March 19th, 2012

A New Agenda for Science Education

By Maceo Carrillo Martinet


Maceo Carrillo Martinet calls for bringing the local geography of sustainability into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) curricula, all the while framing this call in the global context of climate change.  He makes a convincing case, based on the experiences of the Instituto Querencia in New Mexico, for using three principals to guide STEM curricula:  students as agents of change; diverse cultural perspectives enrich the curriculum; and involve the local community—wherever you might be—in the curriculum.

Society and Science

Having strong science and math skills translates into making good observations and measurements, which are essential to everyday life. Taking shape the first day we open our eyes as babies, these skills have a lot to do with how human society is what it is today. Over the past decade, U.S. student academic assessments show a steady decline in the level of science and math proficiency (PCAST 2010). According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, akin to the Nation’s report card, about 75% of our students that enter high school are not proficient in the basic concepts of math and science determined for that age group (National Research Council 2011). Although assessing student academic proficiency solely through test-taking provides an incomplete picture, not to mention the life that is sucked out of the art of teaching from today’s test-taking-frenzy, we can all agree to the following: a malfunctioning education system together with modern day distractions has a lot to do with the proficiency decline in math and science. There is a palpable connection between our youth not understanding basic science and math concepts, and not having the basic experiences with the natural world that past generations held for granted. The dropping levels of science and math proficiency should come to no one’s surprise, given how the learning of science has become a passive, sedentary discourse, and very much removed from the natural environment, its seasons, and its elements. In an attempt to counteract this downward trend, we often here the patriotic drum beat that ‘America will better educate its youth so that we can better compete in the world market.’ But raising the level of math and science proficiency in our students is a much deeper issue to address than just having the right to claim that we are beating our chest the loudest.

Science, in the broadest sense of the word, is observing and learning from the surrounding environment and applying these lessons to everyday life. Throughout most of human history, the surrounding environment, hence the stage where all learning took place was principally the natural environment. Today, more than half of humanity lives in cities where there is very limited interaction with the natural environment. As a consequence, society is losing cultural perspective on what it means to have a healthy relationship with the earth, let alone have any kind of relationship to the environment. We are fooled into thinking that nature is the debris-cleaned landscape that makes buildings more pleasing to look at. The concrete-covered earth is not seen as something integral to what we are, but something shaped to meet our needs and desires. Our young people grow up disconnected from nature, and on top of that the educational system removes any opportunity for them to get outside and explore their communities in an integrative, hands-on way. Even our modern day language reflects the reality of this disconnection. We now use the term nature deficit disorder to identify the real impact that being detached from nature is having on our mental and behavioral development. We are now living in an era that geologists are calling ‘anthropocene’, because the influence that humans are having on the geology of the earth is what distinguishes this era from any other.

Ironically, the lack of student proficiency and interest in math and science comes at a time when we are dangerously teetering on the edge of earth’s ecological limits. Whether you believe in climate change or not, most people would agree that for humanity to survive the 21st century we need the young generations to have a strong scientific and technical understanding and creativity. We need a general citizenry to have some scientific background and appreciation of the earth in order to confront the monumental environmental challenges we face, such as cancers, diabetes, oceans with more plastic than plant life, and rivers swelling with Styrofoam and caffeine. A recent study of U.S. citizen’s views on climate change showed that 57% of the population believes that global warming is happening, a significant decrease compared to a similar study in 2008 (America’s Climate Choices 2010). This lack of understanding of climate change has a lot to do with the massive, corporate-funded disinformation campaign about climate change, but it also has to do with the absence of a basic ecological literacy of the population. Although climate change is a challenging and complex phenomenon to understand, if the general population was ecologically literate it would be much more difficult to pass disinformation as fact.

A new agenda for STEM education

A major reason driving the decline in student success in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) proficiency, as recently highlighted in a report by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, “is not just a lack of proficiency among American students; there is also a lack of interest in STEM fields” (PCAST 2010). If you stop to think about it, it is quite remarkable and unnerving that students would not be interested in what essentially amounts to the study of life! A group of educators and professionals in Albuquerque, New Mexico decided to join forces to create a summer science-based program called Querencia Institute (Institute), that could begin to counteract both the lack of proficiency and student interest. The following principles were formed and developed over the past several years of the Institute. We believe these principles could guide our science curriculum and help stimulate student interests and literacy in the STEM fields.

The first principle is to ensure the curriculum allows students to be direct participants in creating change in the community. Student learning of science, as well for most subject areas, is greatly improved when students are engaged in science-related issues that directly affect their everyday lives (Krajcik and Sutherland 2010). If properly explored, climate change can be a powerful incentive for young students to become more engaged in their everyday lives, as well as to jazz-up students to learn more about the sciences. If anything, climate change should be the one science issue that every young person should be familiar with considering that it will be young people presently in K-12 grades that will have to confront a human-altered climate system. Climate change, as Van Jones and others have highlighted, is a generations’ calling to lead the deep transformative processes needed to change society (Jones 2008). One of the goals at the Institute is to expose students to this transformative energy and the ocean of opportunity within the STEM fields that the realities of climate change beckons. Students are to become engaged in hands-on projects, while developing a map of where they see themselves in the future. Unfortunately, student hands-on learning is starkly missing from today’s secondary and post-secondary classrooms, with learning amounting to test taking and memorization. Reflecting on the summer Institute, one student commented, “I like how our project was mostly hands-on. I think hands on projects are most fun, and we don’t do enough of this in our classes.” Another issue we wanted to address was to encourage student learning to take place outside of the classroom. During the Institute, students set up a rainwater harvesting tank, toured watershed restoration projects, and collected fish while rafting the Rio Grande. These projects were designed to provide students with a hands-on outdoor learning experience that also embodies the necessary work to make society more sustainable. Reflecting on this experience, one student commented that, “I felt that this experience helped us better prepare for a better future for the planet. We also learned valuable working skills that we can use as adults or now in our own households. I feel accomplished with what we got done, but I still feel the need to do more.”

