Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Frog Scientist - a fascinating look at how pesticides affect frogs in the wild

Many of our children know that organic foods are healthier for you than non-organic foods, but I'm guessing that they really couldn't tell you much about why this is so. The Frog Scientist, by Pamela Turner, is a fascinating biography of Tyrone Hayes, a field biologist who studies the impact pesticides have on frogs. It would make excellent reading - either as a read aloud with 5th and 6th graders, or as an independent reading book for middle school students.
The Frog Scientist
by Pamela S. Turner
photographs by Andy Comins
NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009.
ages 10 and up
Tyrone Hayes is a field biologist at U.C. Berkeley who studies frogs in their native habitats as well as in controlled experiments in his lab. He has been interested in frogs his whole life, and that passion and curiosity is what got him through college. Frogs are fascinating creatures to study - not only because they come in amazing varieties, but really because you can watch their development through so many different stages. In addition, they absorb chemicals from the environment very easily - both through the adults' porous skin and also through the developing eggs suspended in water.

The Frog Scientist combines both biography and science, so kids (and adults!) will grow to understand both what compels Hayes to pursue this work, as well as what he actually does. I was fascinated to learn the outcome of his research described in this story - how the chemical atrazine affects the development of male frogs. Turner also does a wonderful job of explaining the research model - of how Hayes sets up an experiment with manipulated variables and a control group. In addition, the photographs are beautiful and draw you in. At times, I did wonder how the exotic frogs pictured were part of the story, but I was always drawn back to Tyrone's fascinating experiments.

Note: the author Pam Turner wrote me to explain about how she chose the photos in the book: "On the issue of the exotic frogs, they appear in the chapter on amphibian decline to give kids a sense of the diversity of this group of animals. And in the Amphibian Ark sidebar those are species of frogs in the captive breeding program mentioned. Otherwise the frogs are all Tyrone's." Yes, this makes sense to me. Thanks, Pam.

Tyrone, himself, seems like a great role model for students to look up to as they think about what types of careers they might want to pursue. I loved this rap that he did at a scientific conference - it explains about why this work is so important.

The Frog Scientist would make very interesting reading as a read aloud with 5th and 6th graders, with some very interesting discussions to follow. As an independent reading book, I would recommend it for 7th and 8th graders. As Tyrone explains, frogs are sensitive to very small levels of pesticides, far below the EPA regulations for our food or environment. Perhaps human adults are not sensitive, but what about children? What about human infants or fetuses? These are questions worth raising with our children, especially in a way that helps them see how we might study them to find out the answers.

For another review, see InfoDad: "The Frog Scientist shows that science, however carefully practiced, need by no means be dull – and it also introduces young readers to some gorgeous, fascinating and increasingly threatened animals."

This review copy was generously provided by the publisher. As a disclosure, I am friends with Pam Turner and am happy to recommend her books. I wish we had more science books like this to excite our students about the study of science in the field.

You can find a copy of The Frog Scientist at local independent bookstores and on Amazon. It is quite new, but will soon be in local public libraries.

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