Carl Oosterman: CuriOdyssey

Carl Oosterman is the Director of Education at CuriOdyssey, a science and wildlife center in San Mateo. We sent him a list of questions about his experiences in science. We loved his responses and we think you will, too.

Q: How did you get interested in science?
A: I have always had a fascination with the natural world.  As a young child I would climb trees, skip rocks, slide down a hill on a piece of cardboard.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was having very rich science experiences in all of those “play” activities.  My parent’s and I would take road trips and visit National Parks where I saw bears, bobcats, birds, and bugs.  Exploring my world and trying to understand how it works came very naturally to me.  This fascination carried through out my education and led me to do the kind of work that I now do.

Q: How long have you been a teaching science?
A: Formerly educating the public approximately 13 years, however in my career as a program manager I have always incorporated the concept of exploring and understanding the world around us in all of my programs.

Q: What excites you most about science?
A: The fact that it is continual, lifelong learning.  There is a vast amount of things we don’t know about “stuff” on our planet and in space.  The process of discovery never gets old for me.

Q: Are there hands-on science experiences that you remember from your own childhood?
A: Tons!!!  I briefly mentioned some of the things I did as a child.  Interestingly the vast majority of my experiences were natural, un-facilitated, and impromptu.  Walking through the redwoods and finding a banana slug, playing in the rain and making “dams” with sticks and rocks, or seeing seals while swimming in the Ocean.  This is contrasted to my “formal” science learning in the classroom. While I had wonderful teachers, I recall feeling constrained and that experiments were an exercise in following instructions.

Q: Is there a favorite science related activity that you like to do now for yourself or for your family?
A: I still enjoy taking hikes, bike rides, and camping road trips to out of the way places where I explore and find interesting things.  I also love photography and while I am still a novice, I appreciate seeing the natural world through the lens of a camera and then capturing moments for me to enjoy throughout my life.

Q: What was your favorite science teaching experience?
A: I’m fortunate that I each time I teach (which isn’t often as the Director) I’m having a great time because the students, campers, or visitors are making observations that I would miss.  Once on a creek walk, a 10 year old spotted a tiger salamander that I didn’t see.  Taking kids camping is probably my most favorite experiences, especially with kids who have had limited to no outdoor experiences.  I once took a group of middle school youth from East Oakland on a week-long camping trip to Lake Tahoe.  Their exuberance when they say their first squirrel, jay, and bear was priceless.  All of their personal defense systems that they built up to survive in their world at home, began to come down fostering their innate sense of curiosity and observation.

Q: What was your funniest science teaching experience?
A: Kids make me smile and laugh all the time.  I can’t recall one experience as particularly funny, however I have had numerous times when kids have said something that just makes me laugh.  One of our 4-year-old campers thought that when I was showing a Giant African Millipede I had said that it was a giant “fricken” millipede.

Q: What was one of your hardest science teaching experiences?
A: I think many educators would agree that it is really hard to teach anything when the learner is not in a frame of mind conducive to learning.  A 3 year old with separation anxiety, teenager who is being bullied, or 8 year old who is interested in video games and not going outside to explore.  I’m proud to say that my staff and I have a high success rate at engaging these learners by acknowledging their feelings, creating a “safe” environment, respecting them as intelligent learners, and most importantly allowing them to guide their own learning.  It is most rewarding to see and hear that child at the end of a workshop, camp, or program tell us that they don’t want to leave or have their learning experience end.

Q: Is there anything else you would to share about your science teaching (or learning) experiences?
A: If it wasn’t apparent from my responses above, my passion lies in providing young children opportunities to explore their world in a way that is authentic, robust, and inspires inquiry and further exploration.  The issues impacting our planet are complex and require critical thought and the ability to discern fact from opinion. Fostering critical thinking in young developing minds is vital to creating an informed citizenry for the future.  I’m proud and passionate about helping children acquire the tools to deeply understand the changing world.