There is no limit to the number of strategies, techniques, and technologies that tout successful educational moments, but learning derived from the students themselves results in unparalleled outcomes. In the remote settlement of Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, students from Greenland, Denmark, and the United States gather for a three week polar science experience that exemplifies this student centered approach. A modest program with personal exploration as its central goal, connects young people with a variety of international practicing scientists. Ultimately, this program – dedicated to inspiring the next generation of polar scientists, defined by the participants, and built around its location – can provide powerful lessons in practice and pedagogy for traditional education systems.
The idea of the Joint Science Education Project (JSEP) was conceived by the Joint Committee, a high level government forum, during the International Polar Year. These diplomats recognized the value of fostering international diplomacy as well as interest in polar science. For the American contribution to the program, Dartmouth’s Institute of Arctic Studies currently collaborates on its implementation with financial support from the National Science Foundation. Over the years, the program has grown and morphed into its current rendition. Despite the evolution of the program, polar science remains the dynamic and unifying platform and student growth the primary purpose.
If allowed the opportunity, naysayers could cite many reasons why the success of JSEP is not transferable beyond Greenland’s rugged, glacier scarred landscape. So let us address the elephant in the room directly. There are many advantages for JSEP that would be – at best – challenging to reproduce in schools. JSEP selects five participants from a large pool of students from across the country, which means the American students are highly motivated and qualified; JSEP takes place in an interesting and exotic location that is difficult to get to from the U.S.; and JSEP has an enviously small student to educator ratio of about 5 students per teacher. Attributing JSEP’s successes solely to these statistics; however, prematurely overlooks the true pedagogical strengths at the heart of the program. It is JSEP’s driving philosophy that is worthy of reflection.
Lesson 1: Interdisciplinary. Using polar science as a vehicle to provide authentic field experiences opens the door to many interdisciplinary possibilities. Polar science, by its nature, connects STEM content areas. It is organized by its location rather than its subject matter. The clear distinctions between physics, biology, chemistry and earth science that are the tenants our secondary schools become blurred. Examples of research based out of Kangerlussuaq include atmospheric chemistry to measure the concentrations of gas trapped in ancient ice cores; lichenometry (using lichens as a date indicator) to calculate rates of soil erosion; and creating detailed maps of the topography beneath the glacier using various remote sensing devices.
While the connections and crossover between disciplines seems obvious from our adult perspectives, experiences like JSEP are eye opening for students who have spent their entire educational careers progressing through a series of distinct courses. More than once, students share personal epiphanies noting “I had no idea I could combine physics and chemistry into one career.” While comments such as these showcase the success of JSEP, more troubling they highlight the failures of our current educational systems.
In addition to the intersections between science disciplines, the polar regions also provide opportunities to insert elements of the humanities including social sciences, government, history, and the arts. Students contemplate current issues such as mining rights as the ice sheet retreats and Greenland struggles to gain political and financial independence from Denmark. Students connect with locals to learn about the traditional use of native plants for medicinal purposes as well as consumption. JSEP also draws on the diverse perspectives provided by the international delegation of students to enhance understanding and communication about environmental change in the polar regions.
Lesson 2: Varied Expertise. Scientists, clumped as a homogeneous group, carry the reputation as challenged communicators. Sharing complex concepts with audiences of varied backgrounds is difficult for any presenter; and yet, there are assumptions that as professionals, scientists will excel at this skill for which they receive minimal training.
Science teachers have backgrounds in STEM content. As college graduates, often holding degrees in the sciences, these teachers work to balance their understanding of content with mastery of pedagogy. During summer months and professional development days, occasional courses or conferences focused on their content areas are squeezed in between the improving best practices in education and their personal lives. Maintaining a current license requires evidence of continued learning in their subject matter, but this patchwork of courses and credits can never provide the same level of familiarity as with scientist dedicated to their research.
JSEP brings together these groups of specialized experts – high school STEM educators, Dartmouth faculty, and graduate students. This international collaborative team uses the graduate students’ research as the seed from which to build rich meaningful curriculum. The teachers help with the development of the lessons and support graduate students with the implementation. It is mutually beneficial as the graduate students gain experience communicating their research through direct instruction and through guiding students’ independent field work.
Lesson 3: Student driven. On the very first day of JSEP students walk along a ridge in small groups and record as many observations and questions about the environment as possible. The walk ends on the top of a bluff providing 360 degree views of the valley. The graduate students meet the group and from the vantage point use natural landscapes to give brief introductions to their research. With small teams of students rotating through these stations, students gain confidence to ask questions and connect with the researchers.
Following this day of exploration, students write three questions they are interested in pursuing. Their questions are not required to mirror the graduate students research exactly, rather the idea is to tap their own interests and quandaries and pair them with the most relevant graduate student.
Based on the students’ questions new groups are established with each graduate student working with between 3 and 4 students. The goal for each group is to develop a question, follow the scientific method and produce an end product that will communicate their discoveries to the public (each group shares their work with international travelers at the Kangerlussuaq airport). The graduate students mentor the students. This includes working directly with the students to develop reasonable, attainable questions, traveling into the field to collect data and checking in with their group through the analysis process.
Allowing students the freedom to explore their own questions and then providing them the time, space, and support in order to become experts themselves results in unique and informative student produced products. There is deep understanding, strong sense of ownership, and excitement for polar sciences. On the end of the program survey students’ comments included, “This was the first time was I was trusted to ask my own questions.” “I loved working with scientists in the field. They were all so helpful and inspiring.”
It is not a new realization that providing students with opportunities to explore their own interests and deliberately integrating subject matters produces positive results in both learning and engagement. The problem is more schools, courses, and programs, need to move beyond reading and talking about these philosophies and to begin adopting and implementing them as pillars in their programs. This best practice cannot be a special day before a vacation or occasional events sporadically appearing throughout the year, rather it should be the center of planning and collaborating for teachers. JSEP provides another example of creative and committed educators working along scientists to promote STEM in the next generation.
Look beyond the spectacular backdrops in these pictures and see the faces of students connecting with their learning in engaging and interesting ways. Schools do not need to have ice sheets in their backyards to recreate this environment. Educators need to tap into what they do have. Their communities do have institutes of higher learning with a pool of potential near peer mentors.
Their schools do have a natural world with interesting possibilities to explore just beyond their student and faculty parking lots. Their courses do have numerous links to other content areas, current events and local issues. And ultimately their students do have interesting questions to investigate, they have the capability of collaborating and seeing projects through fruition, and they have the potential to become truly engaged and inspired by their own learning.
Erica Wallstrom is in the 2014 Cohort of Rowland Fellows and is working with her fellow Fellow on developing Rutland High School’s Global Issues Network (GIN) – which strives to mentor and motivate youth to take informed, thoughtful and sustainable actions to address the most pressing global issues.
Through the integration of academic disciplines GIN will foster communication, design solutions, participation, and understanding when grappling with complex issues that result from both the actions and inactions of students.