Last summer, I was lucky to be involved in Iowa State University’s Office of Precollegiate Programs for Talented and Gifted (OPPTAG) Summer Exploration Program. The Exploration Program offers students entering grades 8-12 the opportunity to discover new and exciting areas of study not traditionally emphasized in school curriculums. During the week-long program, students are fully immersed in their chosen study, working from 8:30 am to 4 pm, with an additional hour of homework each night. Though there is certainly time for meeting new friends and fun evening activities, the students’ primary focus is academics.
As an instructor, I chose to design and teach a course called, “Sustainable Science: The Future of Food, Energy, and Water.” The main components of the course included: (1) defining and understanding the concept of sustainability; (2) learning and applying a systems approach to addressing complex, wicked problems; (3) gaining context with respect to food, energy, and water systems through hands-on activities and field trips to local sites (e.g., Ames Water Treatment Plant, Iowa State University Dairy Farm, Food at First Community Garden, BioCentury Research Farm); and (4) using critical-thinking, analytical, and synthesis skills to develop a hypothetical sustainable landscape using the newly released PEWI model.
Taking a step back, it may seem a bit unclear why a PhD student is spending valuable summer research hours working with middle and high school-aged students; after all these precious summer days are critical for completing field work, for progressing through research goals, and for catching up on that ever-growing reading list. But, teaching these young minds may be one of the most important things that I did last summer. It is these curious, inquisitive faces that are the future of our field, more importantly, of our planet – and it is critical to begin cultivating the passion, skills, and perseverance that will be required of these students to continue our journey toward a more environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable future.
To create that excitement, which will encourage the perseverance to learn new skills, I incorporated techniques that allow students to take a more active role. We pursued learning avenues that allowed students the opportunity to retain information while tapping the diverse suite of strengths that each student brings to the classroom. For example, in my class students had little lecture and few readings, and when I did use lecture or readings to communicate material, the material was always reinforced with discussion and team-based activities (excellent opportunities for teaching others!). In addition, students actively practiced doing using PEWI; designing sustainable landscapes using the model allowed students to apply their knowledge in practice. By talking at students less and engaging in conversation and practice more, students took a more active and enthusiastic role in creating a learning environment that fostered their own development and success.
In addition to engaging young students using alternative teaching methods, there is also a deep need to encourage and facilitate the pursuit of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields in post-secondary students. As noted in this Science Magazine piece from 2012, we still are not doing a good enough job of ensuring the success of STEM students, particularly the underrepresented minority (women, racial, and ethnic minorities). In fact, less than half of the three million students who enter college with the intent of majoring in a STEM field graduate with a degree in STEM. Many of us in academia should rapidly recognize that a success rate, a grade, of less than 50% is not passing; we are failing at producing the scientists, mathematicians, and engineers required to ensure a sustainable future.
So, what can be done? Much like techniques for primary and secondary students, we may need to take a look outside of our normal lens and take advantage of underemphasized tools to ensure the success of our students. According to the Science article, ensuring that students have early access to research opportunities, demanding that introductory courses utilize active learning rather than passive learning (e.g., lectures where just 5% of material is retained), and requiring enrollment in STEM learning communities (opportunities for discussion and teaching peers) are possible steps to create a culture of success among STEM undergraduate students.
We need these young, brilliant minds in order to progress toward a more environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable future. The success of our common future depends on their education – and we need to do better to make certain that the education that we are providing is not only rigorous, but engaging and exciting. Poet W.B. Yeats once said, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” So let’s light the fire!