On my way into work this morning, I saw a tousled-hair toddler out walking with a man who I assumed was his dad. The young boy stopped, dropped his dad’s hand, walked back a few steps, squatted down and poked at something on the sidewalk. Some small creature had grabbed his attention, and he was curious enough to stop, to explore and perhaps to discover something new.
It was early and perhaps from the lack of adequate coffee at that point, my mind drifted to thoughts of our current digital-focused, testing-centric K-12 school culture.
What happens to this curiosity as students progress from elementary grades to high school? Research has shown that by the time a student reaches high school, they have decided whether they “like science” and whether they are “good at science.” And as you may know, there is an unmet demand for science, technology engineering and math (STEM) professionals.
What causes a student to like or dislike science? What do they think science is (and is not)? What is the impact of our current approach in science classrooms on these decisions? Does our current system allow time for students to just be curious about something and time to explore and discover more? How do we maintain, encourage and perhaps even direct this curiosity in our science classes so that they, like me, think science is cool, awesome, da bomb?
Teachers’ experience has shown that to learn, first you have to have their attention. Certainly one of the ways to do this is to get out of the classroom, perhaps just to go outside or perhaps to go somewhere, such as on a field trip. Let students see things that grab their attention, stop to observe, be challenged to think, and perhaps discover something new.
We also know that not all students learn the same way; some are good “book learners” while others need more active ways to learn. Opportunities for learning that happen outside of the classroom have been broadly referred to as informal education. NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), Sea Grant’s parent organization, defines informal learning as learning outside the established formal system that meets clearly defined objectives through organized educational activities. Informal education may be voluntary, self-directed (e.g., a museum or aquarium exhibit) or systematic and guided (e.g., a field trip).
For decades now, Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant has supported informal learning opportunities on coastal issues for individuals of all ages. These opportunities have taken many forms: exhibits in aquariums and nature centers, exhibitry and presentations at festivals and public events, summer outdoor learning opportunities for school-age children, in-school activities and presentations by marine scientists and educators and perhaps most importantly, field trips during the school year for K-12 students.
For Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant, their dollars have been leveraged in the support of three environmental education centers in the bi-state area: the Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama (the marine research and education facility for the state), the Environmental Studies Center of the Mobile County Public School System in Mobile, Alabama, and the Marine Education Center at The University of Southern Mississippi’s Gulf Coast Research Lab in Ocean Springs, Mississippi.
Last year, these organizations collectively taught more than 16,000 K-12 students about the Gulf Coast: the animals and plants found there, the importance of these ecosystems and the impacts that we, as humans, have upon these ecosystems. Collectively, these centers gave 6,475 students from schools across the region the opportunity to get on a boat, sample marine life, hold or poke at it - to stop, explore and to discover something new. And that is truly priceless.