Ah yes! Sitting feels good! I finally get a moment to breath. I haven’t had time to really sit down until now, but am grateful for the opportunity to FINALLY get to share with you some of the amazing fruits that I was able to harvest from a professional conference I attended not too long ago.
Last October, I had the opportunity to attend the NAAEE conference in Madison, WI and it was an incredibly amazing experience to say the least. Re-inspiring, reinvigorating, refreshing, informative, educational… the list of adjectives could go on, but I won’t. Anyway, for those who may not be familiar, NAAEE stands for the North American Association for Environmental Educators and, yes, there IS actually an official group for people to sit around and talk about how to save the environment. But, more importantly YES… it was filled with amazing, encouraging, and fruitful goodness! And I am the type of person who likes to share GOOD stuff when I find it, so here I go…
One of the first observations that I remember making when I arrived was how all the various circles were talking about the significance of human relationships. Not just of a human’s relationship with the environment, but (more importantly) with each other… the human community. That was the moment I knew I was in the right place. I fell deeper in love with my vocation and humanity.
I experienced some wonderful opportunities to meet some amazing and dedicated people, and learn about what they, theirs organization, or their businesses were doing to further education and inspire people towards environmental literacy and stewardship. Whether they traveled from within the U.S. or internationally, these global partners fell into 1 of 2 categories:
- They were informal educators seeking relationships with formal schools and an entry into their school curriculum; or
- School teachers seeking a way to merge environmental education standards into their school curriculum standards.
Realizing such motives that most of the participants fell into was probably the second time I knew that I was in the right place. I all of a sudden didn’t feel alone; that everything I’ve been thinking wasn’t so crazy after all. There is an effective way to leverage the power of children to promote sustainability and it is good… so good. Combining environmental literacy and state education standards in a true, authentic way “…is like a thick steak, a glass of wine, and a good cigar.” Any Chestertonian worth his lick would be hard-pressed to disagree. Here are a few of the reasons why:
6. David Suzuki. A Canadian Chemist and leading environmental advocate, Mr. Suzuki was the lead-off keynote speaker for the 2016 conference. Lying within his humorous wit and inspirational anecdotes, were so many little pearls of wisdom. One of the things that stood out the most to me was when he started talking about how “we are so ignorant of how the world works, we don’t know how to anticipate the consequences.” It really stuck with me. I mean this world is SO massive, it’s nearly impossible to know every. Little. Thing. People truly have good intentions and are doing their best to live a good, responsible life, but sometimes that which we don’t know gets the better of our intentions. We want better materials, we want convenience, and we don’t want to spend an arm and a leg for it… Now how can we get that which we want with the fewest number of “consequences”? Mull that chewy little morsel over with a glass of your choice red as you watch his talk here.
5. Research. A big component of the conference is all about research… figuring out the best practices in getting people to act with environmentality. This includes understanding people and why do do/say what they do/say, understanding how zoos/aquariums/environmental centers can effectively communicate conservation messages to guests, understanding the role of an informal education center and how people (both teachers and day guests) view them, and even how informal centers can work together to influence their community. The list goes on and on, but here are some gems that I found and adore.
- Beetles Project: This project is based out of California is a network of organizations and individuals dedicated to building relationships between schools and EE centers, as well as incorporating EE literacy standards into state/national curriculum standards.
- NC State University: This was one of the first talks I attended and enjoyed thoroughly. This doctoral candidate is studying the effectiveness of climate literacy using outdoor/informal facilities and using the power of children to influence positive behavior in their parents.
- Northland College: Another fabulous individual dedicate to bridging the gap between informal and formal settings. His talk was on incorporating EE into teacher pre-service training.
- Dr. Chris Sperry: This is an individual who dedicates his livelihood to effective EE practices. Unfortunately, I was in and out of this talk due to volunteer duties, but still a great resource if you’re interested in learning more about the topic.
- University of Georgia: Teachers Communicating with Informal Science Educators: Community Views on Collaboration. This is an interesting little study on the effectiveness of school/informal education center relationships and how teachers and EE facilitators view each other’s jobs.
4. Human Impact. Sometimes it can be difficult for people, especially children, to really comprehend the impact society has on itself and the Earth. So here are some organizations that have some great after school and/classroom activities you can utilize to help your students understand.
- Science Action Club: A group dedicated to providing schools with quality environmental programs and kits to engage students in inquiry-based, STEM activities.
- Population Connection: A resource that contains some great, engaging activities to assist students in visualizing human impact on Earth.
