In my current position at an environmental nonprofit, I’ve learned that a majority of society doesn’t understand what environmental education actually means. As a professional that has worked in the realm of STEM education for over 10 years now, I was surprised to learn that many people don’t immediately see the connection between environmental education and STEM education. Maybe that was my lack of understand in regards to the stereotypes that exist around environmental education. I’ve since learned that to most, the term environmental education signals tree hugger/over enthusiast that doesn’t live in a factual world. The over indulgence of some well-meaning environmentalists seems to have taken over environmental education the same way that religious extremists have misrepresented their faiths. Here’s what I see environmental education is through my current lens. First, environmental education (EE) is the perfect combination of civics and science. It uses scientific principals and applies them to human society including our impacts on our surroundings. Civics by definition is the study of the rights and duties of citizenship. Science by definition is systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation. This combination of rights and duty with knowledge of the physical and material world is the way to create 21st century skills and problem solvers in the next generation. Speaking of next generation, the latest common core standards and next generation science standards seem to hack away at the core issue we face in education in the USA, that we are creating students that memorize for tests rather than fully understand concepts and utilize them to problem solve. When dissecting STEM into science, technology, engineering and math, I can fully see how EE plays a crucial part. Science is the fact grounding, technology and engineering are the solution builders and math inserts the statistics that let us know we are going down the right path with consistent results. Therefore EE uses each of the STEM topics in combination, a rarity in education. Many people are influenced for many reasons to not consider the environmental sciences as valid. I would argue that environmental science is the future. Not only helping us solve issues like drought and climate change but also helping create the next generation of creative, holistic thinkers who are responsible environmental stewards.
While earning my degrees in Biology, this word was something I was taught to recognize. As scientists we are told not to ascribe human characteristics to animals when conducting scientific research or when teaching facts about animals. In science we revere fact and hold reverence for it above all. We study organisms, understand systems and label them to create facts that can be learned by others who also have an interest in understanding science. Learning about what an animal can feel or think is next to impossible since we cannot communicate directly with them. Therefore if it cannot be proven, we cannot talk about it as if it exists. We cannot relate to animals as if they enjoy, suffer, want or love as we do.
Recently a scientist I work with told me that he cringes when he hears other staff members or volunteer educators refer to a shark pup as a “baby shark”. According to him, that’s not just an incorrect scientific term but also crosses the line to anthropomorphic behavior.
Personally, I think the labels we give to plants and animals are not that important. To me a shark pup is a baby shark. For me, trying to teach children (and adults) science when they do not naturally enjoy it, it’s more important that they have a basic understanding of a concept rather than THE perfect memorization of a scientific name. People who are not innately drawn to science find it intimidating and uncomfortable when scientists or teachers recite nomenclature that they cannot relate to because they have no form of reference for it. People tend to have a natural wonder for the world around them, but they don’t always feel it necessary to know that technically, a baby shark is called a pup. My question is, why can’t they just enjoy the experience without the label? As a person who has taught science in many informal settings, I have come across a number of students who will not become scientists. They have a passion, talent and love for something else. And while these kids may contribute to the world of work in another way, the environmentalist in me still wants them to respect the Earth enough to be responsible for their habits and actions. That being said, if I were to stop a random person on the street and ask them two questions; first, would you care if I killed a shark pup? and second, would you care if I killed shark babies? -Which question would have the most visceral response? Which question would activate the environmental steward in that random person?
To me, the correctness of how we label animals takes a back seat to the responsibility of teaching people how to relate to animals and therefore protect them. Because it’s only through relating to something that we actually care about it. This is made evident in cultures that worship nature. Native Americans of the North American plains hunted the buffalo but they also danced and sang respect to the animal that gave them food, shelter and clothing. They ascribed human characteristics to this animal and therefore only killed when necessary and used every part to not waste the mortal sacrifice the animal made. When Europeans settled the Americas, they almost wiped out the buffalo population because they did not respect the animal as a valuable, limited resource. This demonstrates a lack of relating to an animal as a part of the whole ecosystem. The whole to which we all belong. They instead created a divide that made it ok to abuse these animals. So although we cannot know with current science and technology exactly what other animals “feel and think”, it seems to me that it cannot hurt to ascribe “human” characteristics to them if the result is respect, admiration and a responsibility to protect. Because in the end, just as we cannot prove what they think and feel, we also cannot prove the opposite.
