Three angles on sustainability education from the 2016 STEM Videohall

The STEM for All 2016 Video Showcase repays a re-visit. The archive of 156 videos invite reflection on trends, themes, and strategies.  I went there to spend some virtual time with teaching and learning, colleagues and ideas.  After sorting on various themes and categories, I found myself returning to three videos which represent three different strategies for “sustainability education”  — I use the scare quotes because, though useful, the label is to me a faint and colorless pointer to a very rich landscape of ideas, activities, and implications.

The first video I encountered was “Exploring systems thinking in Connected Worlds.”  from the NY Hall of Science (and other partners). The project has designed and installed a supremely interactive and imaginative environment at the Hall, intended to help visitors (especially children) begin to think in terms of systems as they explore, modify, and in part construct fanciful ecosystems which nevertheless obey real ecosystem constraints.  The visitors are invited to observe and interact with  its dreamlike and beautiful organisms and landscapes, and engaged with the challenge of maintaining or establishing “balance” in the systems.  The learning about function & process is thus interwoven with the activity of caring for the systems, first and foremost by seeing what makes for the flourishing or failing of specific organisms, groups, or landscape features — and coming to see how nothing in these systems can be cared for or even understood in isolation.   The video is so charming that it almost makes me want to go to New York City to see the installation.

Stop #2 on my little tour was at the video for “Teaching Environmental Sustainability with Model My Watershed” (TES-MMW), from the Stroud Water Research Center, Concord Consortium, and Azavea, an R&D organization focusing on geospatial data applications.  The project is intended, as the video abstract says, to develop “interdisciplinary, place-based, problem-based, hands-on set of resources, models and tools…to promote geospatial literacy and systems thinking.”  In the context of realistic decisions about resource management and watershed health. students can collect data at sites within their watershed (using probes connected to mobile devices),  and import that data into a rich computational environment which allows them to visualize, analyze the data, and investigate dynamics (including possible management decisions) in a modeling system that makes use of the data they have collected, in the context of other data sets, taking into account landscape features at different scales.

My final Sustainability stop was at “Back to the earth- Y3.” This project, conducted by a partnership of the University of Idaho, and the Spokane and Coeur d’Alene tribes, has multiple STEM learning goals.  The science is set in the context of the indigenous cultures’ identification and interaction with the landscape and the organisms upon it.  Knowledge and understanding of the ecological systems is integrated with song, narrative, and indigenous science knowledge and management methods.  The students see how the Spokane and Coeur d’Alene are themselves participants in the system very directly.  Mobile devices are used in the field and in the classroom, but so are nondigital tools for observation, collection, analysis, aquaculture,  and construction (constructing understanding, but also dwellings, nets, etc.).  Personal investment is an explicit part of the experience — in a clip from a field trip, we hear the leader encourage them to pay attention to their inner response to what they’re encountering:  “It’s important to let that heart piece come through…What parts of the whole ecosystem here are making our hearts sing?”

These three videos make for interesting contrasts along many dimensions.  All the projects aim to increase students’ understanding of STEM ideas, by direct engagement with complex, dynamic systems in which the students have some personal stake. I ended up thinking about these dimensions: Virtual vs actual;  the where of place (fantasy in Connected Worlds, subject-object in TES-MMW, place-of-identity in Back to the earth); the role of technology (highest in Connected Worlds, essential/constructive in TES-MMW, supportive/instrumental in Back to the Earth).

 

“Back to the Earth” engages the children at many levels of personal identity, so that the project activities awaken or connect to the feeling of the landscape as an extension of the self.  This I recognize, growing up in a landscape of Maine forest, field, and tidal water which I can still feel, though I haven’t lived there in 40 years. The visceral feeling of interdependence can be a powerful motivation for inquiry and for conservation.  Maps, hand-lenses, aerial photos, soil tests, and other scientific representations add layers of meaning — and provide the basis for comparison with other landscapes.

TES-MMW uses rich technical tools to build knowledge and insight, and one can imagine that the modeling system is the place where the students get a feeling for what their watershed is, as they can “see” it (both the “natural” and the built elements) at the scale of pH or DO measurements, soil characteristics, or landscape features of boundaries, corridors, edges, and various compositional elements.  Identification can help drive the inquiry, or can grow as a result of the inquiry (“from the outside in,” so to speak).  The technology is an integrated meditational environment, necessary to the learning goals of the project.  The whole watershed is not directly experienced, but sampled (by visits as well as measurements), with the modeling system allowing a fuller representation than the field trips and data-collection could provide.

In contrast to the other two projects, in which the environment is “out there,” and the students go to it, draw from it, etc., Connected Worlds is the environment, the locus of experience, and in that sense the wonderful technology is largely invisible, and not instrumental.  Its imaginative and dynamic elements are deeply rooted in the way we have learned that systems operate, so that the fantasy world is in effective continuity with the “real” world, but simplified enough that it can be learned and learned about fairly quickly.  You can’t “identify” with it, in the sense that you see it as connected to your understanding of self — except in the ways that art can always involve those who experience it.   What are the links that the children see to the landscapes in which they live, day to day?  Do the dynamics and patterns of Connected Worlds enable them to see (experience) their landscape in new ways (I am trying to avoid the dread word “transfer”)?

One final note:  Part of the framing for all of these projects is caring, nurturing agency, supported or enabled by knowledge, reflection, and investigative method. This is “engagement” but not only to motivate learning content.  It seems to me that the fundamental “methods” here, and shared across all these very different experiences, are getting-to-know, and story-building.   These can involve (sometimes must involve) quantitative learning and knowing, but also, and deeply, qualitative understanding.  This makes sense to me:  identity, inquiry, and agency come together for me in two qualitative puzzles:  What sort of a world is this, anyway? and What is to be done?

 

 

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