There’s that trite saying that flows along the lines of “if you aren’t upset, you aren’t paying attention.” I’d thought I was one of those paying attention, a science teacher driven to give students every opportunity to apply their learning to current issues facing humanity - until a recent visit to Biosphere 2.
This hyper-glassed behemoth, initially an incredibly expensive, failed experiment to show that humans could thrive in self-contained technology from the 1990s that became a unique research facility that strives to host cutting-edge research in global scientific issues, was a destination on my recent Spring Break. I wanted to visit the 40-acre campus to learn from the L.E.O. Project, see established olla farming in action, and check in on the only 1,900m2 rainforest to be found in the Sonoran Desert. With future project-based learning (PBL) units in mind, I was looking for real-world applications to bring into the classroom. I left with a newfound sense of urgency.
Taking the tour through the residential areas, labs, five biomes, gargantuan lungs, and solar panel fields, our tour guide shared snippets of recent research findings along with the history of the location. He shared that during one study, scientists raised the level of carbon dioxide to above 900ppm, the level anticipated by the end of this century, and the plants began to shutdown. The plants were unable to provide the necessary filtration effects that are the work of the Amazon rainforest, demonstrating the relatively imminent jeopardy of our planet. Our tour also included a study of a species of coral that may have developed nitrogen adaptations in cooler waters, the role of the rapidly disappearing mangrove wetlands as the kidneys of our environment, and how planting food crops under solar panels can significantly lower the operating temperature while improving and extending use. The theme among these studies was the same: if we do not take significant, timely steps toward change, we will careen over the sustainability tipping point.
As I noted above, if you want to find a reason for increased science education, you need only study national news sites, read up on legislative session agendas, visit hospital wards, or perhaps consider your own experience. If you are paying attention, you know we have an urgent, ever-expanding need.
That need is for all of our students to become scientists. All.
They say we are all, initially at least, born scientists. We hypothesize based on patterns we recognize, test our questions, examine our results, and repeat. Then, somehow over the course of our young lives we get in the habit of doing less of that, or none at all. We, the folks living on this planet, have a time-bound chance to make a difference.
My argument? Public education has the opportunity, and in more ways than not the responsibility, to affect student engagement in taking care of our natural world. There's a role for all of us in that care, and the diversity of our future workforce and its involvement in that care is essential to success.
I think that all educators know this, and that it is a multi-disciplinary stance. Through increasingly inclusive teaching methodologies that put students in the driver seats of their future and honor their influence and contribution, we are infusing an often stagnant industry with professionals that truly believe that, with access, today’s students will be empowered to form their own conclusions, build innovations, and solve problems they did not create..
This argument comes with a range of application. We absolutely need people in our future workforce to delve deeply into the biomedical, electrochemical, and climatological fields, continuing the academically-rich, scientific involvement nurtured in K-12 classrooms. We also need other students to leave those classrooms with the same skill set as their STEM career-seeking counterparts, even though theyenter non-STEM pathways. I argue our future depends on it.
This will take some elbow grease on our part, yet I can’t think of a better impetus.
Worth the (digital) paper
In Washington, we have the WSSLS, our adopted version of the Next Generation Science Standards. Our state rolled out the adoption over a several year plan, knowing the change deserved a focused plan of implementation to support fidelity. Many years in, we as educators have the opportunity to go back and read the materials as a collection again, reconsider the why behind the DCIs, CCCs, and SEPs, again, and otherwise revisit what we might not have considered as a whole as we focused on our gradeband and/or specific discipline.
Once you’ve grounded yourself in the 30,000’ view, get to know each student and their plans as deeply as you can. Develop learner profiles, spend time talking with their families, and turn over control of their learning anytime you find the opportunity. Ask. Listen. Deliver. Then, when you’ve shared that excellent leveled reading, algorithmic tool, or carefully curated project, check in again. Where did you meet needs and where did you miss them? Learn, rinse and repeat. Assessment is learning, for both you and each student, and will keep both of you on your toes. To make headway in environmental crises with exponential growth we need to repeatedly measure progress with the presumption that change to our best-laid intentions is beneficial, expected, and imperative.