“Absence of proof is not proof of absence.’ ~William Cowper
Communication is key. Whether you are trying to teach someone, debate your views on a topic or even in our everyday relationships it is important to have excellent communication skills to excel in life. When it comes to the sciences it seems as though there are extremes in communication. At one end of the spectrum there are the amazing speakers that travel the world to advocate for science funding and education such as the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson or the many great speakers that present at TED (TED: Ideas worth spreading) and then there’s the other end of the spectrum. Those who are extremely smart but unable to communicate in a way the average person can grasp. Maybe you’ve experienced one of these scientists yourself in high school or in college. I personally remember in college not fully understanding organic chemistry. I loved general chemistry and I was pretty good at organic chemistry for the first semester. But the second semester I had a teacher that was so smart but couldn’t teach. He just didn’t know how to explain what he knew in a simple, understandable way. I see that happen a lot in STEM education. For some reason some scientists are not very good at communicating scientific concepts, specifically to the general public that doesn’t have a scientific background of knowledge to draw from. Unfortunately I believe teachers such as these can actually turn students away from the sciences. A student can feel that it’s their fault for not understanding a concept, that they just aren’t smart enough to get it when really it’s not being taught in a way that’s easily understood or that smart scientists are elitist. That’s why I was excited to hear about the Center for Communicating Science. A place that teaches scientists to communicate. They even teach graduate level courses in communicating science. This is so crucial not only for scientists that are educators but also research scientists who need to be able to explain to funders or congress why their work is worth supporting.
This is another reason why I believe using Art to teach Science can be very helpful with concepts that are very abstract. Just like art can be used to explain emotions that words don’t seem to encompass, art can help to portray a scientific concept in a way that a 1000 words cannot. Art can also be used to create excitement for the sciences and introduce research and technology to people who normally would not be interested. Art like this:
A 3D-printed brain scan of a brain tumour etched into a glass block. by Katharine Dowson.
And this piece by Semâ Bekirovic, an environmental artist that tackles the ongoing struggle between culture and nature.
And finally MicroArt: Suctorian attached to stalk of red algae, encircled by ring of diatoms by Elieen Roux at Bob Hope International Heart Research Institute.
These beautiful art pieces can be both informative and thought provoking.
Now that’s the way to communicate science!
Now that I am back in the USA, I am working with the Discovery Gateway Museum in Salt Lake City facilitating their 5th grade Chemistry program and it’s awesome!
I travel to 5th grade classrooms all across the state showcasing science!
First, I am the star of an assembly full of fun, exciting experiments to teach them the basics of chemistry.
Then the kids get to design and perform their OWN experiments and decide whether a physical change or a chemical reaction occurred.
They LOVE the hands on labs and it’s great to see them so excited to try different chemical combinations to discover what happens!
At first the kids did NOT like to wear safety goggles. So I explained that when scientists get the indents in their face from wearing their goggles after a long day working on cool experiments in the lab, they consider it their badge of honor and are proud to showcase it. Now the kids are happy to wear them. They even ask me when they take their goggles off if I can see their badge of honor!
There is no such thing as exact science but at some point in history, we the people decided that science was THE explanation for the world around us. Once a scientific hypothesis has enough evidence, it becomes a universally accepted theory or law but it doesn’t necessarily follow that every scientific finding is valid or THE truth. Because of this tendency to believe so whole heartedly in science as ultimate truth, society has forgotten where science came from, that science is just a reflection of us and is constantly evolving right along with us.