The second principle to engage young students in the STEM fields is to explore the process of science within different cultural traditions, expressions, and settings. Science is not just a process that takes place in a lab, but is a way of life and is embedded in our cultural identity (Krajcik and Sutherland 2010, National Research Council 2011). One of the key components of our Institute is to explore the nexus between science and culture as a tool to both cultivate youth interest in the sciences and a sense of cultural identity. For example, students were introduced to green technology/engineering and agricultural science through experiencing the indigenous technique of adobe making and companion crop planting (i.e. the three sisters: corn, beans, and squash). One of our Native American students explained that, “I see adobe and corn growing all over the place at home on the rez, but I didn’t realize all the science behind it.”  Being exposed to science as a cultural expression is especially important for students of color, whose cultural perspectives are grossly absent from any discussion of today’s science or its origin (which holds true for all subjects) (National Research Council 2011). A cross-cultural science exploration reveals that science has a diverse tapestry of expressions across humanity, rooted in the human experience of living in diverse natural environments, where modern day science is an accumulation, denial, and revisiting of these expressions. In many cases, the cultural perspective of the natural world represent some of most insightful ways humanity has learned to survive, and offers profound lessons for how to sustain our humanity into the future. New Mexico, and the greater southwestern U.S., is a unique area to explore this time-honed knowledge of place because many communities and individuals still have strong cultural ties and practices to the local mountains, rivers, and other ecologies.

The third principle is to integrate the local community into the science curriculum. The community that surrounds each school, which includes the parking lot down the street to the wildlife preserve just outside town, should be a direct extension of the classroom. During our Institute, students learned about food and health through conducting a food access survey of local markets near their school, some they had already been to with their families and others they never knew existed. Students also worked with a local urban farming network to make soil with locally sourced organic waste. After this experience, one student commented that “when we purchase food from the local market, we don’t know where or how it gets to the shelves. But when you purchase the food from the farmer down the street, you know it’s from here.” The community surrounding each school is a wellspring of knowledge, teachers, oral histories, and spaces where science and math take place every day, but are too often forgotten by our learning institutions. Addressing scientific literacy within the community context not only shows the students the practical applications of science happening around them, but it also encourages them to build a connection to their community, which is an essential ingredient for a positive learning environment (Stone and Barlow 2005). Community-based science learning will help students see their educational development in relationship to what society needs, as opposed to the stereotypical imagery of what science is supposed to produce. Integrating the surrounding community in the classroom is also a means to challenge what we see as the role that science plays in society. Science is not something that only takes place on the University campus, but it is something that workers do throughout our community on a daily basis. The scientific experts are not only in the University lab, but they are the local farmer and environmental health worker. The scientific knowledge and skills that go into designing a home, for example, is just as important as that knowledge that goes into actually building the home. Although modern day science and much of its history profess otherwise, science is not an elite, brain-centered profession but, as Clifford Conner explores in his book “A people’s history of science”, is something that “illustrates the collective, social nature of knowledge creation.”

Climate change as opportunity

The reality of climate change opens up many new opportunities for our youth to get directly involved in creating a better future, a future that is based on a different thinking than what was used yesterday. Climate change is forcing us to rethink things across the social-environmental spectrum, and to build bridges across multiple issues and generations. The struggles to promote social equity in the economy are now impossible to talk about in isolation of the environmental struggles. In our struggle to prevent climate change, it is not enough to replace a dirty non-renewable energy form with a cleaner, renewable form. The real heart of the struggle is for us to confront the mentality that got us into this situation. It is time to redefine a healthy environment to include the health of people and the natural environment that we all depend on. This is why it is important to discuss culture and science in concert with each other, and look at present and historical ways that human civilizations have related to their surroundings. Ultimately, a sustainable economy is not possible if we do not address how to better educate our youth. It doesn’t matter what technological or economic advances we employ to become sustainable, because sustainability essentially depends on how we treat and educate our youth. The students ended the Institute this past summer, with a quote by Gandhi that they had grown to respect and actually embody, “be the change you wish to see in the world.”


America’s Climate Choices. 2010. Informing an effective response to climate change. National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.

Conner, C.D. 2009. A people’s history of science: miners, midwives, and low mechanicks. Nation Books. New York, N.Y.

Jones, V. 2008. The green collar economy: how one solution can fix our two biggest problems. HarperOne, New York, NY.

Krajcik, J.S. and L.M. Sutherland. 2010. Supporting students in developing literacy in science. Science 328: 456 – 459.

National Research Council. 2011. Successful K-12 STEM Education: Identifying Effective Approaches in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Committee on Highly Successful Science Programs for K-12 Science Education. Board on Science Education and Board on Testing and Assessment. The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.

PCAST (President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology). 2010. Prepare and Inspire: k-12 education in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) for America’s future. Executive Office of the President, Washington, DC.

Stone, M.K. and Z. Barlow (eds). 2005. Ecological literacy: educating our children for a sustainable world. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, C.A.

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