Creating Authentic STEM Experiences in Schools to Meet the Challenges Facing our Planet

Kate Schafer and Christopher Spenner, The Harker School, San Jose, CA, United States
A field study of the human connection to nature helps students to see big connections and opportunities for change in macroscopic systems, while the adventure of travel and sharing stories with new people can motivate more immediate changes in the students’ lives. In the summers of 2017 and 2019, we taught Human Ecology: Our Place in Nature as a one-semester science credit for high school sophomores, juniors, and seniors. We split three weeks between northern coastal California and Southeast Alaska, exploring the interconnected topics of agriculture and migrant labor, fisheries and ecosystem management, and clean energy and transportation. We prioritized direct student engagement with the people, institutions, and natural environment of each location. Students processed their experiences and new knowledge through interdisciplinary projects, select readings, regular journaling, and classroom activities. Through their shared journaling and projects, we find that students critically question their prior education, both in terms of content (such as the history of native civilizations) and methodology (indirect experience and learning from authority). They reconsider their educational goals and possible career paths, and they become more active in local communities. As teachers, we stepped away from our respective areas of expertise to practice our own curiosity and critical thinking, demonstrating how we learn from new experiences. In this session, we will share our collaborative approach, curriculum resources, samples of student projects, and reflections on transferability to academic-year teaching.