Category Archives: Education

Connecting With Nature

At the recent CoSN conference, I attended a spotlight session presented by Dr. Milton Chen that focused on outdoor, experiential learning opportunities, mostly through the national parks. Sadly, Dr. Chen had, along with many others, resigned from the National Park Service education advisory board after being ignored in their efforts to engage with the new administration.

But, he remained passionate about the possibilities of outdoor education and describe Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard program. The farm-to-table approach to gardening means that kids learn to both grow AND cook their own food.

I firmly believe that raising even a small amount of your own food is good for the soul: some leaf lettuce, herbs, spring onions, and radishes are all easy crops to grow in a pot in a sunny warm place. There is a simple joy to adding a bit of fresh rosemary or chives to your potatoes or salting and crunching into a freshly pulled radish (better yet, dip it in melted butter).

But, connecting to nature can be as simple as keeping a bird feeder. While we have lots of birds who stick around all year here in south central Virginia, we also have migrants.

In Flight

My favorites are the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. April 1 is the traditional day for me to put up my first hummingbird feeder. We had our first siting today, April 4. It was a male–it usually is–and I added our siting to the hummingbird database. It took just a moment or two to submit and I was able to see my entry immediately and see that we were very much on the northern edge of reporting.

These kinds of migration tracking projects have been around for almost as long as the Internet. While they are certainly wonderful ways to have students experience collaboration and scientific discovery, they are also moments for students to connect with the natural world, to stop for a moment and wonder at the joy that is a hummingbird.

A Homemade Education

John Wesley PowellIn Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, Wallace Stegner tells the story of John Wesley Powell, probably best known as the first explorer of the far reaches of the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon. A Civil War veteran who lost an arm at Antietam, he was an ethnologist and geologist who led both the US Geological Survey and led the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian.

Stegner deliberately does not provide lots of details about Powell’s early life. His book, he says, is not a typical biography full of personal details. Instead, his focus is on Powell’s career and how his work led to the opening of the American West.
Stegner does discuss Stegner’s early education and, like many of Powell’s contemporaries, it was a “homemade education.” The son of a poor preacher, his family moved several times when he was young, and Powell had little formal schooling. Instead, he borrowed books from wherever he could find them, reading when he could find the time in his hard scrabble life. It is reminiscent of Abraham Lincoln who said, “The things I want to know are in books; my best friend is a man who’ll git me a book I ain’t read.”
Depending on who that “best friend” was often determined the direction of the reader’s later life. Lincoln borrowed books from a lawyer and thus the law became his path. Powell was fortunate to meet George Crookham, a farmer and scientist, who kept a private natural history museum and a scientific library. This meeting is fortunate for the rest of us as well as it led Powell to his lifetime’s work.
But, Powell had another teacher and that was nature itself. Like John Muir some years later, Powell spent time in the woods around his Wisconsin home:
Both boys were confirmed in their scientific interest by the surroundings of a backwoods Wisconsin farm, by nature in its intimate variety, by wandering Indians, by the persistent, constant stream of questions that the mind proposed and clamored to have answered. Both boys broke away for long rambling excursions justified by scientific collections (p. 15).
And they engaged with formal education on their own terms:
Both sought college at their own expense and interrupted their schooling by intervals of teaching and farm labor; and both ultimately got what the schools could give them, but never graduated (p. 15).
This education sometimes hurt Powell as he was not as systematic in his science inquiry as those with more formal training. But, it also helped him as well. Stegner compares him to Clarence King, a contemporary of Powell’s who enjoyed a Yale education but failed to live up to expectations:
Clarence King failed for lack of character, persistence, devotion, wholeness. For that important job he seemed to Adams cut out out to do, John Wesley Powell was actually much better equipped. Despite his homemade education, and just possibly because of it, he would do more than Clarence King would do and do it better (p. 21).
There is a lesson here for contemporary educators: Powell was just one of many great Americans who spent very little time in school rooms, putting in seat time. His own curiosity and creativity was what drove him to learn. I was struck by a similarity in the path of Evan Williams, one of the founders of Twitter. A recent New York Times’ article describes how Williams, a farm boy from Nebraska, found his life work and it did not happen in a classroom:
In 1993, a chance encounter with a new magazine at the mall in Grand Island, Neb., seemed to seal his destiny. It was the second issue of Wired, a publication dedicated to the geek gospel that a new world was dawning. One story was about a retired Army colonel named Dave Hughes who wanted to hook up all 5.5 billion brains on the planet. No farmer’s kid need ever be lonely again.
I am heartened to hear stories of innovative schools that are letting kids explore the world and pursue their passions, designing their own “homemade” educations. The stories of people like Abraham Lincoln, John Muir, John Wesley Powell, and Evan Williams suggest that they will turn out just fine.

It’s Complicated

I tweeted about this Smithsonian Magazine article about Buffalo Bill this week:

The headline for the article is pretty sensational: Murder, Marriage and the Pony Express: Ten Things You Didn’t Know About Buffalo Bill. But the subtitle undercuts that sensationalism: His adventures were sensationalized in print and the Wild West show, but reality was more complicated—and compelling.

Isn’t reality always more complicated than can be presented in even an extensive report? We mostly get short sound bites that provide little historical or social context. I thought about it when I listened to the Code Switch podcast talking about the Obama administration’s education legacy. The commentators mention Urban Prep, a charter school in Chicago often held up as an exemplar with 100% graduation rate. But that rate doesn’t take into account attrition. At about 7:46 in the podcast, they say, “It’s complicated.” Later in the program, one of the guests discusses the complicated web of home, school and poverty that makes educational problems so difficult to solve.

Real problems do not yield to easy solutions.

Pokemon Go? Been There, Done That

Pokemon Go has taken over the world, it seems. Around all the hysteria, I had a flashback to summer 2011, a hot day in Radford, Virginia, with about 20 others who had gathered to learn about this new thing called Augmented Reality. Matt Dunleavy and his graduate students introduced us to FreshAIR, their AR development software and app.

The morning session involved an overview. Then, they handed us an iPod and sent us out to the campus to play the secret agent game. The app alerted us to hot spots, and we were led through a scenario where we watched a video, communicated with another agent and ultimately either solved the mystery, or ended up at a dead end because we followed the wrong information. It was pretty darn amazing!

During the afternoon, we worked with the actual software to develop AR games. It was an early version of the software, but essentially, we set GPS points that linked to video, audio, or text. Despite the heat, we were able to head outside and test our games. Again, pretty amazing!

So, forgive me if I’m a little underwhelmed by Pokemon Go. Really? Five years of AR and this is how we use this amazing technology? Chasing and catching Pokemons? Clearly, people like me have not done a good job getting the word out about the wonders of AR and the opportunity to create our own games rather than  mindlessly following someone else’s creation.

This article gives some ideas for how AR can be used to support authentic student learning. Dunleavy may have been psychic in his comment about the perils of focusing too much on the digital world:

“If we have students staring at their phones the whole time, then I think we’ve missed the point,” he said. “We don’t want to cognitively pull people out of their environment. We want to use text, audio, and video to drive them deeper into it.”

The article highlights Harvard’s ecoMOBILE research and also includes examples of some student-created AR games. They admit it’s not easy: teachers and students aren’t often permitted to leave the classroom and location-based AR requires the ability to move around in the world.

If Pokemon Go is what we need to get the word out, that’s fine: but let’s realize that there has already been work in this area by educators and figure out how this becomes part of authentic, engaging learning.