- ecoRise Youth Innovations: Offers teachers eco-literacy curriculum to incorporate into the classroom. It’s all about design/systems-thinking in their programs which prepares them for a life/career in the real world.
3. Aimee Nezhukumatathil. This lovely lady is a specialist on environmental literacy and ELA, so pretty much YES english and the outdoors DO have something in common. She is an English Professor and public educator, as well as a renowned guest speaker. She talks about the great need for kids to be inspired again. There is no greater inspiration than the outdoors! Check out a portion of her talk right here.
“So much of what it means to be a writer [or scientist or design engineer] is just to be curious. Having a curiosity that demands to be satiated.”
2. Classroom Resources. Classroom resources teachers can use to hone critical skills used in the process of science (observation, reasoning, and critical thinking). All of the following resources have specific lessons/curriculum for a variety of topics (or standards, if you will). Wildcam Gorongoza and Zooniverse are both entities of HHMI
Biointeractive which are SUPERB resources for helping students working on their observation and classification skills as they help real-life scientists to identify species caught on camera traps. iNaturalist is a citizen scientist application in which students can also help to identify plant/animal species, or post their own pictures for identification. These are great ways to network in real-time with real-scientists. Teachers can use these tools for a stimulating class discussion, too!
- HHMI Biointeractive
- Nature Navigator at Stevens Point
- Alliance to Save Energy
- Nature Explore
1. Environmental Literacy Models. And the #1 reason why it’s time to unite EE literacy with state standards?! Why, of course, it’s already being done! Not only are there great lessons that school teachers can attach to, but there are also already schools that have caught on to the revolution of changing the ways of formal education! Check out these awesome models which demonstrate effective incorporation of EE standards in school curriculum standards. These groups are already working to bridge the gap between the two.
- XQ Super Schools (http://xqsuperschool.org/abouttheproject): High schools all over the county and in urban settings. Houston, New Orleans, Miami… It’s all about reforming education with purpose-driven learning
- Badger Rock Middle School (Badger Rock, WI)
- Dutch Fork Elementary School (Irmo, SC)
- Sigsbee Charter School (Key West, FL)
- And we can’t forget the Zoo Schools, either… Science Focus Program (Nebraska Zoo) and School of Environmental Studies (Minnesota Zoo).
The need to make EE (a.k.a. environmental education) relevant is vital. Relationships are important to accomplish this mission. And in discerning (for a very long time) how to make it happen and evaluating many different pathways, I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s really no better way than to jump directly in the middle of the community where it all happens… in our schools. In other words, incorporate environmental literacy standards into school curriculum standards.
Students cry for relevance in their learning, and there’s no better relevance than impacts on their way of life. Environmental literacy through project-based learning is the ultimate interdisciplinary lesson, truly. In order to solve problems they face in their communities, students must first know the basics (science and math) of how their world operates. This helps them to articulate and communicate their ideas so that best solutions can be discussed and found. It should be noted, though, that this notion of environmental literacy as standard school curriculum (what is known to some as a “green school”) is more than a magnet or charter school… it’s just the way it should be. It’s a way of life.
The Connection to Relevance
Feel a need to make a difference –> Civics/Social Studies
In order to do so, you need to gather knowledge of how the world works –> Science
Finding a solution, you’ll need to engineer a design plan –> Math & Measurement
Need to articulate/communicate your plan –> ELA: Writing & Speaking
Need to be inspired –> ELA & NATURE
What makes STEM so great is that it really is how science should be taught. It is the missing relevance that kids are craving when they say that they hate science or that science is boring. I just really hate the misunderstood buzz word aspect, but it actually is a great concept. So let’s let “STEM” die a bloody, horrible death. Make it go away. I call for a revolution! A name change. My suggestion? Let’s just call it “the correct way to teach science.”
In an earlier post of mine, I proposed the problem with “STEM” as being a mere word/phrase of jargon that has lost its meaning. But, through the opportunity of leading the national Project Lead the Way program (PLTW) at my current school, I now propose a solution. Because that’s just what we scientists and engineers do. We see a problem and we fix it.
Let’s begin by using PLTW’s engineering design process of (out right) stating the problem and proposing a design brief:
Problem: People are not listening to and/or embodying environmental conservation messages, and don’t seem to care about the Earth on which they live. I’ve meditated on this thing for quite some time and I’m left begging the question: How can we REALLY expect people to care for the environment when they don’t even care for each other? Thus, the root of the problem.
Design Brief: In order to get individuals/society to take more pro-active steps in caring for the environment, we must ourselves first take pro-active measures to restore the the bond of human connection by showing true interest in the dignity of each individual human person. To start off with, in order to build human relationships we can by infiltrate the public education sector. We must institute a science teaching revolution in order to find the perfect way to teach science, and achieve this much sought out concept of harmony.
