A Guest Blog Post by Kevin Harcourt, Professional Development Coordinator for Sahuarita Unified School District and 2007 Teacher of the Year Semifinalist
STEM is such a big buzz-word in education today and for good reason. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) is key to our children’s education because STEM pervades every aspect of our lives. Thankfully, it’s not hard to see how science, technology, engineering, and math are everywhere when you start listing examples.
The first part of STEM, science, is all about understanding our natural world – the land and the waters; weather and natural disasters; microbes, insects, animals, and humans; plants and food; fuel and energy; and things out of this world – the sun, moon and stars. Technology is also key in today’s world. It means computers and smart phones, certainly, but it also means television and radio– all of which are so integrated into our daily lives. Technology also means other equipment such as the sophisticated lab machinery that doctors use to diagnose patients. And Engineering? Engineers design buildings, roads, and bridges and so much more. They design production of power that makes the technology work. And Math is everywhere. We use math to calculate what we buy at the grocery store, planning a road trip, and figuring out who tops the statistical lists as the best baseball player.
I would argue that the pervasiveness of STEM isn’t the only reason it is important to consider it in education either. Let’s focus on how the brain reacts to STEM in nature – specifically being in the environment, outside.
It’s fairly common for people to feel less stress, calmer, and at ease when outside and enjoying nature. So how might that be connected to STEM learning and the brain?
As part of its tribute to the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, the January edition of National Geographic magazine featured an article titled, “This Is Your Brain on Nature.” The key concept is that being in the outdoors regularly is healthy for our brain’s work. One study referenced in the piece found that “taking a 50-minute walk in an arboretum improved executive attention skills, such as short term memory, while walking along a city street did not.” The article referenced other studies that support the premise that being outdoors regularly, in natural surroundings, not only improved brain function, but also just led to people being happier!
So what implications does this have for STEM teaching? Let’s get our students outside!
But this isn’t as easy as just putting on our shoes and walking out the door. As educators, we’re up against a lot to get our students outside immersed in nature. As the article states, children are not getting outside enough these days. And what’s worse is that there’s a clear difference in how we interact with nature now than when we did in years past. Recent polls show that a generation ago, children spent more than 50% more time outside playing and exploring.
As teachers, let’s make a concerted effort to keep outdoor recess. Not only does outdoor recess give students a chance to be kids and explore, but it allows us to include STEM experiences in their school day.
Here in Sahuarita, we’re promoting a group called the Ironwood Tree Experience (ITE) that’s doing just that. The mission, according to Director Eric Dhruv, is “to inspire young people to flourish by engaging with nature and becoming mindful stewards of the environment at home, in their community, and around the world.” ITE offers programs on field studies for students including the urban environment. They even offer professional development for teachers on how to utilize their own campus for getting students active and aware outside.
So parents and educators, let’s think for a few minutes and find ways to get our students outside!