Dr. Kimmerer- Science Superhero!

This week, my GR!S pals and I made comic strips telling the stories of “science superheros” that we interviewed.  I created a comic strip telling Dr. Kimmerer’s story! Without further ado, here it is!

 

I believe that this story, especially told through a fun, colorful, accessible medium such as a comic strip, has the potential to inspire many young minds.  I chose to interview Dr. Kimmerer for this project as I had the pleasure of having her as my undergraduate adviser at SUNY-ESF.  During my time there, I got to know her as a compassionate, kind, principled scientist.  Her ‘superpower’ of seeing science through the lense of indigenous ways of knowing and of recognizing the human-land connection helped shape my own views on ecosystem sciences.  For my future students, Dr. Kimmerer’s story illustrates how you can integrate your own cultural ways of knowing and worldview into the science that you do.  I think this is especially important because it stops students from feeling like they have to totally assimilate to what they think a scientist is if they decide to become a scientist.  It illustrates that “scientist” is not a one-size-fits-all job title, and encourages students to personalize their path as scientists by “doing the work that only they can do”.  In particular, it is inspiring to children from backgrounds that are typically underrepresented in science.  I believe that a greater diversity of perspectives and ways of knowing in academia would work for the betterment of society, and help scientific institutions better serve traditionally marginalized groups.

If you’re interested learning more about Dr. Kimmerer’s work, she wrote a beautiful book that I HIGHLY recommend called Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, also available as an audio book read by Dr. Kimmerer herself!  You won’t regret it!

-Ellie

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The Ex-STREAM Team Gets Their Feet Wet!

The Ex-STREAM Team (Kristi, Madeleine and I) have been having a blast shaping our investigation of the water around Sodus, NY!  This week, we explored the idea of ‘storying’ our science.  Putting science into a story can be a powerful tool in communicating science to a wide audience.   We took the investigation we have done so far and turned it into a lovely little movie:

On Tuesday, we will go to Sodus Middle School to present this short film to our potential partners in this investigation, a group of rising 7th graders!  We also made this nifty infographic, to lay out our investigation simply, and in color:

We have ten minutes to introduce our investigation to our future collaborators.  Having the infographic and the movie means we can spend most of the time on active discussion with the students! We plan on starting the lesson with students brain-storming with each other in small groups about how they measure their environment, and what they can measure.  We will then present them with the infographic and movie, explaining that we want to measure the health of the water around their community, with their help!

After a quick presentation of our materials, we plan to refer to the students we are working with as our local panel of experts, asking them about the local water features.  They have spent more time in and around them than we have, after all!  We want student input on any places they are curious to test, and as they know the area they might even be able to point us in the direction of the most accessible areas!  We will then use their input to shape our camp in July.

One of the most valuable parts of ‘storying our science’ this week was simplifying the investigation to ourselves.  Putting the investigation at this level helped us to distill the ideas we had into the most concrete and important.  I think this whole process helped us gain confidence in our investigation, and has made us ready to present it to a wider, and younger, audience.

I am so excited for Tuesday!  I am curious as to how the conversation is going to go, and I am looking forward to gleaning some insights into how to best bring the science to the student.

Go Ex-STREAM Team, Go!

Ellie

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On Prairie Dogs and the formation of science identities

This week we reflected on how students form their identities, and how a student’s identity shapes how they interact with the world.  I want  to tell you a story about the formation of my identity as a scientist, and explore how I can integrate the lessons embedded in this story into my classroom.

 

 

When I was a second grader in Albuquerque, NM, A teacher of mine let it slip that the school administration was going to be poisoning the small colony of Gunnison’s Prairie Dogs that lived on the vacant lot next to our playground.   This didn’t seem right to me, so I went to the library and did some research.  What I found was that prairie dogs (of which there are five species, all native to North America), are what ecologists call a ‘keystone species’.

 

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Like the keystone in an arch, a keystone species is critical for the proper functioning of an ecosystem.  Without the keystone, the ecosystem won’t work the same. Prairie dogs dig burrows in the desert that become homes for dozens of species, from insects to birds to other mammals.   The Burrowing Owl, for example, can’t dig.  This endangered owl lives exclusively in abandoned prairie dog burrows.  North America’s most endangered mammal, the Black Footed Ferret, eats almost exclusively prairie dogs.  Both of these species, and hundreds of others, have been negatively impacted by a long history of prairie dog extermination.  According to National Geographic, it is estimated that 98% of the prairie dogs were exterminated during the 20th century.

