in the water, ie the greatest sense of smell on the planet much like humans and the smell of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, the well defined and discriminating palate of the pelican which desires only the finest in sardines and other minimally sized fishes, and finally the wonderful ability of the turtle to detect and remember the aroma of smells along with the tingling of it’s built-in gravitational GPS unit which monitors changes in gravitational pulls as it swims out to sea the first time and then eventually returns as part of it’s life’s odyssey.

    Indeed, these and others of life’s greatest secrets and intricacies can be found at the beach. Further proof indeed that water is the greatest inspiration of all and brings out the greatest and best of intellects in all who care to look and see.

  2. Oh, Derek…how I wish I could twitch my nose and spirit you and your two lovely ladies down here right now. Little Miss could build sandcastles and you could enlighten me on all the marvels that I am missing out of sheer ignorance. You always make me want to know more…the sure mark of the truly gifted teacher. Thanks. —Karen

  3. Scott Bain says:

    I ended up at a shallow stream outside of town a few months while roaming around with some math and science types. It was a rather serene spot, and I spent a decent amount of time watching the flow of the water around the rocks or watching the waves in calmer water and noting how they affected the reflection and refraction from the water’s surface. I’m way too predictable.

    The pelicans are enjoying breeze, more than likely. I’ve seen far more sea gulls than other birds near the beaches of Oregon, but it’s the same basic physics: the warm updrafts are helping to keep them aloft or their wings are angled a bit, if the wind is horizontal, so that they still get that upward push. The breeze is caused by the motion of warm fluid into cooler regions above. This same motion happens in a pot of water warming on a stove, in lakes and ponds when they freeze over in the winter, and even inside of stars as the energy inside moves to their surface before being emitted as light.

    The exact cause of lift is a highly debated topic, as there are a few reasonable explanations, but that doesn’t quite lend itself to waxing poetic as well as a discussion of convection.

    • Isn’t it interesting that we all see the world through our own unique lenses? I wonder how that lens is assigned to us…surely some of it is inborn, and maybe more of it is a gift from the people who educated us? I am as fascinated by the ripples of our influence as you are by the literal ripples in the pond. And isn’t it funny that we can begin to imagine the musings of the colleagues that we come to know so well? Thanks for sharing—Karen

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