From Curious Child to Chemistry Teacher: My #ExplorerMindset Journey

National Geographic Certified Educator Beverly Owens wrote this post.

From an early age, I remember using my great-grandmother’s silver spoon to dig in the dirt. I don’t know what I was expecting to find, but I was curious. I think my parents recognized and fostered that curiosity. When I was in second grade, I learned about dinosaurs, and I resolved one day to go on a dinosaur dig. During a family vacation to Florida, we stopped by Saint Augustine and went to Castillo de San Marcos, a 17th-century Spanish fort. On the way home from that trip, I was filled with never-ending questions about the people who lived before us. These experiences and a thirst for knowledge laid a solid foundation for me to develop an Explorer Mindset.

As a teacher, my personal mission is to help students discover the world of science. I hope the activities I provide my students will help them develop a sense of wonder for this amazing world we live in. For me, that starts with the learning environment that I provide. My classroom has been likened to a “mini-museum.” I have a variety of artifacts displayed: items I have 3D-printed and painted, like a large ammonite, a T. rex skull, and a replica Mayan statue that I scanned from a museum’s collections; rocks and fossils that I have collected from across the United States; deep-sea coral samples from the Gulf of Mexico; paintings and handiwork from different cultures; and a myriad of other items that I hope will inspire students or foster their interest in science. 

I think one of the best things a teacher can do for students is to model lifelong learning. I have a bulletin board behind my desk that is filled with a collage of pictures showing me learning science by exploring the world: holding a giant isopod from the bottom of the ocean as a NOAA Teacher at Sea; unearthing dinosaur bones in Wyoming (I finally went on that dig!); snorkeling in a mangrove swamp; standing in steam from Kilauea volcano; and serving as a Science Communication Fellow on the E/V Nautilus with Titanic discoverer Dr. Robert Ballard. I want students to know that there is an amazing world out there just waiting to be explored; there are so many things still waiting to be discovered.

I’ve taught middle school science for 15 years, but this year I had the opportunity to join the staff at Cleveland Early College High School, where I am teaching 11th-grade chemistry. Trying to merge my passion for exploration with the North Carolina chemistry curriculum proved challenging. I turned to the National Geographic Resource Library and found that I could use many of the resources for inspiration. The library includes articles, videos, and infographics that perfectly align with my curriculum. Given that materials in the Resource Library are provided digitally, I was able to easily incorporate them into my playlists (daily interactive slides or documents that contain blended learning activities) and HyperDocs, to the benefit of both my face-to-face and remote students.

I also wanted to strengthen my pedagogy and praxis, so I sought out professional development opportunities. Did you know that National Geographic offers free online courses?! I highly recommend the Geo-Inquiry and Explorer Mindset courses. The Explorer Mindset course in particular is inspiring and easy to fit into one’s schedule. The asynchronous, self-paced course requires a time commitment of only about an hour. It guides participants in learning what the Explorer Mindset is by showcasing the work of several National Geographic Explorers. The course also illuminated for me the skills required for exploration: having grit is critical, and being able to communicate well with others makes a team more effective. Participants have the opportunity to see how other educators have structured their classroom activities to foster the development of an Explorer Mindset in their students. You’ll walk away from the course wanting to get outside and start exploring!

There are so many ways to foster an Explorer Mindset. You don’t have to travel to the African savanna to be an explorer! Enroll in the Explorer Mindset course to learn more, for your own professional development as well to learn how to integrate an Explorer Mindset into your classroom instruction.

Here are a few other ways to get started.

Explore your backyard:

Go outside. What is in your backyard? Use the Seek app to identify flora and fauna in your region. Side note: it is addicting! There are monthly challenges to help you get started exploring. Which digital badges will you earn?

Take students outside:

Allow students to explore their school campus. Have students make a nature journal with descriptions of sights and sounds. Set up a quadrant outside and have students track what they see in the quadrant each day. Grab a magnifying glass and examine the soil and tiny insects.

Inside the classroom:

Encourage students to ask questions. Conduct a lab demonstration, create a map, view a historic image, or show any type of artifact or mystery piece that will give students the opportunity to engage with the subject matter through inquiry. A simple lab experiment like combining baking soda and vinegar can provide students with an opportunity to make observations, explore content, document results, collaborate, and communicate their findings.

Incorporate art:

Art is an amazing way to demonstrate appreciation for nature. Encourage students to take photographs of what they observe outside. Craft a nature story about your community, backyard, or school campus. Collect leaves and use a popsicle stick to smash the chlorophyll onto some cloth—it’s a chloroplast blast! Have students make drawings or use watercolors to share their nature inspirations.

Learn from the experts:

Reach out to local field researchers who might be willing to share their findings with your class. Many scientists and content experts are passionate about their research and look forward to conducting outreach programs. National Geographic’s Explorer Classroom is a perfect fit, and many previous Explorer Classroom sessions are available online. Video clips highlighting National Geographic Explorers can also be found in the Resource Library.

Get connected!

There is a huge network of educators who, just like you, want to share ideas and collaborate. Check out @NatGeoEducation, #EducatorExplorer, and #ExplorerMindset on Twitter to join in the conversation!

Want to learn more about how to cultivate an Explorer Mindset in your learners using innovative resources? Interested in joining a supportive community of educators? Sign up for our free, self-paced hour-long mini-course “Developing a National Geographic Explorer Mindset With Your Learners.”

Beverly is a Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Awardee and a National Geographic Certified Educator. You can connect with her on Twitter @owensscience or via her website

Feature photo by Karine Aigner.

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