The past year was full of ups and downs for educators around the world. Many returned to classrooms after months of remote teaching, but many also faced daunting challenges in doing so—from COVID-19 outbreaks in their schools, to staffing shortages, to contentious debates on what they teach. Throughout it all, educators persevered and focused on inspiring learners’ curiosity and exploration, even as they themselves were navigating uncharted territory. As we look back on 2021, their optimism and dedication make us hopeful about what lies ahead in education. Here are just a handful of the countless exploration-minded educators who made an impact on young people, their fellow educators, and the planet over the past year.
- Aurelia Casey: As a young girl, Aurelia Casey spent time in her grandmother’s garden, helping her pull weeds. While some children might see weed-pulling as a chore, Casey says, “I liked it… and it led me to go exploring in the backyard.” In 2017, this love of exploring the outdoors led Casey to found Inner City Ranger, a program hosted through the Brooklyn Center for the Arts that encourages young people to identify and appreciate nature in the urban environment. This year, Casey took a leap and followed her passion to focus full-time on outdoor education, with the goal of fostering an Explorer Mindset in urban children. “One of the freedoms that kids who grow up in inner-city neighborhoods can lack is the freedom to explore. In Brooklyn, we don’t have immediate access to a forest or open water space,” explains Casey. “But an Explorer doesn’t always have to be outdoors-based. It can be how your thinking changes and transforms.”
- Peter Cameron: While young people often look forward to getting gifts during the holidays, Peter Cameron’s students at Pope John Paul II Senior Elementary School in Thunder Bay, Ontario, are spending the season making and giving gifts to students they’ve never met. Their gift? Sixty “water boxes” they constructed themselves out of local cedar wood and will send, with the help of a grant from the National Geographic Society, to other students around the world to inspire them to protect water. The water boxes contain the book The Water Walker by Joanne Robertson as well as water journals that Cameron’s students designed and made by hand, even down to the logo emblazoned on them. After recording their learnings in the water journals and adding an artifact or two into the water boxes, the students receiving the boxes will then pass them on to other students, all while Cameron and his students track the journeys of the water boxes they created on Google Earth. Cameron says that he hopes that connecting with and reflecting on water will prompt young people to “protect not only water, but themselves and others.”
- Ashley Lamb-Sinclair: Even though educator Ashley Lamb-Sinclair has lived in Louisville, Kentucky, for more than a decade, it wasn’t until 2020 that she learned about the shameful history of and courageous fights for racial justice that had unfolded—and continue into the present day—in her city. As she puts it: “I never knew that every step I took in my own community stepped upon and over an opportunity to remember the humanity of the people who walked before us.” This realization led her to create 2892 Miles to Go – Geographic Walk for Justice, a social justice geo-inquiry movement that amplifies place-based stories that for too long have gone unheard. In addition to Lamb-Sinclair’s hometown of Louisville, 2892 Miles to Go has collected and mapped community members’ experiences and previously ignored histories in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Amarillo, Texas—and Lamb-Sinclair plans to continue the walk through more cities in 2022. According to the project’s website, “We believe that the land we live on never forgot these stories, and we want to remember, together.”
- Whitney Nekoba Aragaki: In Hawaii, aloha ʻāina—which translates to “love of the land”—is an important concept that shapes life on the islands. Whitney Nekoba Aragaki brings this deep respect and responsibility for land to her science teaching at Waiākea High School in Hilo, Hawaii. “Most of my students come into my classroom knowing that they’re not going to be career biologists, but they will definitely be community contributors on our ʻāina,” she says. “Getting them that perspective to really care for and be stewards of the environment are what I promote for my students.” As an exploration-minded educator, Aragaki is passionate about incorporating land acknowledgments into her teaching as a way to honor and encourage students to inquire about the history of a place. She also regularly takes her students on field trips to nearby sites, such as a local bird conservation center, which she hopes will “drive them to really appreciate the environment, really appreciate biology and what we could lose with climate change, with industrialization.”
- Sandra Turner: Listen closely to your own breath and you may notice that it sounds like the ocean. Educator and National Geographic Explorer Sandra Turner has created a program based on the power of both our breath and the ocean in promoting mindfulness and calm. An idea born from the stress of the pandemic and brought to life with the help of an award from the National Geographic Society, the program aims to use breathing exercises and ocean imagery to promote an appreciation of the ocean among learners while also supporting their social-emotional wellbeing. “We simply can’t have a healthy planet or healthy people without a healthy ocean,” says Turner. “We all are responsible.”
- Ashleigh Glickley: At Hawthorne Elementary School, in Louisville, Kentucky, everyone takes to heart the school vision to help “every student develop into a globally and culturally competent learner.” Fifth-grade teacher Ashleigh Glickley is leading the charge to realize this vision by collaborating with her colleagues, administrators, and National Geographic Explorers to orient the entire school community toward embracing an Explorer Mindset. Under Glickley’s leadership, Hawthorne students have spoken virtually about coral reefs with an environmental artist, built water filters to send around the world, and Zoomed with a National Geographic photographer to learn about conservation and develop empathy. While students currently earn stamps in passports by engaging in virtual explorations, the community is planning for in-person explorations of other communities and cultures in the future.
- Allison Fundis: Did you know that a jar of what’s suspected to be Amelia Earhart’s freckle cream was discovered in a coral atoll in the western Pacific Ocean? The team that found it was led by Allison Fundis, chief operating officer for the Ocean Exploration Trust and a National Geographic Explorer. As her work has led her on expeditions around the world aboard the Nautilus—the Ocean Exploration Trust’s exploration vessel—Fundis has remained true to her roots as a high school educator by committing to livestreaming the deep-sea explorations for young people and others to learn from. “It is imperative that we bring it to more and more people, not just the people who are fortunate to be on the ship and involved in the research,” she says.
- Prashant Mohesh & Danielle Zelin: Although National Geographic Young Explorer Prashant Mohesh grew up on Mauritius, an island off the coast of Africa, he was always afraid of the ocean. That changed when he learned about how humans depend on the ocean for everything from the food we eat to the air we breathe. Propelled by his newfound fascination with the ocean, Mohesh became a certified diver and eventually founded the Oceanic Project, an organization dedicated to engaging young people in protecting the ocean and becoming planetary stewards. One of the Oceanic Project’s key initiatives grew out of a National Geographic Storytelling for Impact course that Mohesh took along with National Geographic Certified Educator Danielle Zelin. The course inspired Mohesh and Zelin to partner and develop a project aimed at engaging Mauritian youth in using photography to tell stories about the ocean and take action to protect it.
- Lauren Niemann: A passion for environmental justice is central to Lauren Niemann’s approach to instilling an Explorer Mindset in her students at Fern Creek High School in Louisville, Kentucky. Over the past year, she has engaged young people in inquiring into and celebrating Black conservationists and analyzing data on the disproportionate impact of the local urban heat island effects on communities of color. “My hope is that they will use this understanding to disrupt the status quo and help move us towards a more inclusive future as a community,” Niemann says. “After all, nature belongs to everyone.”
Featured image by Wilbert Albert Allard