E-STEM – Helping Teachers Apply the Real World Into their Lessons

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Ben Klasky

I remember years ago as a 3rd grade teacher, I was so concerned about classroom safety that I spent my first months teaching students how to sit quietly at their desks. I was so nervous about losing control of the class, that I deprived them of real learning. Two decades later, my perspective has changed and the organization that I lead addresses this common classroom fear. How did my opinion change? I experienced the power of using the real-world environment in which my students live as the context for their education. 

I should clarify that “environment,” for me, is a multi-meaning word; it refers to the outdoors, but also includes any physical place (e.g. the community) in which we live. In my years of teaching and observing IslandWood’s educational programming, I’ve seen children come alive when lessons are placed in the context of their own world. There is a tangible difference in engagement between students who learn about erosion by looking at a district-provided Lucite box that is filled with sand and water, and students in our Homewaters Programs who explore real-world erosion in the stream behind their school. Studying in a real location inspires more meaningful questions than an artificial environment, and this realization is why IslandWood has, for over ten years, used the environment as the framework for our programming. Our educational philosophy is now spreading across the United States, and we are thrilled. 

The 21st century skillset is a hot topic in the world of education. Our quickly advancing world is encouraging the public education system to double-down on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) learning.  And, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) reinforce the importance of using hands-on methods and real-life situations for teaching these subjects. At IslandWood, we view STEM and NGSS merging into an interdisciplinary study we like to call E-STEM – using the Environment as the context for teaching Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. IslandWood has been modeling E-STEM for over a decade, and provides professional development workshops for teachers to give them confidence in this arena. By bringing E-STEM into schools, teachers can build science literacy and provide better learning experiences for all their students. With help from IslandWood, teachers are gaining confidence that I lacked as a new teacher many years ago, confidence to get kids up from their desks to explore and learn in the real world around them. 

[Ben Klasky was the CEO of IslandWood from 2005 to 2017.]