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’.
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.
Burrowing owl, looking out of his home (built by a prairie dog)
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.
The administration linked up with the Prairie Dog Pals, and the prairie dogs were relocated. This experience was formative to me in two ways:
- 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.
- 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.
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:
- 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
- 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.