What Happens When Explorers and Students Connect?

Students recently gained an inside perspective on the lives of innovative scientists, conservationists, and storytellers through the 2017 Explorers Festival Challenge.

This annual program pairs participating classrooms with a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. Teachers guide their students in conducting research on the explorer and producing creative projects to share their learning. After experiencing the final projects, explorers respond to each class with a personalized video.

So what happens when explorers and students connect? Here are a few examples. (Learn more about the 2017 Emerging Explorers here and here.)

1. Third-graders use photography to tell stories about science.

Juan Samperio’s students at Mundo Verde Bilingual Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., took a close look at science photographer Anand Varma’s work. Through carefully crafted images and videos, Anand unveils the story behind scientific processes such as the life cycle of bees and the strategies of mind-controlling parasites.

After learning about Anand, students designed their own parasites, drew them and wrote about their life cycles. They photographed their drawings and documented the process with additional images. The project culminated in a website featuring the parasites and accompanying images, an “About Anand” section with biographical information, and a “Photography” section explaining the strategies Anand employs in his work.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How can photography help us learn more about science? (You might want to use this lesson to help guide discussion.)
  2. What other tools or technologies could you use to tell a scientific story?

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2. Fifth-graders get to the heart of the story.

Anna O’Brien’s class from Center City Public Charter Schools’ Brightwood Campus in Washington, D.C., researched Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, thinking critically about the most significant elements of her life and work. They annotated articles to better understand how the environmental activist and geographer addresses challenges in her home country of Chad. Students then used evidence from their research to write “Important Poems” about Hindou, echoing the style of Margaret Wise Brown’s The Important Book. They also created posters to demonstrate their learning about Hindou, Chad, and ways to get involved with her work.

Here is one “Important Poem” written by students:

The important thing about Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim is that she is helpful to other people.

She wants to help change big issues like global warming and climate change, she wants to focus on the environment because it is crucial to the survival of her people, and she is working to collect indigenous knowledge.

But the most important thing about Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim is that she is helpful to other people.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How do you determine what is most important about a person’s life and work?
  2. How might your own background and interests influence what you feel is most important?

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3. Kindergartners, first-graders, and fourth-graders use mapping to help people move around their community.

Flora Lerenman’s students at H.D. Cooke Elementary School in Washington, D.C., also drew inspiration from Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim’s work as they examined data sets on maps that could help people in various communities. They set out to explore the terrain of their own neighborhood, mapping out the best routes for people with wheels (e.g. wheelchairs, strollers, or luggage). Using Ozobots, they tested out the routes they developed. Students then developed presentations to share their learning with others.

Flora describes how the project helped her students explore different perspectives:

We set up living maps and mazes to help students navigate by communicating clear directions to their peers, some of whom were blindfolded or unable to access sounds for an additional change in perspective. We also transformed the outdoors and our surrounding neighborhood into a learning space by looking through the terrain with new eyes, taking on the identities of people with different abilities, needs, and challenges.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How can we use maps to identify and solve problems in our community? (You might want to use this activity to help guide discussion.)
  2. What types of problems might we uncover by looking at a map?

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4. Fifth-graders discover how rodents are saving human lives.

Jo-Anne Fouad’s class at Bush Hill Elementary School in Alexandria, Virginia, connected with Dr. Danielle Lee, a biologist and outreach scientist. Along with her efforts to increase diversity in STEM, Danielle works with African giant pouched rats, which can safely sniff out landmines without setting them off. Using their critical and creative thinking skills, students produced a presentation showcasing Danielle’s career path. The presentation includes a detailed timeline of Danielle’s accomplishments and the obstacles she had to overcome, information about the African giant pouched rat, and a hand-drawn map of landmine locations worldwide.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are the advantages of using the African giant pouched rats to detect landmines? (You might want to use this study guide to help guide discussion.)
  2. What are the challenges?

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5. Fourth-graders create an electronic book to share with their peers.

Susan Michal’s Communication Arts Program students from Forest Knolls Elementary School in Silver Spring, Maryland, learned about the work of Mateus Mutemba, a park warden and conservationist. Mateus is devoted to restoring Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park. After showing the park’s Our Story video to spark interest, Susan encouraged students to find individual points of connection to Mateus’s project.

Some students investigated one of Gorongosa’s core focus areas (tourism, conservation, science, and community), while others researched Mateus and the problems he is solving to achieve his goals. They created illustrated reports summarizing their research and compiled the reports to make a children’s book. Susan used the National Geographic Learning Framework to structure this project – read her full description here.

Susan describes the impact of the project on her student journalists:

Students want to know more about animal conservation. They want to learn more about the diverse animal species, their habitats in the park, and the scientists who are studying them. These journalists want to acquire information about technology and how it is being used to restore Gorongosa National Park, its animals and plants, and the people in the ‘Human Development Zone’ around the park.

To us, this is the beginning of a wonderful story that we hope to continue during this 2017-2018 school year. We honor Mr. Mateus Mutemba for his dedication to restoring his park and the lives of the people and its creatures.

Discussion Question:

  1. What actions could you take to support a park in your area? (You might want to use this activity to help guide discussion.)

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Educators wishing to engage their students in similar work may participate in Explorer Classroom, which offers live, interactive video conferences for classes and explorers. For more examples of the Explorers Festival Challenge, check out last year’s participants!

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