Kristine Callis-Duehl and her husband, Adrian, received the usual gifts a couple having their first child would expect to receive when their son, Joey, was born three and a half years ago. Cute outfits. New toys.
But the two scientists — Kristine, a botanist, and Adrian, an entomologist — were a bit unnerved by the books they kept receiving, books they saw filled with information they didn’t want young Joe to ever confront.
“We were given a lot of natural science books,” says Callis-Duehl, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in botany at NC State. “And almost all the books contained scientific errors. There were things like lizards and earthworms and snails in bug books. Why am I going to read him something that is wrong? That’s not the legacy I want to give him.”
So Callis-Duehl set out to create her own books for young children. She spent her maternity leave writing her first manuscript and found an illustrator. In 2012, she started Budding Biologist, an education company focused on producing fun and accurate learning materials for children, and published her first book, Am I an Insect? And Budding Biologist has just released their first app, a game called Lizard Island.
Callis-Duehl and her team received a National Science Foundation grant to produce the game, which is aimed to enhance observation, hypothesis-building and experimentation in children who are in kindergarten through fifth grade. It also let Callis-Duehl think about computers again, something she hasn’t done since she switched from computer programming to botany at NC State early in her academic career. She received a bachelor’s in 2002 and master’s in 2005. She also went on to get a Ph.D. in biology from the University of Florida. Her husband, Adrian, earned his Ph.D. in entomology at NC State in 2008.
Budding Biologist is an attempt to reinvigorate the stress placed on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines at an early age. Callis-Duehl, who now lives in Woodland, Calif., with Adrian, Joey and her second son, Leo, says kids begin with an interest in those fields, but that interest wanes in almost 50 percent of those students by the time they reach middle school and in another 30 percent by the time they reach high school. Callis-Duehl believes if she can be part of a movement to undo the wrongs in the books kids read at an early age, she can help get some of those students back.
“I think there’s two things going on,” she says. “One is that they underestimate children. Kids are quick to understand complex concepts. …And the people who write children books don’t have the scientific background to know those misconceptions, themselves. They include a spider in a bug book because they think a spider is a bug.
“But we think we can change those misconceptions from day one. We love when we do a book signing and the parents come up and say, ‘I didn’t know an earthworm wasn’t an insect.'”