A Call to Homebrewers: The Future of Science Education

View a pdf of the actual article (edited) in Brew Your Own magazine.

Adam Johnston & John Settlage

Anna ponders a hop rhizome.It’s one of those lazy Saturday afternoons in winter with nothing that really needs doing. I ask Anna, my four-year-old, if she wants to go downstairs to check on the beer to see whether it’s bubbling. An enthused “Yeah!” is the response I’ve come to expect. Moments later she and I are gazing upon five gallons of dark muck in an oversized bottle. Capping the mess is an airlock doing its “blub blub blub” routine, and we are ecstatic. There’s a certain satisfaction we get from watching the bubbles. I recognize that the fermentation signifies healthy yeast activity. She delights in the idea of something coming to life, breathing the bubbles that rattle the airlock on my carboy.

Anna frequently accompanies me to “the beer store.” Utah brewers rely upon The Beer Nut which displays an assortment of grains and hops, bottles and gadgets, paraphernalia of all kinds. Anna helped pick some of the ingredients on our last trip, so my holiday brew had some wheat added to the grain bill, and it didn’t turn out too bad. The Beer Nut is a fascinating place for a kid: all the equipment, the many colors of grains, the dispensers, the kits and the refrigerators. I guess it isn’t strange that Anna would want to come on my treks to the beer store.

About two years ago I introduced John to a homebrew and the world of homebrewing. Since then, we’ve had numerous discussions about beers and the brewing of them. Just as within my family, John delights in the beer making process – so much so that he leaves the fermenter in a room where he can hear the jiggling of the airlock. Like Anna and me, he is enchanted by beer coming to life. Our discussions reflect the fascination we have with this whole process, how the beer is made, how it changes in the bottle, and the science behind all the procedures.

Recently, our conversations have taken a different twist. We’ve started to wonder if homebrewers should be reaching out to more people. We believe homebrewing, in a small way, could help make the world a better place, and we think that homebrewers can help make it so.

John and I are both “science educators.” This means that we teach science courses, we teach teachers how to teach science, and we do research about improving how science is taught. At times, it’s a depressing state of affairs: we know what should be happening in science classrooms but this doesn’t match with how science actually takes place in classrooms. All of us have suffered the stereotyped science class where the teacher uses a pointer as he lectures about the giant periodic table while the students sitting in rows try to follow what is being said. If there is an experiment for the students to do they already know how it’s supposed to turn out, and they despair knowing that there’s a good chance they will get the “wrong” answer.  This type of science that far too many have had to suffer through is stale, daunting, and uninteresting. In fact, it isn’t even really science.

In contrast, the work of homebrewers is authentic, exciting, and creative — and is by most accounts truly scientific. All we need is for homebrewers across the country to take their knowledge and use it to teach science.  Actually, many of you probably already teach science and we can only hope that you already portray and advocate the true spirit of scientific inquiry – the same that you employ as a homebrewer – within your classroom.

For those who don’t teach science professionally, we urge you to go beyond the kind act of sharing brews with other people. We implore you to share the science that is inherent in creating your brews. By your modest yet wise example you can reveal, especially to children, what’s so incredibly scientific about your hobby. Show them how you play with nature by adjusting variables. Give them a chance to measure a specific gravity with a hydrometer. Ask them why they think that the density changed and why the yeast fell to the bottom of the carboy. Imagine with them how a yeast “eats.” Speculate upon the amount of carbon dioxide released from a fermenter. Instill some wonder.

Our society needs to change the way it thinks about science, what it is, and how it works. Homebrewers already know what science is about. After all, we don’t just make beer to have something to drink – there are far easier ways of getting a bottle of ale. We, the homebrewers, take up this hobby because we like to play, create, invent, and inquire. In other words, we do all of the things that “real” scientists do, including making mistakes, refining techniques, talking with others, and trying again. Despite all kinds of reforms and efforts by scientists and science educators, society still finds science unapproachable and evil. Few people realize that science is something that can be done everyday, by ordinary people. Not only can people understand science, they can use it.

Homebrewers are well aware of this. That’s why we’re appealing to you. Nearby is another “Anna” who is living in your own home, or there’s a kid next door, or there’s your nephew — somewhere there’s a youngster who is primed to be fascinated by what you do. That someone could really be inspired by you, the scientist that you are. You can show them that homebrewing isn’t just for the product, but for the process, and you can teach something scientific along the way. Most importantly, you can help science educators like John and me by introducing kids to genuine science, not the drudgery they might have to endure. Obviously, we won’t be teaching homebrewing in schools anytime soon, so we call on you to share your enthusiasm for science with those other “pints” around you.