We used to believe that Earth was the center of the universe.
We were even convinced that smoking was healthy and harmless.
How many times have you seen the phrase, According to the latest research…?
Science can only use the best facts known at given time to explain the universe but those facts are limited by technology, awareness and the intelligence of that time. Because science has been put on a truth pedestal, it has been used and misused to convince people that medicines are safe, only to see recalls or lawsuits for the negative side affects. Science has been misused to separate and elevate humans. Hitler used science to justify his idea of the perfect race. Science has also been hired by corporations to “prove” self-serving information. Scientific studies can be manipulated, even subconsciously by scientists who are desperate to achieve something. This misuse of science has also caused a mistrust in science because we expect more of science then we should. We expect scientific studies to hold ultimate truth. This unreasonable expectation has created a backlash. Some people now demonise science or scientists has anti-religious, sterile, GMO growing, Nazi’s in lab coats but this is not where science came from.
The origin of science is exploration and discovery by asking questions to help us learn about the universe and our world. Science is about growth, building upon previous great minds to continually generate a new understanding. Scientists question each other, this is the purpose of publishing work, so it can be questioned and shared with others and so that these ideas can be placed under pressure to hopefully flush out the truth. Scientists are explorers, curious as to how the world works. We usually love nature and try to protect it. We usually love the wonderment of how things work whether it’s physics and Newton’s laws or the biology of how our bodies work or the chemistry of medicine, but we do not and cannot know everything. Knowing that science is ever evolving based on the limited knowledge present at a given time, let’s not look at scientists as the givers of ultimate truth. Rather let’s remember that just like technology, science is growing exponentially based on new discoveries and new ideas. While we teach our youth the laws of science as we know them today, let’s also not forget to remind them that they will dictate the scientific truths of tomorrow. That things can change and will change so they should not stop questioning, wondering and learning about the world around them.
“If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?”
― Albert Einstein
“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”
― Albert Einstein
Not a carbon footprint of course but quite the opposite, your imprint on a child’s life. We as parents, science educators and communities have a responsibility. We have a responsibility to give our children the education, the tools and the resources to live a lovely full life in balance with nature. Part of this is teaching them, “waste not, want not”. Typical modern families tend to be extremely wasteful, throwing away food and household items that could be consumed further. Recently I came across the concept of an ecovillage. I read an article about a man who built his house out of straw, mud and recycled items. I then found a website that showcases these eco-communities (http://www.livinginthefuture.org/). I am absolutely drawn to the concept of building your own house utilizing ecologically sustainable techniques and living off the land. Plus look how amazing this house is!
Living off the land in harmony can be beautiful! Unfortunately, many of these skills are not taught in traditional schools. Life sciences should be just that, teaching children how to use nature in a sustainable way to grow their own food, build their own houses and create the life they want by smart ecological techniques that often saves not only energy and reduces your carbon footprint but also is a much cheaper way of living. I realise that teachers are stuffed to the max with curriculum that they must get through each year but I believe that there is a way and I’ve seen inklings of it already. There are more and more schools with gardens where the students not only learn gardening techniques but they also cook with the food they’ve grown. Anyone who’s grown their own tomatoes knows there’s nothing more delicious then your own backyard fruit. This also meshes perfectly with the experiential, learning by doing style of teaching that most students love and appreciate and most importantly never forget. I know that green living has been a trend for awhile and for some, may just be a fad but I believe that it’s our responsibility to use our limited resources wisely and I believe it’s a big part of being a healthy community. By teaching our students and children to leave a space better than they found it, we can decrease the amount of litter, waste and lack of appreciation experienced today. A greater appreciation for nature, for the food we eat and the places we live will lead to a higher respect and consideration for the land which will create an automatic focus on sustainable living. This self propelling ripple affect is one reason why I have such a passion for science education. Teaching this way not only increases knowledge in that moment to help a student pass a test, but it can also change that student’s outlook on life, nature and science and thereby also change the lives of those around them.