At the Explorers Festival: Kavita Gupta

Kavita Gupta was one of the educators who joined us at the 2018 Explorers Festival. Kavita is a high school chemistry teacher in Cupertino, the heart of California’s Silicon Valley. She is a 2018 National Geographic Education Fellow, a 2017 Grosvenor Teacher Fellow and also completed the National Geographic Educator Certification Program. Kavita’s expedition to the Galápagos inspired her to begin a climate change unit that explored solutions to climate change through an interdisciplinary lens. We spoke with Kavita about students taking ownership of their learning.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Nat Geo
Photo courtesy Kavita Gupta

Tell us a little bit about yourself, your background in education and what makes you passionate about your work.

I teach tenth- through twelfth-graders at a public high school in Cupertino.

I have taught for more than 20 years, and last year I was chosen to be a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow. Through that program, I went on an expedition to the Galápagos, and it was totally life-changing. I am also a National Geographic certified educator, which gave me the tools to break the mold and move away from the traditional way of teaching.

I organized a multidisciplinary event focusing on climate change that included all of the different disciplines, not only science. It included drama, music, photography, social studies, special education and more. I was trying to bring some heart to climate change education.

The science education community is constantly seeing a lot of growth in innovation, technology, and ideas. Is there anything you hope to see emerge in this field in the next year? Or anything you hope to contribute yourself?

I hope to see projects that allow students to take control of their learning. Obviously, the teacher has to be the architect of this learning, but I see the role of a teacher to be the facilitator and students are empowered and engaged enough to chart their learning. So the teacher may provide resources and act as a facilitator, but students are motivated. How do we accomplish this? We accomplish this by bringing a real-world connection to the classroom.

When students understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, they’re more motivated to do it.

For a lot of people who don’t study or work in the STEM field, it’s easy to assume that new information or innovations aren’t relevant to them. How does one try to bridge that gap and show how important STEM is to the average person?

People believe that math and science are only for STEM majors. That is a big misconception, because we use those skills every day in life—critical thinking, researching, figuring out sale prices, finding authentic news, understanding finances. Science develops a critical-thinking approach to life, it makes you more aware of the things around you.

It’s more about the skills you get from science that are applicable to everyday life and allow you to make better use of your life. It’s not about the content. Yes, advanced science content may be for people in the science field, but understanding the basic skills is really valuable for anybody who is going to become an adult and lead a life.

Galapagos 2
Kavita Gupta embarked on a journey to the Galápagos through the Grosvenor Teacher Fellow program in 2017. Photo courtesy Kavita Gupta.

The Galápagos expedition was such a wonderful opportunity and you really built on that by creating a climate change unit for your students. What can educators around the world do to engage with students on this important topic if they don’t have the opportunity to do something like going on an expedition across the globe?

“Start small” would be my advice. Start with a simple project where students are engaging with the environment, learning and doing some advocacy around it. It could be asking students questions like, how much food do they waste? Or, where does the food even come from? It could even be done around the plastics that are used in the community.

Any teacher, in any content area, for any age group, can start something small that is relevant to the kids. Students can then go out into the community and probably advocate for that change. That’s a great place to start.

You mentioned the Youth Climate Summit coming up in the fall. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

The Youth Climate Summit is a summit by the youth for the youth. It is happening in San Jose at the Tech Museum on November 10. It’s a day-long event during which the students will engage with policymakers, scientists, explorers, and will also attend different sessions.

In one of the sessions, they learn about plastic pollution—not just from news articles, but from the actual explorers who are dealing with it.

In another session, students will listen to the research that Galápagos students are doing on the impact of the biodiversity in warmer climates. You can imagine how exciting that session will be—not only will students get to hear about the scientific research, but I bet there will be a lot more cultural exchanges as well.

In a third session, students will have to negotiate internationally. They will take on roles such as manufacturers and policymakers representing different countries, and come up with a plan for the reduction of CO2. And they’ll do it using the same interaction world leaders used at the Paris Summit.

There are so many exciting activities we have lined up!

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