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Reflections from an EPI Teacher Fellow: Exploration & Science Education

A single week of travel can transform your teaching and help you see environmental issues through a different perspective.

It's amazing what happened when I moved out of my comfort zone, stepped into the shoes of a student, and immersed myself in research in a secluded environment. Ecology Project International's Teacher Fellowship was one of the most transformative weeks that I have ever spent, and has reminded me of five important ideas about science education.

1. Exploration

Science should be fun. Humans are naturally curious about the world, and we naturally love to explore, interact, categorize, and share about what we find. We were given ample time to experience the ecosystems as we searched the bay, beaches, dunes, and mangroves. We didn’t have to worry about having the “right” answers; we all celebrated every treasure that was found in a safe supportive environment.

2. Practice

The night before we went out to collect the turtles we were told how to take all of the measurements, and we practiced doing it on sand castles that looked like turtles. Even with all of this preparation, I was surprised with how nervous I was as we first collected data on a real turtle. It was really helpful for me to remember what students must feel when they are starting to do a lab that they have been told about but have not yet completed.

3. Place-Based Education

I’m afraid that many of the topics my students have had to learn in the past in my classes might have seemed alien and unimportant. I need to provide opportunities for my students to connect with the world around them. The time we took to observe a sea turtle as she moved back out to sea, a gray whale playing with her cub, or feeling the movement of the water as I swam next to a whale shark taught me more than I could get from reading a book.

4. Reflection

There were a couple of times that I felt completely saturated with new information and was really hungering for time to journal so that I could process what I had learned. Our leaders were amazing at taking the pulse of the group and adapting events to help us really enjoy and deepen our experience. It was a good reminder to me that students need time to process information and build connections with things they already understand.

5. Environmental Change/Service

Whenever possible, it is important to include opportunities for the students to actively engage in social justice issues as they learn about issues in their classes. Taking an afternoon to pick up trash as we walked along the beach was a much longer lasting lesson than if we had read about the effect of pollution on marine life.

This EPI trip has given me time to refocus my classes to allow the joy of discovery, service, and reflection to lead to the ultimate goal: to change the perspective and behavior of my students, so that they evaluate and act on everything in their life with a critical eye, using real science-based evidence to make reasonable claims and to make a difference in the world.

About the Author

Heather Essig, a former EPI Teacher Fellow, teaches Advanced Placement College Credit Biology and 6th grade science at Visitation Academy - Saint Louis. She creates interactive experiences where students get to experiment, question, and model. She is a true believer in outdoor education and is looking forward to increasing the opportunities for her students to do science in new environments.

EPI is pleased to offer a variety of PD programs for teachers, including scholarships for professional development and continuing education credit from the University of Hamline. Most Fellows in the 2021 program received EPI funding to subsidize the cost of tuition. Applications are now open for 2022 Teacher Fellowships in Costa Rica, Yellowstone, and Baja Mexico. Learn more and apply today.

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