Developing a Solution: As a means to beginning this “science teaching revolution,” I propose we take a look at two main areas: urban ecology and capacity building. We must continually seek to find more of the most effective ways to improve human relationships through community partnerships, particularly as it pertains to schools using the land around them to maximum effectiveness in teaching state/national science standards. I’m generating a concept in my head of schools and community partners (both individuals and businesses) that have a truly authentic and fluid relationship with each other, as opposed to a so-called one time field trip.
There are several outstanding models running through my head of in situ work that have such a dynamically fluid, capacity building partnership. Two of these (Proyecto Titi: Preserving Colombia’s Wildlife and Save the Elephant’s Elephant Beehive Fences) I’ve gotten to know real well during my time as an educator at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and another (Kibale Wood Fuel Project) I learned about during my time at Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens. What makes these models so great is the attention to detail in their capacity building efforts within their respective communities. These programs take a real look at and understand how/why their people live the way they do, and don’t just seek to tell people they have to change their habits (because what they’re currently doing is wrong/bad/immoral). Instead, they get to know the people, teach them about their local wildlife and their significance/niches, and seek to find real working solutions that seek the needs of their residents.
Not too long ago, I stumbled upon another organization who took similar approaches to those mentioned above, except moreso through the viewpoint of formal educational curriculum. UNITE for the Environment is a program operated by North Carolina Zoo in East Africa that helps local schools form partnerships. The model for their program isn’t to be a resource that merely “provides” sources for teachers to use, but instead to be a resource that asks what schools need for them to effectively to their job and teach their students what needs to be taught.
UNITE for the Environment is a conservation project of North Carolina Zoo based in Bigodi, Uganda. Bigodi is located adjacent to Kibale National Park, an important site for a number of primate species, including chimpanzees. This program involves working closely with teachers and other community members to enhance knowledge about environmental issues and sustainable practices, improve teaching methods, and encourage adoption of sustainable activities that improve local livelihoods and reduce the impact of the community on the environment and national park. The current program consists of teacher trainings, student field trips, work with teachers on community service projects and with students through wildlife clubs as well as an extensive evaluation protocol.
Watch this video to really see what makes it so great.
All of these models are great and wonderful and encouraging, but there’s just one (semi-) problem… they are all in situ programs in countries that are not the United States. The problem really being that we cannot neglect such purposeful, meaningful relationships in our own country. My wish is that these programs continue their work in South America and Africa, and that they inspire other similar programs in other countries… including the U.S.
The solution I propose is an “infiltration” of the public education sector by zoos, aquariums, other conservation organizations, and even local businesses to help build better capacity within our schools and provide teachers the tools they need to do their job. As it is currently in classrooms around the USA, budgets are tight and teachers are already purchasing classroom supplies with their own money.
As a result, students suffer… they suffer due to lack of supplies, as well potentially not even getting a single field trip. The current crisis in education is not due to lack of “good” schools or “good” teachers, but moreso a lack of effective teaching supplies/materials. Through my experience of of #teacherlife, thus far, I can see the improvement that our education system has undergone… teachers and schools are doing their best. Unfortunately, though, inadequate funding can ruin even the best of plans. That is where business partners come in; they should be aware of issues like this and help provide the school’s with what is lacking. The solution I propose calls on conservation organizations to help lead the charge to bring the quality capacity building that is happening overseas to the United States, too.
(Constructing & Testing) Prototypes: During my interweb musings, I have found of at least two facilities in the U.S. that may be on the road to helping us bring that “quality capacity building” home and begin to heal fractured human relationships and re-connect humans. The first I know of, though I can not at the moment find anything on the internet to link to) is Jacksonville Zoo in North Florida and the other is Lincoln Park Zoo.
Both have programs (mostly for teens) that are focused on sustainability and urban ecology, however LPZ’s initiative goes into greater detail and forms that relationship between themselves and schools by hosting a yearly science fair at their Zoo. Further evaluation is required, however their model has the appearance for authentic fluidity as it involves multiple visits of Zoo personnel to the schools as well as multiple visits by students to the Zoo to complete their work.
Either way, the groudwork is already laid, now let’s get to work and start this SCIENCE TEACHING REVOLUTION!
