Jeni Corn and the Chimpanzees of Fire

At some point our ancestors tamed fire. With fire they could cook their food and store it. With fire they could light whole landscapes aflame. It has long been speculated that the impetus to tame fire was our shift into the African grasslands (out of the trees and down onto the scary ground). This idea was an untestable but plausible theory; it still is. But recently a chimpanzee, well actually a bonobo, friendlier kin to the chimp, may have given us a glimpse of what that moment might have looked like. Most chimpanzees are terrified of fire. They run from it. But this chimp, living in captivity on the African savannas, has begun to use fire. It even gathers kindling and once the kindling is alight, it wields it like the sort of power capable of changing the world. It pauses, in other words, hot-fingered, at the brink.

JeniCorn_3When I think of these chimpanzees, I think of Jeni Corn and our Students Discover project. In our Students Discover project, we have grand ambitions. We want thousands of teachers around the world to bring real science into their classrooms, science that helps lead to new truths, better education and, ultimately, adults who make better decisions in the hard, real world. In achieving this goal, we have many challenges, but among them is how to get the real light of this new approach, its innate fire, to spread from one classroom to another. Imagine a more concrete example. As of today, a few dozen teachers have used lessons related to our School of Ants project in their classrooms. In doing so, they have helped to resolve new truths about ants. But how do we best encourage other teachers to do the same and to what extent should we provide space for teachers to adapt what they do and to what extent does everything work best if the fire, in each new place is, to some extent, reborn?

If we were actually studying fire—the hot stuff in the literal grass—the answer would be easy. It would be the result of physics and the flammability of grass. But our fire is metaphorical and so everything is more difficult, subject, simultaneously, to the cultures of schools, the abilities of children, the connections of teachers and the wishes of parents (to name just a few of the important factors). Real fire requires only carbon and oxygen. Our fire requires the infinitely more complicated chemistry of minds.

Jeni Corn’s role in Students Discover (and that of her amazing team, supporting her in the ropes course photo above) is to study the fire. Her role is to understand which features of our projects spread and which don’t. She will consider how teachers adapt the science-driven lessons our scientists and teachers create together, add to them and, ultimately, make them their own. To do this, Jeni embeds with us. Her team sneaks around and watches. They listen. They convene and then they stand up in their towers and watch for smoke. Once they see the smoke, they travel toward it, looking for fires, not to put them out, but instead to watch them as they grow.

In the past we have had fires spread. The School of Ants project and its associated pieces in classrooms, led to a School of Ants in Australia and another in Italy. When those fires lit, real conflagrations, we smelled the smoke all the way from Raleigh. We jumped with joy and hope. But we didn’t study why they lit and why, for example, there is not yet a School of Ants in, say, France or England. Jeni will. And the most exciting part of all of this is once Jeni figures it out, we will know better how to control our fire. Right now we are the chimpanzees at the edge of the savanna, our hands burning with a powerful new tool, a tool we wield clumsily to see glimpses of the future in the dark. With Jeni’s help we will, we dream, be able to catch the world up in our flame, the real heat of our vision leaping through the dry grass of minds, the heat of our vision that each child can best learn through doing science, and that scientists can best do science through engaging, all around the world, children.

Header photo: Jeni Corn and the Friday Institute Evaluation Team at a ropes course. Credit: NCSU News Dept | Flickr

By |2016-11-22T13:46:57-05:00August 5th, 2014|

About the Author:

Rob Dunn
Rob Dunn is a biologist and writer in the Department of Applied Ecology at North Carolina State University. Central to all of his work is the sense that big discoveries lurk not only in faraway tropical forests, but also in our backyards and even bedrooms. The unknown is large and wonderful and Dunn and his collaborators, students, and postdocs love to spend their days in it.

2 Comments

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    Michelle Benigno August 5, 2014 at 1:09 pm - Reply

    Fantastic article that captures the heart and the heat of the research that Jeni and the Friday Institute provide. Keep up the good work!

  2. Avatar
    Laura Cochrane August 6, 2014 at 9:02 am - Reply

    Awesome post – so excited to be part of igniting this fire!

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