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April 19, 2022

A multi-ethnic group of elementary school children are outdoors on a sunny day. They are wearing casual clothing. They are learning about nature in science class. A girl is using a magnifying glass to look for bugs.Have students noticed new weeds growing in the schoolyard? Does a bridge across the street have support beams at an unusual angle? Is there an odd discoloration of a highway retaining wall where water seeps through? There are lessons in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) all around us! Solving mysteries in their own backyards helps students discover how relevant science is to their own lives. It’s not just for college professors and lab techs in white coats — though you may put students on the path to becoming one through meaningful experiences!

The Future of Science Starts With History

Students might not realize how much science is about history — natural history. What are the past and present geological and biological features of your region? If there are radical differences among the natural environments around your state (like deserts, grasslands, mountains, lakes, and beaches), what’s the significance of those differences?  What’s their effect on your state’s social, political, and economic development? Learning about the natural history of your region can be exciting for students, and it can lead to rich exploration. You might have a museum of natural history in your area where students can see replicas of the ice caps that once covered your part of the country not so very long ago, or of wooly mammoths or even dinosaurs that once stood in the very place where they are standing. Also consider partnering with your local park services, private-practice environmental scientists, university extension offices, geological societies, and publicly and privately maintained hiking trails, waterways, campgrounds, and other outdoor venues. Each of these likely has professionals who are eager to share their knowledge of local natural history. Be sure to check out Y4Y’s course on strategic partnerships and related tools if forming new partnerships is uncharted territory for your program. A few of the most relevant tools are called out in a companion blog post this month: Place-Based Learning in Career Pathways.

Remember to communicate with school-day educators so your efforts are supporting their science curriculum. Here are just a few examples of natural history learning that can be supported with place-based exploration in your area:

  • Plant reproduction: Take a walk right outside your program door. Are weeds growing in unusual places, such as gutters or cracks in the sidewalk? If nowhere near a parent plant, how might the seeds have traveled to those locations? Are the plants native or invasive? Who decides if something’s a plant vs. a weed? What might students guess about how much water is available in the area, now and in the past? Considering the biological future of your region, how important is it for these species of plants that the same level of water be consistently available? Is anything threatening that?
  • Geology: Is there any new construction happening in your area? With appropriate permissions and safety precautions, can you visit a construction site where the earth has been dug away? What do the students notice about changes in color as the hole deepens, and what does that mean about the history of that place? Do you have hills or mountains in the area that can be seen on a short walk? Ask students to imagine what the ground beneath their feet might have looked like millions of years ago before the tectonic plates collided. Once they’ve gained that personal observation of the results of tectonic plate movement, what do they imagine the place will look like in another million years?
  • Climate change: Yes, climate change is as old as the earth itself. But is it possible that humans are speeding it up? What do your students notice about the air quality today? How about yesterday? Try taking a photo of the same spot on the horizon each day at the same time, and ask students to judge if it looks the same from day to day, week to week. They can also use the U.S. Department of Environmental Protection’s AirNow.gov website to check the daily Air Quality Index for their zip code.

Putting the TEM in STEM

Science is just one quarter of STEM learning. Rural programs might have an edge over urban programs in terms of access to nature, but urban programs may be surrounded by wonders of human engineering! Potential partners for direct learning and activity ideas include engineering firms, your local government planning department, technology companies, technical schools, and a host of professional organizations. Here are just a few examples of place-based exploration and activity ideas you can consider in either rural or urban programs:

  • Follow the rainwater: Ask students if they’ve ever watched rainwater collect along the road and flow in what direction? Downhill, of course. (Hello gravity!) How far apart are grates placed? Do students think they might be more or less spaced out in the desert? In Seattle? Have they ever noticed that all roads are concave? All of that was engineered intentionally! What would happen if it hadn’t been?
  • Parking problems: Try measuring an unused section of your program parking lot and counting the parking spots. Are lines at right angles or at diagonals? Do students believe the designer could have gotten more or fewer spaces by laying it out the opposite way? Can you find a formula online for improving your parking lot? So much math! Check out Y4Y’s resources for project-based learning as you set out on this activity!
  • Green means go: Stand at your nearest traffic light and have a pair of students time and record the lights in opposing directions. Have other students count how many cars go through each light, and how many “get stuck.” Ask them to look closely at the lights to see if they can tell whether they might have sensors to help traffic flow in a logical way. Invite your city technology planners to explain the system and allow students to discuss their guesswork and offer their ideas on how to improve the system!

As you plan for place-based STEM learning in your program through these and even more ambitious ideas, be sure to access Y4Y’s STEAM course and course resources. The design thinking framework will have greater impact on students when they identify STEM-related problems and propose solutions for them in the very place where they live and learn.

As Paul Gruchow writes in Discovering the Universe of Home, “The great spectacles of nature, of fire and wind, of rain and ice, of heat and cold, of metamorphosis, of birth and death, of struggle and decay, of quiet and beauty visit alike the prairies of southwestern Minnesota and the boroughs of New York City…. What happens when you apply the imaginations of history to the events of any place, however small, is that its connections with all the rest of the universe then come into view.”