Minnesota high school science teacher Paul Peña, EdD, uses photographs taken during his world travels to stimulate inquiry in his classes. Here he is shown at about 19,000 feet above sea level on Mount Cotopaxi in Ecuador.
“I love world travel and living and have used these experiences to get my students to ask the ‘right’ questions so we can dive into the text and other resources for the answer[s],” says Paul Peña, EdD, a Project Based Learning advisor and biology and chemistry teacher at Broadway High School for Pregnant and Parenting Students at Longfellow in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
“I show [students] a photo…of a man on a snow-capped mountain [Mount Cotopaxi in Ecuador], where the person is obviously way up in altitude with the cloud deck below,” then show them “photos of an active volcanic caldera, glaciers, climbing equipment, [and so on]. I reveal that the climber is none other than me! Story time begins, and that’s when I get them to inquire about the dots that are not quite connecting for those of us here in Minnesota [who] don’t have mountains to climb.”
His students pepper him with questions, he reports. “‘What was it like up there?’ ‘It looks cold, but that mountain is on the equator; what gives?’ ‘Weren’t you afraid you were going to die or get hurt?’ ‘Why don’t we have volcanoes here in Minneapolis?’ ‘If that summit is at 19,000+ feet above sea level, what is our elevation, and does that matter?’ ‘I heard there used to be a huge mountain range in Minnesota a long time ago. Where did they go? How?’” He responds by instructing them “to look to the texts, internet research, projects, [and other sources] to find the answers” and in the process, he adds, he is able to “meet standards/learning targets in the curriculum.”
What is important, he contends, is “they created the questions that they wanted to know the answers to, and I got them interested because they saw their teacher on a mountain. I have done similar things with experiences with silverback gorillas in eastern Congo, battles with tapeworm in my body during my stint in the U.S. Peace Corps, [and time spent] swimming with sharks and seals in the Galapagos Islands.”
“My trips have provided many connections and resources that offer my students and others multiple opportunities to experience real-world science,” maintains Michelle Brand-Buchanan, assistant director of University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s UALRTeach teacher education program and a former Louisiana middle level science teacher. “Before my trip to Antarctica, my students…questioned why they needed to know anything about a place they don’t even look for on a globe or isn’t represented on some maps. I now have personal stories to engage them; they are more curious, and they want to know everything from survival training to personal hygiene to how we drilled through ice,” she notes.
In the Czech Republic, Brand-Buchanan toured an old silver mine. She filmed the entire tour and showed clips from the film to her students. “The teachable moment came when a student asked how we get metals while we were studying minerals. The look on their faces when they saw a single lantern and heard banging on the wall of a cavern to ‘hear’ the location of the silver in the rock was priceless. They could not believe that people worked and still work in conditions similar to this,” she relates.
“My experiences provide real data for my students to manipulate,” observes Brand-Buchanan. “[On] every trip, I record the basic weather data (temperature, precipitation, cloud coverage, wind speed and direction) for the country I am currently in.” Back in the classroom, “I introduce the weather I recorded. This transition to graphing and analyzing data is easy [for students] because it has relevancy.”
Learning From Teachers
“About 10 years ago I joined the Peace Corps and consequently worked in Thailand for two years,” says Laurie Bissonette, science department chair at Sage Ridge School in Reno, Nevada. “My project was to teach student-centered teaching techniques to K–12 teachers in Thai public schools by demonstrating the techniques to teachers while teaching classes of Thai students,” she notes.
Bissonette says she learned from the Thai teachers “that understanding student culture and community culture is important in how topics are taught. Thai teachers use cultural context to give common ground to new ideas. I learn about my students so that I can find common ground for them between the concepts I teach and their own life experiences.”
She continues, “In the relatively poor village where I worked in Thailand, teachers know the importance of education to the students’ futures, and their dedication to helping these students is inspiring. The teachers I worked with were always well-prepared and took their avocations very seriously. I hope I also keep the students’ futures firmly in mind as I work with them each day, and that I always realize how important a thing [that] may seem small to me may be to a student.”
Some educators have taken students with them on international learning adventures. Several years ago, Amy Alexander and the Spanish teacher in a rural Ohio school district organized a trip to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands for some students. Alexander, a former high school science teacher and now an assistant professor of education at Trine University in Angola, Indiana, says, “Of course, Galapagos was amazing. Just the bus ride from the dock to Puerto Ayora demonstrated dramatic changes in climate as we drove over the elevated center of the island of Santa Cruz. The environmental differences in just a 45-minute bus ride helped [students] understand the great diversity of the islands and appreciate the diversity of wildlife that had evolved to live in each of these vastly different environments.”
She has used photos and video taken on the trip to teach science concepts. “I ended up with three videos of water flowing down a drain north, south, and on the equator. A powerful demonstration of the Coriolis effect [a deflection of moving objects when they are viewed in a rotating reference frame]!
“I also captured some pretty amazing footage of blue-footed boobies feeding. I have shown it to classes to demonstrate that if a bird is not very good at judging distance or depth of water, death (and removal from the gene pool) would certainly happen at a young age. Students seem to really understand the aspects of variation and survival with this video.”
In Spring 2008, when Loraine Snead was teaching science at Wilmington Friends School in Wilmington, Delaware, she and a colleague took seven students on a two-week visit to India. Snead, now an adjunct chemistry instructor at Widener University in Chester, Pennsylvania, says the trip’s purpose was “to learn about the differences in the educational system in the state of Madhya Pradesh by interacting with youth and adults in private and public schools, churches, and Friends Meeting houses in both New Delhi and Bhopal. Our goal was to engage in service, but also to learn more about the various ways in which activism can be [used] to achieve a diverse array of social justice issues.”
One stop on the trip was the site of a chemical disaster. “As many will recall, in 1984, there was a toxic gas leak of methyl isocyanate (an intermediate substance used in the manufacture of a pesticide) from [the-] then Union Carbide Corporation in Bhopal. Although it was deemed unwise to walk around the industrial area and take pictures, we looked at it from afar,” Snead relates. “We were allowed to visit a nearby clinic that specialized in treating victims of the original catastrophe, as well as those affected by secondhand contact, including spouses and children...We saw firsthand how the chemical disaster could still evoke strong emotions in India several decades later.”
They then traveled to a location “far out from any major populated area in Madhya Pradesh,” where they “engaged in conversation and saw the need for people living in remote villages to advocate for legal rights to their land and also to fight for the basic needs of life: food, water, and shelter,” she reports. “The experience in the villages demonstrated the stark contrast between the students’ westernized upbringing and the villagers’ fight for survival and subsistence,” Snead recalls.
“The struggle for basic necessities was not only present in the outskirts of Madhya Pradesh, but also incredibly apparent within India’s larger cities,” she points out. “In New Delhi, one of most disheartening realizations for both the students and teachers was the widespread lack of education for all children.” This was especially apparent during a visit to Nai Disha, a nonprofit elementary school for street children. “The students we traveled with spent a day with these children, teaching school lessons and volunteering to help with lunch and playtime.”
Moved by their experiences, Snead says the American students “took this lesson to heart. Focusing on the Nai Disha School, they created a sister-school project, and annually fundraise to help send more New Delhi children to school.”