Valerie Grosso is the Founder of Be Naturally Curious, a company that believes kids’ natural creativity and curiosity make it possible for them grasp and internalize topics adults usually think are too complicated for them. They do this in the form of scientific mini-courses, available as downloadable PDFs, or tangible workbooks, each one incorporating beautiful illustrations and a fun hands-on activity.
MADE LOKAL: How is it for such a big nature lover to raise children in NYC?
BE NATURALLY CURIOUS: Hard, sometimes! I miss not being able to garden with my kids, or just having the space and quiet that can be found outside the city. But we try to get out of the city frequently to go hiking—the Hudson Valley is just wonderful! On the other hand, when we do have the opportunity to enjoy nature in the city, sometimes the contrast between natural and human-made makes nature even more beautiful. There are incredible springtime gardens that pop up in road medians. Or watching phases of the moon above the buildings. Actually, because our apartment windows are not surrounded by trees, we sometimes have the most incredible view of the moon from my daughters’ bedroom!
MADE LOKAL: Where are your favorite places in NYC for nature adventures?
BE NATURALLY CURIOUS: There are so many interesting natural nooks in NYC, for example the old growth forests in upper Manhattan! I love Inwood Hill Park for those special trees and also for the dramatic topology of the landscape (steep hills!). Our family spends most of its outdoor time in Central Park and in Riverside Park, on the west side of Manhattan. During the warm months, my kids effectively live in the many playgrounds of these parks, and spend hours in the areas around the playgrounds, building imaginary forts in the trees and bushes. One interesting dimension of experiencing nature in the city this way, is that kids are almost certain to come across friends at the neighborhood parks. That makes their interaction with and exploration of nature have a social/emotional element, which we know is so important for memory and learning.
MADE LOKAL: You are known as an avid knitter. What are your recommendations for where to buy locally made yarn?
BE NATURALLY CURIOUS: There are so many wonderful local yarns these days! The best places to discover them are the regional wool festivals. For example, there is the New York Sheep and Wool Festival in Rhinebeck, NY, each October, which has become a major destination for knitters. But there are many smaller, local festivals, and the best place to learn about them is on Ravelry.com, the online destination for all things knitting! My favorite local yarn is made by Paula of White Barn Farm in Gardiner, NY. Not only does Paula raise her own sheep and produce small batches of the most scrumptious, hand-dyed yarn, she also runs a knit shop with a large “Knit Local” sign above the door!
MADE LOKAL: Who taught you to knit and sew and do you remember how old you were?
BE NATURALLY CURIOUS: My mom, when I was in middle school. She used to sew all of her own clothes, though hasn’t done much sewing since becoming a full time computer programmer. There are actually a huge number (relatively speaking) of scientists and programmers in the online sewing community. I know for myself, that the process of sewing is a lot like lab work. You do your research, you make a plan, run your experiment (or sew a pattern), observe the results (does it fit?), adapt your experiment however necessary (tweak the pattern), and try again. I even keep a sewing notebook that looks a lot like my old lab notebooks!
MADE LOKAL: At what age did you teach your own daughters to sew and/or knit?
BE NATURALLY CURIOUS: They are now seven and ten and both know how to knit and sew. I introduced both skills as tools they can have in their arsenal for making and creating things. It’s so empowering to know how to use different types of tools, whether it be a sewing machine and knitting needles, or a hammer or soldering iron. I hate it when sewing and knitting are looked down upon culturally as “women’s work.” An esteemed former colleague of mine, who taught for many, many years at Barnard College, once told me that her best research students were those who had done some type of needlework growing up. Why? Probably because they had such fantastic fine motor skills! So all of these tools and skills are interconnected and giving our kids the biggest toolbox we can is the best thing we can do for them.
MADE LOKAL: You knit a hat that shows climate change over time....how were you inspired to create this hat?
