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How Teaching Environmental Education Actually Taught Me to be a Better Scientist

Anya Stajner earned her Bachelor’s of Science in Marine and Coastal Science from the University of California, Davis. Bringing an earnest energy to everything she does, Anya is the host of the Marine Science podcast “Wet” and the founder of the SciGal Collective, a blog that aims to unite womxn in science. Currently, Anya is seeking Ph.D. programs that enable her to explore global change in the field of marine ecology and would be an asset to any lab she joined! She can be found on Twitter at @ScienceStajner

How Teaching Environmental Education Taught Me to be a Better Scientist

Sprout Up volunteers at a Davis, California elementary school.

Every Wednesday of spring 2019 I stood at the front of the carpet in an elementary school classroom in Davis, California, as excited first graders trickled in after recess. Met always with a chorus of “hello”s by the students as they took a seat on the floor, I watched their gleaming faces as they beamed with enthusiasm. That spring—and many other seasons throughout my undergrad experience—I taught an 8-week environmental education course to first graders at local elementary schools through a University of California at Davis (UC Davis) club called Sprout Up. I joined Sprout Up after learning that many schools in California scaled back or completely cut all science and social studies programs, wanting to share my love of science with kids that might not have any prior exposure to the field.

Studies that look at the impacts of K-12 environmental education show that environmental education plays a role in forming successful, motivated students; these studies fueled my desire to lift up the next generation of students and are what drew me to teaching science education while pursuing my degree. I knew that by giving my time to these students they would gain the intangibles of increased self-esteem, improved academic achievements (within and beyond science), stronger critical thinking skills, and heightened engagement in the classroom; however, I did not expect to walk away a better scientist myself. After graduating from UC Davis and leaving behind Sprout Up, I’ve realized teaching environmental education prepared me to enter the field of science in many ways I didn’t expect. By volunteering my time in a classroom filled with elementary school students who undoubtedly know less about organic chemistry than I do, I gained a deeper understanding of basic scientific principles, administrative skills, the ability to creatively problem-solve, and a re-inspired sense of awe for marine science.

For starters, teaching environmental education meant that I had to really understand environmental science. Even though I may have been teaching a basic course in environmental education, the kids were always so engaged, constantly asking questions and testing, that I understood the foundation of what I was teaching. One lesson I taught focused on the water cycle and included a portion about the three different phases of water: solid, liquid, and gas. The first graders were bursting with chemistry questions like “Can water go from liquid to gas?,” “How can ONE thing actually be THREE things?,” and “Where does this happen outside?” When we learned about ocean habitats, students tested my marine biology knowledge asking questions like “How do deep sea creatures live in the dark?” and even citing facts they learned from the documentary Blue Planet. Answering all their creative questions really solidified my understanding of the scientific principles we covered week after week and oftentimes inspired me to think about these basic concepts in new ways. While teaching a lesson on sustainability to second graders, the kids came up with a “recycling game” that involved seeing how many steps away from the recycling bin they could be and still make the toss into the bin, reminding me that framing basic concepts in a fun way makes them more accessible to everybody.

Example of Sprout Up Project.

Moreover, teaching environmental education improved my administrative skills in ways that many of my internships did not. The research I participated in during my undergrad career taught me to analyze datasets in the programming language R studio and handle delicate preserved specimens, but working in an elementary school classroom required an entirely different set of skills. By collaborating with elementary school teachers, fellow college students, and first graders, I became a master of time management, a pro-communicator, and confident in my ability to be a leader. These are all traits that have come into play for me once I entered the workforce, especially during the pandemic. Getting through a lesson plan in one hour with a room full of bouncing, energetic children translated to meticulous time management in the lab, which ensured the safety of myself and the other scientists around me during COVID. Coordinating lesson plans and schedules with elementary school teachers and my UC Davis peers left me trained in communicating with multiple parties through email and zoom, which is now the norm. Furthermore, having commanded the attention of a room full of elementary school kids, I feel right at home when I take the floor during an interview or scientific presentation. While these administrative skills might not have been taught in my cellular biology course, I picked them up nonetheless by teaching environmental education, and they have served me long after graduating.

Additionally, in most science classes I took, I learned tried-and-true methods to solving problems, but in a first-grade classroom I learned to look at problems creatively. In oceanography I learned how to use the Navier-Stokes equation, in population biology I learned how to model population changes in excel, but in Ms. R’s first grade classroom I learned how to teach a lesson on ocean habitats with the wrong materials because the lesson bags for the week got mixed up. Countless times, actually, did something unpredictable go wrong during a lesson and each time this happened, my brain got quicker at figuring out a creative solution and rolling with it. So when a family emergency called for my boss to leave ten minutes before starting an integral experimental component of her project, I was able to keep my head on my shoulders and figure out how to run the experiment on my own. Having already had experience handling unforeseen problems, I had no doubts that I would be able to deal with that one, and I have a feeling that as I continue onto grad school that there will be even more fires to put out in my future.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, teaching environmental education completely re-inspired my love for science. Going though the daily grind of college life can be at times exhausting and overwhelming, but once a week not only did I have an escape from the humdrum, I had a chance to re-invigorate myself within my field. I really want to emphasize that the reason teaching environmental science to elementary school kids was so helpful in keeping me motivated within science was that, rather than doing some random activity for an hour, by having a fun activity of the week relating to science, I was constantly reminded that science IS fun. First graders are silly, rambunctious, inquisitive, and so adamant that they can change the world, and by teaching them, I was able to adopt that energy and bring it into my science at the college level. As I gave final high fives to my last round of Sprout Up students before I graduated, one of the students exclaimed that she was going to teach her grandma to recycle, which made me think, “Does my grandma recycle? I better make sure.” From my first time in a classroom through to the moment I walked out of my final lesson, teaching kids environmental education helped me learn administrative skills, review basic scientific principles, be creative, and most importantly stay inspired. For these reasons I always encourage active and aspiring scientists to get involved with environmental education; not only does it help shape the next generation of environmental stewards, but it helps you be the best scientist you can be.

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