Category Archives: STEM Education

EE = STEM

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EE STEMIn 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.

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Do you understand what I’m saying?

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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!

Sci-volution

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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.

Remember, we used the think the world was flat.

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

“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is to not stop questioning.”
― Albert EinsteinRelativity: The Special and the General Theory

“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

Inquiry Based, Experiential Learning

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STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) learning is best done

through inquiry based, experiential learning.

Why? It’s more fun, more memorable and more comprehensive as well since it follows the scientific method.

How does it work? First, kids need to make an observation or a discovery that insights questions. This is extremely important to initiating the learning process. What you are looking for during discovery is the reaction of “Wow that’s cool! How does that work?” or “Neat! How did you do that?” from your students. I tend to try and make my discovery phase begin with a bang! I find a flashy experiment with fire or something eye catching or something interesting to create excitement in learning more. Once you have the reaction of –“Cool! How does that work?”- You’ve got them hooked on the adventure of learning. They will want to move forward with the lesson and hopefully they can discover the answers rather than you having to just tell them. This is what creates future scientists! Active learning based on excited discovery and connecting the “what” of science or observations, to the “why and how” or knowledge and explanations of scientific concepts. Science can be boiled down to the act of observing something in nature and then trying to explain how and why that observation occurred and finally testing your explanation in a carefully designed experiment.

Along with the inquiry based experiential learning method, I also utilize cross integration of content areas within my curriculum. This is why I use art to teach science. Art and Science are traditionally taught in different settings but why do you suppose it could be important to cross integrate content areas?

Why use art to teach science?

-Teaches creative problem solving skills

-Showcases links across content areas in order to show relevancy of learning both topics

– Can reinforce both topics and create holistic thinkers that can further the advancement of both disciplines

-Great for homeschool setting

Most kids love art so it’s a way to show them how science is involved in art and it encourages them to learn more about science by luring them in with art only to fascinate them with STEM topics.

The discovery phase usually involves just a basic observation of something of interest. It only requires mostly passive involvement from the students. Next we will begin to discuss the more active phase of inquiry based experiential learning which is learning by doing. The answering of the questions or the “whys and hows” that come up during the discovery or inquiry phase is connecting knowledge to the discovery. Connecting is the beginning of active work to learn more about the discovery or observation to gain knowledge or produce a hypothesis. So once you’ve ignited curiosity with a discovery or inquiry, then it’s easy to engage them in an activity to learn more about the “whys” of science or to connect them to the knowledge to answer their inquiry. Traditional teaching of the past has been to simply lecture, to just give the answer first and ask you to memorize it, which you may have experienced as boring and unmemorable thereby remembering it only long enough to take a test and it didn’t leave you wanting to know more. Using a question or discovery and observation first is what gets the mind going on a path of learning based on using the mind to happen upon the answer in an interpretive, intuitive way using inference to connect to the answers. When you feel that “aha” moment of connecting to an answer, that’s creating a new pathway of information in your brain. Teaching this way shows them that learning can be fun and boosts their confidence that they can do it. This is especially important with STEM topics as some kids feel these topics are boring or too difficult to learn.

THE EXPERIENCE.

We’ve talked about discovery or inquiry based learning and connecting that to new knowledge and why that is important for lifelong learning but what about the experiential part of the term inquiry based, experiential learning? Discover and Connect are the whys and how’s of science but now you have to put that into action through learning by doing. When I taught middle school science, I always taught my students the same information in three different ways. First we would talk about it through the inquiry phase- usually verbal and visual. Then I would use a visual aid such as a chart to teach them a concept. Finally we would do a hands-on lab or activity. This hands-on activity is the experiential aspect. Once again people are more likely to remember something they’ve experienced rather then something they’ve been told.  Plus it’s just plain fun to work with your hands! Teaching a topic in several different ways also creates a repetition in learning that covers all the different learning types; verbal, visual and experiential.

Lastly, I always practice my lessons ahead of time to work out any kinks as I’m sure many of you may also do. I create outlines for my programs that include a script so I don’t forget anything I’d like to say or cover in the program. The outline also includes the time frame I’d like to keep to and the materials I need as well as the prep work that maybe necessary for the lesson. Many times during this preparation and practice time I have additional ideas that arise to add to the lesson. It’s never a waste of time to do this prep work because you’ll be able to use the lesson with students over and over again.

Well, what DO you like to do?

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How many times have you tried to get your kids to participate in an activity that you know is very educationally important but they just aren’t interested? Usually that’s a topic that you really think has great importance in their development as individuals and yet those are the things that most of the time they think are- BORING! Unfortunately STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) topics tend to fall into the “boring” category along with the category of “definitely needs to know”. Although educators are coming up with more creative ways to teach these subjects, how do we spur continued interest in these areas, not just muster up enough energy and excitement to get through a single STEM activity?