Science is great! I love science! Regarding all aspects of the world within which we live, science provides us with the knowledge of the properties that make up objects from the world that we can use to manufacture solutions and design products that make life easier. Hello, cell phones! Society would agree, this is exciting stuff…
That being said, when students say that science is boring I can’t help but think of the Nature of Science. What IS that? What do they mean by “the nature of science”? Even this description is on the overwhelming side. Well, in a nutshell, it is the current way that science is expected to be taught. Many, if not most, textbook publishing companies separate the “how” to do science from the actual knowledge of science in the first chapter or two of their textbooks; this includes tools used “to do” science, as well as abstract notions such as scientific thought processes such as various types of reasoning. But, contrary to what current textbook publishes would have you believe, the scientific method is really not a study itself… it is it is WHAT we use TO study. In other words, in reality, the “nature of science” is not a concept that should be treated as independent chapters of a book, but rather should be infused with the throughout the book to help students understand the “knowledge of science.” Much of the terminology that is used to teach “reasoning” methods are abstract ideas and pose very real challenges understanding, and must be taught within specific context. They require context clues within the discipline, as well as real-world problems and applications.
Without the meaning of context, the “Nature of Science” comes off as dry and boring material. And, for that reason alone, I can totally relate to student sentiments and have come to the conclusion that IT is the reason why students must think ‘science is boring.’ “Natures of Science” needs to die a horribly bloody death just as mush as “STEM.”
I think this is why I must highly enjoy project-based learning (also known as “PBL”) so much. Further, I feel like the reality of what STEM actually is provides the context/structure for PBL, which then also naturally lends itself to cover multiple teaching standards in one lesson.
I recently fell into an opportunity teaching middle school STEM that inspired this mini-piphany of teaching STEM in everyday science. Maybe it’s just my wishful thinking, but I really do hope that this way of thinking of STEM catches on in the general public. If so, maybe my dream that all people will understand and respect the earthly place they call home will come true.
Just remember… PBL is STEM. STEM IS PBL.
Yea, that’s right I said it. Allow me to explain myself, but first let’s take a step back…
Can I just say how much I HATE buzz words?! I don’t mind clichés so much, though. They can actually be massively entertaining to mess around with (sometimes). But buzzwords… they just irk me and make my eyes twitch.
I was thinking about the current state of education
when this thought came to mind. I feel like the field of education has been reduced to nothing but
buzzwords. I mean when it becomes such an item of jargon, it eventually loses its meaning. Society uses them to convey a particular thought, but without continual definition and context it becomes used incorrectly. Accuracy matters… and anything otherwise can deter us from the initial goal.
The chief item of current fashion to blame for my musing, as well as volition to vomit, is STEM. For those folks who have been living under a rock, STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. I suppose the reason it frustrates me so much is because of how widely misunderstood it is. So many people that I know, so many parents, and even many educators see it as a discipline where kids learn about computers, electronic devices, and code all day. As if all there is to technology is computers and such. From my observations, it’s almost like they have no clue that STEM is even an acronym at all, and that it’s something that their child MUST be involved in to be anything remotely successful. This idea of success is totally not true. Or, at least, not true in the way these parents perceive it to be.
Really, technology is anything that seeks to make life better. Fire is technology. Band aids, file folders, pens and pencils, and even the Crayola pack with the attached sharpener are all examples of technology. People take for granted many of these little things because they have become such useful tools that they couldn’t imagine better solutions. And that’s fine. Because technology doesn’t have to seek to solve just large-scale problems; it’s all about solving ANY problem to advance our lifestyles. However, it is also only a SINGLE component of STEM. Science (and Math) are really what are at the heart of engineering new technologies. I mean, let’s take a look at the etymology of the word ‘science.’ It is derived from the Latin word ‘sciri’ (hmmm… I wonder if this is where the idea for a certain Apple product’s name came from) which means ‘knowledge.’ There is so incredibly much to ‘know’ about in this world besides the natural things that give the textbook definition of the word.
That having been said, referring to the academic discipline of science, it is what provides us with the knowledge of the characteristic properties that make up Earthly objects that are used to design solutions and manufacture products that make our lives more enjoyable. At the heart of solving problems, we have to know about where to get the materials that will best suit those solutions we seek to find. Science guides us as to which resources to use to best suit our design goals. And THIS is what I wish more people would know about that buzz word. Because you know what? It really is GREAT!
What makes STEM so great is that it really is how science should be taught. It is the missing practical relevance that kids are craving when they say that they hate science or that science is boring. I just really hate the misunderstood ‘buzz word’ aspect, but it actually is a great concept. So let’s let “STEM” die a bloody, horrible death. Make it go away. I call for a revolution! A new way of teachin? Perhaps, simply a name change? My suggestion? Let’s just call it “the correct way to teach science.” Okay, lets’ go!