Educator Spotlight: Teaching the “Big Ideas” of Science

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Kerryane Monahan, this week’s Educator of the Week, is passionate about teaching the big ideas of science alongside the nitty-gritty ones. She wants her students to understand science from a global perspective, identifying international connections in problems and solutions. Kerryane is an environmental science and biology teacher at Saint Edward’s School in Vero Beach, Florida.

Kerryane posing in her educational laboratory. Photo by Wendi Naughtin

You started your career as an academic. How did you make the shift to teaching high school?
People who know me know I’m a highly structured person, so this was very out of character. But I was living in Boston and it was late December. I was scraping the windshield of my car, and it was just so miserable in the cold and the sleet. And for the first time in my life, it occurred to me that I didn’t actually have to live in Boston.

At the time, I was a doctoral student and a teaching assistant. I called my boss and basically said, “I’m not going to come in today … or any day after that.” Then I took the first flight to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It turned out there wasn’t a college there, but the high school in the next town was looking for science teachers. So I applied and I got hired to teach biology. I quickly realized that working with kids is amazing! I just loved it, and I never went back.

Wow! And now, years later, you’re the department chair in science at your school. What are some of your goals for your department?
I really want to make the science department come together. Science is one of the few areas where it can feel like all of the teachers are in a different discipline. Whereas English teachers may all have in common that they’re teaching writing, for example, there aren’t necessarily as many built-in commonalities with science teachers.

So I chose environmental science as a theme that could be woven through the tapestry of all our science disciplines. It’s not like a separate unit—the idea is that you bake it in. For example, when the chemistry teacher is talking about chemical reactions, he might mention what happens when nitrogen ends up in our water supply. Environmental science becomes a repeat example throughout each science course.

Kerryane’s students work on a project about endangered species around the world. Photo by Kerryane Monahan

You recently completed a project about endangered species, both locally and globally. How did that work?
We started off by looking at the relationship between human behavior and ecosystems. The students learned about local endangered species and the root causes of their decline. Then, I challenged them to research a species from somewhere else in the world that’s declining because of the same root cause.

The students created a flyer with information about the local species and another about the global species. We attached the flyers to a map and used color-coded string to physically make connections in the root causes of population decline.

Finally, we looked at the solutions people are pursuing around the world. It’s really important when teaching environmental science that you celebrate successes and point those out to students. Otherwise, you can seriously scare children away from the subject. This project helped students see themselves as problem solvers, not just problem identifiers.

Do you have any advice for teachers who are interested in making science education more relatable?
Science teachers need to let go a little bit of their content.  I say all the time to my faculty that five years from now, your students are not going to remember very many facts that they learned in your class. However, they will never forget the ideas that they learned. The more you teach them, the more they will remember. You have to teach them the big ideas and the implications of science for the world—not just the implications of science in your specific discipline.

This interview has been edited and condensed.


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The Educator Spotlight series features inspiring activities and lessons that educators are implementing with their students that connect them to the world in bold and exciting ways.

2 thoughts on “Educator Spotlight: Teaching the “Big Ideas” of Science

  1. I agree that students remember the ideas more than the facts they learn in class. Creating memorable learning experiences is one of the most important things we do as teachers.

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