Walk the talk
There’s often that stinging moment when conversing with adults when I hear “Well I wasn’t a good science student…” as an explanation for a student’s current progress. The way we speak to and about students as learners either helps or hinders our work, and it’s past time to flip the script solely to the positive.
The first move is to check our own language. Regardless of teaching assignment, how do you talk about science? You cannot fully support an individual in reaching their potential if you aren’t cognizant of the many ways societal programs and programming interrupt that support. In your buildings, is science learning accessible to all students and to the same degree? How are curriculum days and family events structured to include emphasis on science learning? There are fantastic efforts out there to encourage students to see themselves and a wider range of others as scientists and add to their list of role models. Changes are made through concerted efforts of people willing to turn tides, not float along with them. While you’re at it, apply these concepts to your self-talk, too. Educators who know their worth are best poised to bring out the same in students.
Next, find ways to create an integrated learning experience in which the language of science is accessible to all. Science News for Students and Newsela are just two resources to put current issues and actions in the hands of youth. Whatever their future career, your students need strong abilities in science literacy to buttress their involvement in and support of effective change. Notice and Note for nonfiction is just one toolset that bolsters accessibility to text materials. Whichever tools you use, employ them systemically to give students a strategy to take with them into their adult worlds.
I also challenge that finding a common language in your school community, one that creates natural, cultural connections with science, will further influence levels of learning. In my classroom at a STEM school, I purposefully employ Computational Thinking vocabulary and concepts to link everything from science exploration to social-emotional learning, as I noticed students naturally making those connections without a frame. Tying concepts together in this way can support neural pathways that just might fire more efficiently toward to a breakthrough.
Lastly, bring others in to share in the effective communication on a scale that enables an effective shift. Whether with colleagues or the community, lean into challenging conversations and find opportunities to model that process for students.
Tell (your) stories
Recent headlines alerted us to the first virtual images of a black hole through the diligent work of a dedicated scientist, Katie Bouman. As news coverage flooded in, my students read about the achievement and the work that went into the discovery. Seeing the giddy face of Dr. Bouman, one student remarked, “I think I know how she feels, it’s like when something really good happens and you just can’t believe it happened to you.” My students, emerging computer scientists, saw something of themselves in this newly-famous expert.
When we explore science discovery, whether in an interdisciplinary project in which students explore a timeline of innovative breakthroughs, proud presentations of their prototype collection alongside a completed success, or use of virtual reality to bring history to the user, students have opportunities to make science their own through involvement and ownership in how the world works. Further, giving students the opportunity to work with scientists in their community and create their own authentic artifacts of their learning will help bring the onus home.
Lastly, don't forget that you, too, are a scientist. Where have you gone? What did you see? What were you thinking during the experience?
As a teacher, it can be easy to look backward or jump forward on a student’s timeline of education and place blame, identify exhaustion, and otherwise remove ourselves from the ultimate outcomes of students’ education. I’ve caught myself doing that before, and while the temporary relief of assigning myself only a small role in my students’ experience in the education system temporarily relieved me of guilt, that relief was faulty and short-lived, so I left it far behind. I have the ability to make a difference in our world by capacitating youth with a science skill set that will produce literate, caring, and empowered adults. I can and will continue to look for inroads and engage my community with increased responsibility.
Wherever you are in this cyclical, continuum of instruction and learning, I seek to light a proverbial fire under your feet. There are actions we can all put in play to support our learners as they quite possibly must save us from ourselves. The leadership of all educators, families, and community members is essential to facilitating, mobilizing, and cheerleadingf our youth as they wow us with their outstanding accomplishments and collective momentum in the sciences.
We need all of them. Every. Single. Scientist.