How do we help them develop a lifelong love of learning or the confidence and interest in pursuing a STEM career?

How about starting with the question- What do you like to do? Some kids naturally like science and they are a piece of cake. They are your cheerleaders and helpers when you do a STEM activity.  Others have absolutely no interest, but believe it or not, these kids are the most fun when it comes to teaching a STEM program because your approach can be completely off the wall. These are the kids to whom you ask the question- What do you like to do?  When planning activities for kids we want to include some of what they really like and a lot of educational, leadership building lessons that we think are important. To make sure both of these goals are accomplished, have a planning day where the kids write down their top 5 favorite things to do or subjects to learn about. I can guarantee you that every one of those topics will involve a STEM concept in some way, whether you can connect it right away or not. For example, in my curriculum I use art to teach science. Why? Because I have yet to meet a kid that doesn’t like either art or science or better yet both. When you start with a topic that you know they already enjoy and then connect that topic to a STEM activity, then they will start to like STEM topics by association and they will see the sciences in a new creative way. At the very least, they will learn how the sciences are involved in what they love and how STEM topics are relevant to learn for future growth in the areas or topics they do like.

Ok, so you’ve discovered what they like to do but now you aren’t sure how to link that to a STEM genre? It’s easier than you think. There are a TON of great online resources for STEM activities. My all-time favorite is www.howtosmile.org because you can create a login. Then when you search their never- ending database of creative STEM lesson plans, you can save them in organized lists and refer back to them whenever you need ideas. Most of the activities are hands-on and easy to follow. You definitely don’t have to be a scientist to understand and facilitate the activities listed there. Another great feature is that the search engine will allow you to narrow your search in many usable ways ie: cost of the program, age group, time frame and type of activity along with subject area. This is in fact just one of many websites with similar capabilities. So take some time to get to know what your kids like to do and then get online to one of these websites and you will find it’s easy to create fun, educational STEM activities that every kid will not only enjoy but want to do more of in the future!

Encourage Don’t Dis-Courage Creative Minds

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After I graduated with my BA and MS in Biology, I hoped that I could find a career that would encompass all my passions in life, not just science but also art, cooking, design and creativity. Then one evening I was watching a reality TV show called “Work of Art” where artists compete by creating artwork based on themes thrown at them. This episode’s theme was art inspired by nature and ahah! The idea hit me that I could mix my passion for the creative arts with teaching science via cross integration of curriculum and my company Bloom was born! Bloom’s goal is to show kids that science is not a sterile, unchanging and difficult subject to learn but rather that science is creative, inspirational and can open your mind to how the world around you works!

Not only do I use art to teach science because I like art and science but I also believe that society is programmed to only see art as a hobby. A useless hobby that only if you are famously rich from your art was it worth it. I think this is one of the biggest lies society tells kids and unfortunately a lot of creative people have lost touch with their gifts or are leading unfulfilled lives because they were told that their art would be a fools choice to pursue. Just like there is science in everything we do, so also is art and in fact both bring meaning to life in different BUT equally important ways. Without creative, artistic minds in science many discoveries would not have occurred.Here are a few examples.

LEONARDO DA VINCI

Leonardo Da Vinci was an Italian Renaissance: painter, sculptor, architect, musician, scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist and writer whose genius, perhaps more than that of any other figure, epitomized the Renaissance humanist ideal. He is widely considered to be one of the greatest painters of all time and perhaps the most diversely talented person ever to have lived. Was this a coincidence that he was both a great artist and scientist? It was mostly through his artistic creations that he was able to make and explain his scientific discoveries.

CHARLES DARWIN

Another great scientist that used art was Charles Darwin. When Darwin was exploring the Galapagos Islands and contemplating his Theory of Evolution, he spent most of his time drawing what he saw, most famously finches.  There were no cameras invented to capture what he saw. Therefore being an artist was an extremely important characteristic of a scientist or as they referred to it at that time, a naturalist. Without accurate artistic depictions of the animals he observed, he would not have been able to fully contemplate or prove his hypothesis.

These are just two examples of well known scientists that used art to discover more about science and used science to be a better artist. I am sure there are many other examples from around the world that haven’t been widely discovered and discussed, many of whom would not be a scientist or artist if they hadn’t been encouraged by someone who believed in them. Mainstream society may not always show respect to art and the artist but I feel it’s so important to give these people the space, MONEY and time to fully express what they can in order for us to truly evolve and progress as people and in turn also progress in science, technology, engineering and math as well as many other important areas. This is why it’s important to encourage not dis-courage creative minds.