CM . . .
. Volume XXII Number 12. . . .November 20, 2015
Felicia Law and Gerry Bailey are the authors of the four books in the Crabtree series “Stone Age Science”. Although the term “science”, a pursuit of knowledge of the natural world that is mathematical, experimental and innovative, was not in anyone’s vocabulary until the Age of Enlightenment, Stone Age people who lived between 2.5 million and 11,000 years ago did use materials in ways that made their lives easier. These materials included rocks, trees and other plants, and the bones and pelts of animals. Through trial and error, they made cutting tools and weapons, grinding tools, pottery, clothing, dwellings, containers, and digging sticks. There was, however, no attempt by Stone Age people to understand and explain how these objects made tasks less arduous (physics) or why one type of rock made a sharper cutting edge than another (geology) or why some hides were warmer than others (thermal conductivity and materials science). Science, as a human endeavour, had not developed.
Law and Bailey cover up this detail with their introduction of Leo. Leo, a young Stone Age boy with black hair and a disheveled mop-top hair cut, wears large, round eyeglasses with black frames, and he is barefoot and dressed in a sleeveless animal skin (orange with black spots) much like the clothing cartoon cave men are shown wearing. Readers are told on page three of each book that Leo is “bright”, “inventive”, and “way, way ahead of his time”. As such, Leo invents all sorts of devices that didn’t begin to appear until the Late Stone Age or Neolithic Period had come to an end.
In Buildings and Structures, Leo’s inventions include a Roman road, ramp, clapper and arch bridges, brick walls, a home on stilts, and the skyscraper. Directions are provided for readers to construct a diorama of a Roman road, a ramp that enables one to determine the input force required to move a toy truck at different angles of inclination, clapper, beam, and suspension bridges, a plastic cup model of an arch that demonstrates the importance of the keystone, and a posterboard skyscraper. Leo’s inventions in Energy and Movement are the kite, longbow, parachute, windmill, hot air balloon, spear, and battery with directions for making a paper kite, paper parachute, a one-liter milk carton wind turbine, papier mâché hot air balloon, and a battery powered motor assembled with disk-shaped magnets and coiled copper wire. In Materials, Leo invents paint, the cannon and gunpowder, rubber, chain mail and plate armour, steel, concrete, the film camera, and glass. If readers so choose, they can use fabric paint and potato stamps to print a T-shirt, greeting cards, or wrapping paper, or they can construct a rubber band musical instrument, a papier mâché plumed helmet, a pinhole camera, a tissue paper stained glass window or test the strength of bricks made of clay, clay with pieces of straw, and clay with sand. Leo’s inventions in Simple Machines are the lever (wheelbarrow and shadoof), the wheel and axle system (potter’s wheel, cart, and log roller), the pulley (crane and block and tackle), the wedge (plow), and the inclined plane (Archimedes screw and a boat’s rudder). Directions are provided for constructing a cardboard wheelbarrow, a tripod shadoof, two wheeled box cart, a block and tackle, a single-blade plow, and a working Archimedes screw (see the fourth excerpt above). The majority of the objects to be constructed seem more relevant to social studies or crafts than science and children’s engineering where experimentation and testing against criteria, respectively, and drawing conclusions from observed and measured data are important parts of both processes.
Henu Studio is listed alongside Mike Phillips as an illustrator. This studio may have contributed the stock photographic images used in the books and on the covers and designed the layout. The fictional story of Leo and his friends is separated from Pallas’ suggestions and the science information (see the first excerpt above) by the use of text boxes. The suggestions are framed by a yellow-orange border, and the information is presented either as print on a coloured rectangle or printed text framed with the same yellow-orange border as “Pallas’ Suggests”.
Each of the four books in the series is 32 pages in length and includes a table of contents, glossary of terms, index and a short list of books and websites where more information can be gotten. In addition, page 30 includes one or two simple science activities, related to the contents of each book, that readers can carry out at home with everyday materials. As one example, in Buildings and Structures, the first of two activities challenges readers to balance on the edge of a table a potato that has been pierced with a fork and impaled with a sharpened pencil. My concern with the narratives in the “Stone Age Science” series is the conflation of eras and the abbreviated, matter-of-fact presentation of science knowledge that, in some cases, took decades, centuries and millennia to construct. The only dates in the series are those associated with the four Mammoth Inventors. Readers are told that the Stone Age was “30,000 years ago”, that engineers discovered “an arch could be used to add strength to the design of a bridge” over 4,000 years ago, “in the 1800s, a Scottish engineer… invented a road surface based on ancient Roman roads”, cannons, possibly “invented in China…were used in Europe from about 1350”, “plate armor was developed in Europe during the 1300s”, that a shadoof was “first used by the early Egyptians over 2000 years ago”, and so on. There is no information on the tools developed and used by Stone Age people or that agriculture and the domestication of plants and animals had begun by the end of the Late Stone Age. One wonders about the technologies in Ancient Egypt, China, the Middle East, Greece, and the Roman Empire and those in Europe during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. It is accurate, as the subtitle suggests, that inventions “changed the world… and the science behind them”. However, it’s important to recognize that scientific discoveries can impact emerging technologies and engineering just as technological inventions can impact science and scientific investigations. Perhaps a better title for the series would have been “Stories of a Stone Age Boy’s Astounding Technological Inventions”.
Recommended with Reservations.
Barbara McMillan is a teacher educator and a professor of science education in the Faculty of Education, the University of Manitoba.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.