Next Generation Science
The Power of Science Education: An Earth Day Reflection
Author: Anna Van Dordrecht
Saturday, April 22nd, is Earth Day and also the day chosen by many to take a stand for science and the important role it has in our world. It’s no surprise that this day, originally established to support environmental protection, was selected to demonstrate that science is vital and that scientific information should be shared widely. But what may be surprising to some is that in Washington D.C., this year’s Earth Day celebrations will include a teach-in on the National Mall. Scientists from a variety of fields will educate the public about their work and its importance. While there are many sessions offered on environmental issues, the teach-in also includes other scientific topics of interest including the physics of superheroes and even a session on the tough road to becoming a scientist. This choice by the organizers speaks volumes of the power and importance of science communication and education.
A teach-in isn’t a new addition to Earth Day but takes the event back to its 1970 roots. In the 1960s, environmental issues were gaining traction, and several different people suggested establishing a day to honor the Earth. Among them was Gaylord Nelson, a U.S. senator who was impacted by witnessing the aftermath of an oil spill in Santa Barbara in 1969. It was Nelson who founded Earth Day in 1970 as a national teach-in about the environment, emphasizing the importance of science education in enacting change. Indeed, he chose April 22nd because of the school calendar- it was after spring break and before final exams, so there was the highest chance that students would be in school.
That first Earth Day involved approximately 20 million people who learned about environmental issues and the role they could play in the solutions. One of the important outcomes of the day was the development of a broad-scale sense of community, responsibility, and empowerment around environmental protection. The event is credited with helping launch the mainstream environmental movement, and by the end of that year the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts were all passed. Two decades later, Earth Day became an international event and has continued to teach people about the environment and empower them towards action. More than one billion people each year take part in the celebrations now. The ripple effect of Earth Day on science and the environment is enormous.
The impact of Earth Day is certainly a testament to how much one person can influence the world when they take a risk and start something new. It’s fitting that Nelson was later awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his work. But more broadly, Earth Day is also a testament to the incredible potential of science education to empower people and inspire action.
In the classroom, we aren’t limited to a single day to communicate the importance of science and environmental protection. Science educators have a chance every day to uphold the original vision of Earth Day. Within NGSS, human impact on environment and the development of sustainable practices are emphasized across grade levels and content areas. Teachers can use their expertise and that of others to present these complex issues and concepts in a way that students can access. They can develop activities that allow students to examine arguments with the evidence available and form their own conclusions. Teachers can also empower students to use engineering skills to develop meaningful solutions to environmental problems.
Science educators also can go a step further as is being done at this year’s Earth Day teach-in. They can present science content in interesting, relevant ways to students, help them understand science as a human endeavour that is influenced by culture, technology, and the politics of the time, and provide opportunities for students to envision themselves as scientists and engineers. They can help students develop a solid foundation of science content and the associated vocabulary, a voice to share what they know and think, and the skills and courage to communicate their messages to a broader audience.
The prospect of teaching science in a way that encapsulates all of these things can feel overwhelming. But it’s critical that we try. Science is in the spotlight right now, and it’s more important than ever that students understand science content and process. No matter who they are and what they go on to do, our students live in a time when they will be influenced by and have a chance to influence science. As they go forward, they need to be able to appreciate the value of investigation, discovery, and innovation while still having the critical thinking skills to analyze and question the work and findings of individual scientists. They need to understand the potential of STEM advancements and careers while also considering the ethics involved in such advancements.
Jane Goodall, arguably one of the preeminent environmental scientists of our time, once said “You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” This is the core message of Earth Day and is at the heart of what I hope students are taking away from their science education and school in general, along with the skill and wisdom to make such a decision. As we celebrate Earth Day this year, Goodall’s words are also a call to action for us as science educators.
We can be encouraged by the example of Gaylord Nelson that the vision of one person to educate people in science can have far-reaching implications. If so much change took place because one man took a risk for science, imagine what would be possible if all science educators implemented such a vision everyday. So let’s take this Earth Day to examine our individual and collective vision for science. Whether you’re in the classroom or in another role that supports science teaching, what you do can have a broad influence. How will you use your position as a science educator to impact, support, and challenge others? What kind of difference do you want to make?