BE NATURALLY CURIOUS: As a long-time knitter, until this hat, I had never felt the urge to design my own patterns. After the success of the Pussy Hat Project for the Women’s March, one of the first topics brought up for the March for Science (April 22nd) was “what type of hat will we wear?” While there are many great science-inspired hat patterns out there, I felt that they all missed the point for this particular event. It nagged at the back of my mind…”what would the right hat for the March for Science be, if it were to have a hat?” For me, the point of the march was the importance of data, of fact-based decision making. And what represented data better than a beautiful graph? So I found a graph of CO2 rise over time using NASA data. I traced this onto graph paper and used pencil and paper to make the design. One item of note…I could only graph the data through the year 2000 because after that date CO2 levels became too high to fit on the hat!
MADE LOKAL: Did it take you longer to design or knit?
BE NATURALLY CURIOUS: I’m not sure how long it took to design. I was completely in the zone when doing it—a real sense of just having to do it, not for anyone else, but for myself. Maybe a full day of work, spread out in several chunks? I also consulted with an experienced knitter friend on how best to shape the top of the hat so the graph would still be clear. It’s amazing how even small projects like this bring us together. The knitting itself was probably a few full days of knitting.
MADE LOKAL: You have a gift for making complicated information simple. Does this come naturally, or is this something that you have to work on?
BE NATURALLY CURIOUS: If we all have a superpower, I’d like to think this is mine. One of the reasons you don’t often hear scientists trying to explain things in lay persons’ terms is that simplification often results in a lack of accuracy. And there is nothing worse for a scientist than to be inaccurate! Yet, there are ways to identify a core piece of information that is still accurate but also understandable without years of background study. I consider it my mission to identify these core concepts, and also to figure out the most effective way to communicate them. The best part of my job is helping design the games and activities that allow kids to experience the concepts being taught! Being able to think about a complex scientific concept (and think “how amazing that our world works this way!”) and then create an understandable expression of it, to me is a form of art!
MADE LOKAL: What is the most popular Be Naturally Curious' mini-course?
BE NATURALLY CURIOUS: Our most popular course is Discovering DNA. Unlike many scientific topics that are typically taught to children, DNA is a subject about which many teachers and curriculum designers do not feel completely confident in their understanding. It may seem too complex a topic to teach to young children. This is the type of subject where I feel it is so important to have scientists write the mini-courses. Explaining a complex subject requires understanding which elements of a topic are essential, and which details can be left out, whittling the material down to a core idea. In Discovering DNA, we teach kids that how a DNA molecule does its job (pass along information within a cell, and from one generation to the next) depends on how it is built. So kids learn (through several, reinforcing activities) how “bases” that fit together like puzzle pieces make up the two sides of a DNA molecule. In this way, kids are actually learning the concept of base-pairing, a central tenet of molecular biology that is not normally taught until high school or college.
MADE LOKAL: For what age range is Be Naturally Curious best suited?
BE NATURALLY CURIOUS: Our mini-courses are designed for kids in grades K-5. While this may seem like a wide range, we teach using non-traditional techniques (board and card games, hands-on modeling, movement-based games, and experiments.) In fact, many of our activities are good for the whole family—I used to teach relatively complex Biochemistry topics to college students using movement-based activities—it was amazing how having a visual element, in addition to reading, can aid immensely in understanding of a topic!
MADE LOKAL: Where can people find Be Naturally Curious? (social media/web)
BE NATURALLY CURIOUS: All of our mini-courses are sold both in the form of downloadable PDF’s directly from our website (benaturallycurious.com) as well as in the form of print workbooks, available on Amazon.com (links to the print workbooks can also be found on our website.) You can also follow us on Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest. If you try our mini-courses, please reach out and share your experience!
Be Naturally Curious supports women in science! Today we spoke with Valerie, Be Naturally Curious' Founder, but click here to see the other talented and impressive ladies who've done work to support Be Naturally Curious: Female Experts at BNC.