Strategy Share: Empowering Students Through Connections with Explorers

Our Strategy Share series features innovative ideas, projects, and approaches from our community of educators. This post was written by educator Kimi Waite.

It’s recess. Several small and curious faces peek around the corner from the kindergarten playground and look toward my classroom door where I’m standing with a special guest. A student in my class shouts, “HE’S HERE! HE’S HERE! OH MY GOD, HE’S HERE!” More of my students quickly run to join and get a look. The voices get louder: “IT’S HIM! HE’S HERE! HE’S HEEEERRRREEE! IT’S JOE! IT’S HIM!” There’s jumping, waving, squeals of delight, cheering, and clapping. Suddenly there’s chanting, “JOE, JOE, JOE, JOE!” Was this a celebrity? A movie star? A professional athlete? No: A scientist!

Imagine a world where scientists, conservationists, storytellers, and photographers are greeted by children with this level of excitement, delight, and pure joy! Where five-year-olds adopt a scientist as a class best friend, a hero, and a role model. Where students are empowered to learn alongside a real scientist and work with them to make the world a better place.

Amazing things happen when people with different areas of expertise, like educators and scientists, collaborate. In my previous post, I shared how my class connected with Californians in STEM professions, like members of the EV Nautilus crew and National Geographic Explorers. These short experiences with scientists are powerful for students, so imagine when students interact with scientists for the entire school year! The impact is unimaginable.

National Geographic’s Educator-Explorer Exchange

The Educator-Explorer Exchange is a pilot program offered by National Geographic that pairs educators and National Geographic Explorers on a one-to-one basis over the course of an entire school year. National Geographic Explorers are groundbreaking scientists, conservationists, educators, and storytellers. Each pair collaborates to mentor each other and create original learning experiences inspired by the explorer’s work.

I’ve had the opportunity to participate in this pilot for two years: the 2017-2018 school year with Explorer Erina Molina and the 2018-2019 school year with Explorer Joe Cutler. Both experiences helped me think critically about my own teaching and develop new strategies for engaging young learners in science.

We are ichthyologists! Explorer class best friend Joe Cutler, and fish friends Rosie Red Snapper and Marty Minnow! Photo courtesy of Kimi Waite

How Educators Can Connect with Explorers and Scientists

Partnerships with scientists, like those I formed in the Educator-Explorer Exchange, are why I became an educator. These types of experiences inspire and empower students, give them a voice in the scientific community, create realistic solutions for local and global issues, form interdisciplinary partnerships, and introduce students to a new kind of hero. Here’s how you can connect your classroom with explorers and scientists:

Ways to Integrate Explorers into Student Learning Experiences

Class best friends: Erina Molina and Ducky dugong! Photo courtesy of Kimi Waite

Students can learn about the geography, culture, and ecology of different places around the world through National Geographic Explorers. The explorer’s work is a point of entry that can lead to many powerful learning experiences. Below are some tips for making the learning stick.

  • Young learners need something tangible like a toy or object to connect to the explorer and their work. Our class mascot, Ducky Dugong, kept the students personally invested in helping Explorer Erina Molina, a marine biologist, make the world more awesome for dugongs. Ducky Dugong even had his own seat and nametag!
  • Explorers are friends! I always referred to Erina as a “class friend,” and made as many connections to her and her work as possible.
  • Integrate the explorer’s work across subjects so students make meaningful connections and continue learning throughout the year. In our class, students wrote books, created posters about the plight of the dugong, practiced counting dugongs, learned about the dugong’s habitat and anatomy, made dugong drawings, and used the STEM engineering process to design a net and boat prototype to prevent the bycatch of dugongs.
  • Continually connect with the explorer throughout the year to form a sustainable partnership and a high level of student investment. This also helps students build understanding over time and develop a friendship with an explorer who lives far away. We stayed in touch by exchanging videos, connecting on social media, and sharing student work on Google Drive.

Strategies for Working with Local Scientists

Dip nets are real tools used by ichthyologists in the field. Joe evaluated student dip net prototypes created from single use plastics and recycled materials. Photo courtesy of Kimi Waite

Working with local scientists is a great way to make local connections to geography, history, and ecology. Here’s my advice for grounding student learning in the local environment.

  • Bring local artifacts into the classroom or rally around a local species as a class mascot. We created a mascot, Marty Minnow, based on a fish species found in our local area and in Gabon. The fish mascots helped students connect to Explorer Joe Cutler (who is an ichthyologist), make local and global connections, and become confident in their new identities as kindergarten ichthyologists.
  • Ask the scientist to share primary resources like pictures and videos with your class, and use these resources to inform projects. Joe shared videos of the rocky intertidal zone and his fishing adventures off the California coast. This helped my students understand California ecology and coastal biodiversity. He also shared pictures of his work in Gabon, which students used to inform their designs of an engineering solution.
  • Use the scientist’s work to inform local experiences like a field trip to the aquarium or a local BioBlitz.
  • Organize a culminating in-person visit. This was an amazing opportunity for my students to meet their hero and friend! It was also a valuable experience for students to receive feedback on their engineering prototypes from a real scientist.
Joe taught students about the dams in Gabon, and the effects on fish populations. Students designed prototypes to help Joe and class fish mascot Marty minnow. This team designed a dam wall reconstruction model.
Photo courtesy of Kimi Waite

To create local and global change, we must create spaces for children and experts to collaborate together to design realistic solutions. Because together, we’re more awesome!

Kimi Waite is a California-based educator-explorer who integrates engineering and conservation in her curricula and teaching strategies. She is passionate about inspiring and leading PK-12 students and teachers to take local action for global change. She believes that teachers, students, and scientists collaborating together is the key to create a more sustainable future for all living beings. 

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