Educator Spotlight: Designing Solutions to Conservation Challenges

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Kimberly Waite, this week’s Educator of the Week, guided her students through a design challenge inspired by a collaboration with National Geographic Explorer Erina Molina. Students gained background knowledge of the dugong, an endangered marine mammal, through interdisciplinary learning projects. Then, they designed a prototype of a net and boat with the goal of preventing dugongs from being caught as bycatch.

Ms. Waite and Ducky Dugong copy
Kimberly Waite is a kindergarten teacher at William Green Elementary School in Lawndale, California. Photo courtesy Kimberly Waite

You collaborated with National Geographic Young Explorer Erina Molina as part of a yearlong pilot program connecting educators and explorers. What kinds of activities did your students engage in?

Three years ago, I created an inquiry-based framework, “How To Get Kids Interested in Global Issues,” that I’ve been using in my classroom every year. Erina and I used this as the foundation for our collaboration. In the first step, students are called to action to help solve a global issue, and Erina made an amazing video challenging us to help her save the dugongs. Following that, students built background knowledge of dugongs through interdisciplinary learning projects in math, art, writing, English language arts, science, and social studies. To put our conservation into practice, we even had a penny drive and adopted a dugong from the World Wildlife Fund.

Erina and I sent video responses back and forth to each other via Google Drive. I posted our learning projects in the file, and Erina replied with comments. This ongoing exchange and of work throughout the year helped the kids become personally invested in helping Erina save the dugongs. 

Video With Erina
Students participated in hangouts with Erina Molina to learn about her conservation efforts. Photo by Kimberly Waite

Tell us about the design challenge your students took on.

The final step of the framework involves creating an action project to address the global issue, abroad and in our local community. Erina shared reasons for dugongs’ vulnerability in the Philippines, and my students really connected with the issue of dugongs dying from bycatch. To address this, we wrote advocacy books and created awareness posters that could hypothetically be displayed in areas where the fishermen gather.

The kids decided that we would need to work with the fishermen by designing a new net and boat prototype. We engaged in five rounds of the STEM process using materials from the dollar store and hardware store; I made the boat from grocery store banana boxes. The eventual net/boat prototype had a wide net with a pipe attached. This way, the fish can get in the pipe, but the pipe won’t allow the dugongs to get tangled inside the net. The boat also had GPS and radios, so if the fishermen see a dugong, they can radio a scientist who will put the dugong coordinates on a map and will then give the map to the fishermen.

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Kimberly’s class created a net and boat prototype to help protect the dugong. Photo by Kimberly Waite

My students were so empowered during the entire design process because they were using STEM and design thinking to problem solve about a realistic sustainable solution to a real global issue. Keep in mind that they’re six years old—they truly amaze me every day!

What inspired you to work with students of this age?

Kindergarten is often overlooked and underestimated in school systems, and I want to show the world just how much young learners are truly capable of. Kindergarteners have such an amazing sense of pure wonder, curiosity and excitement about the world. They are natural problem solvers, engineers, and explorers with a truly unique and creative way of looking at the world. They are also very eager to help, and I believe engaging their empathy is the key to getting them interested in global issues.

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Students enjoyed spending time with Ducky Dugong, a class visitor courtesy of Erina! Photo by Kimberly Waite

What is your teaching mission?

Teaching isn’t just a job for me; it’s truly my calling and my life’s work. When I walk into my classroom, my goal is to empower my students with the tools that they need to change the world. I believe that magic happens when kids and adults from all different disciplines and fields of expertise work together for a common goal of making the world more awesome for all living beings.

I want to encourage my students to not only know about the world, but to boldly and confidently ask these questions:

  • “WHY are things the way that they are?”
  • “HOW can we work together to make the world better?”
  • “WHO can we work with to make the world better?”

I want them to have a voice, and to know that they are seen, they are important, and they are heard. Imagine what the world could accomplish when we empower our youngest learners!

Social Justice Engineering
Two of Kimberly’s young students show off their work. Photo by Kimberly Waite

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.