 

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Burrowing owl, looking out of his home (built by a prairie dog)

 

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Black footed ferret, the most endangered mammal in North America

I was furious.  I took action. 

I went to the Principle with articles about the ecology of the prairie dog.  I found a non-profit organization called the Prairie Dog Pals that is dedicated to humane rescue and relocation of prairie dogs from areas where poisoning is threatened, and circulated a petition to have the prairie dogs relocated to a wildlife refuge rather than poisoned.

 It worked. 

 

The administration linked up with the Prairie Dog Pals, and the prairie dogs were relocated. This experience was formative to me in two ways:

 

  1. I connected the study of ecology to my own life, and in doing so sparked a love of biology that has been at the core of my identity ever since.
  2. I experienced the truth that we can make a difference in our world. I developed a sense of agency, the feeling that I didn’t have to be a passive observer, and that science could help me make a difference.

 

The summer before I entered high school, I began working with the Prairie Dog Pals full time. I worked on a two person field crew with a trained wildlife biologist, catching, processing, caring for, and subsequently relocating prairie dogs from around Albuquerque.  This was my life all summer, every summer, until I went off to college.   I read voraciously on my own about biology, especially about ecology, and hungered to learn everything I could.  I was sure, after all, that I was going to go to school to become a full-fledged biologist.  My identity as a scientist was locked in.

 

Ellie Coonce's portrait.

Me, with a freshly caught prairie dog, Summer of 2010, just before my senior year of high school.

 

What does my experience teach me about how to help students develop their own identities? 

I have come to realize that my science classes had very little to do with the formation of my identity as a scientist.  Most of my science classes consisted of memorizing vocabulary and concepts, and recipe-style labs.  I think that this classroom model does little to encourage students to see themselves as scientists.  I formed my identity as a scientist through participating in genuine scientific experiences in my immediate environment.  I connected my own life, my community, and my local environment to science.  I was incredibly lucky to have this experience, and it is what lead me to the career I am now pursuing.

 

I want my classroom to allow my students to have these meaningful scientific experiences within school. 

 

The question then becomes, how can I as a teacher give my students genuine scientific experiences that teach the concepts they are required to know while connecting science to their world?  In other words, how can science education Get Real!? There is no simple answer, and I plan on wrestling with the intricacies of this question for the rest of my career.  However, there are two basic strategies that I want to never lose sight of that I believe will help me achieve this goal:

 

  1. Using my student’s observations and questions as guides for our investigations, allowing them a sense of responsibility and agency over their own learning, and
  2. Teaching the concepts of biology as they relate to my students and their communities. I want to involve my students in their own physical environment as much as possible.

 

I hope that with these strategies, I can allow my students the intellectual freedom to see how they and their communities fit within the broader framework of science.

 

-Ellie

 

 

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The Adventure Begins…

What a week!

Here at the Warner School of Education in the Get REAL! Science program, I find myself immersed in a group of incredibly passionate, intelligent people who share the ethic that science education can be used as a transformative and empowering tool in the lives of young people.  For too long has science class been a collection of facts, hastily memorized over night and filled in on the bubble sheet the next morning.  This in no way mimics science, and has nothing to do with engaging with the world around you.

Science is a process that starts with curiosity. 

Scientists begin their work by asking questions.  They carefully examine whatever it is peaks their curiosity, and find ways to answer their questions through experimentation, generally collaborating with other scientists to do so.  Why is it that we don’t have student’s do that in science class?  I believe that if we did, we would have more scientists, and better ones.

Our job as science educators, therefore, is to give students the agency to engage with science in the real world.  We can do that by reclaiming their own questions, a ‘resource’ that is often squandered by modern educators.  Studies have shown that students ask less and less questions as they get older.  Chin and Osborne  (2008) postulate that this is at least partially influenced by the fact that teachers do not encourage questioning, and that developing the skill of asking good questions is not a focus of the modern classroom.

I look forward to being part of the change in the culture of science education.

Over these next 15 months at Warner,  my goal is to learn how to empower my students to wonder about their world, while simultaneously teaching them the vocabulary and concepts that they are required to know.  In this small corner of the internet, I will be blogging about my experience becoming this educator.  I plan to post weekly about the science I am teaching as well as any insights or challenges I encounter along the way.

Thanks for visiting my corner, come back soon!

Ellie

 

 

References:

Chin, C., & Osborne, J. (2008). Students’ questions: A potential resource for teaching and learning science. Studies in Science Education, 44(1), 1–39. https://doi.org/10.1080/03057260701828101

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