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What It Means to Learn Science

One way to solve complex problems like climate change may be to teach science in more complex and personal ways.
Girl with magnifying glass

By making science more personal, an understanding of complex issues facing the natural world, such as climate change, can emerge. In order to help educators teach children how to better connect with the natural world, Northwestern Professor Megan Bang and University of Washington Assistant Professor Carrie Tzou are developing innovative and equitable field-based science education, but, they say, in order to fully understand the complexities of science, we first need to understand children’s lives.

"In science especially, we're really good at pretending that lived experience doesn't matter for the sake of whatever we call objectivity in science," says Tzou. "And I think we're arguing in our work for a different stance on what it means to learn science."

In this week’s Harvard EdCast, Bang and Tsou share ways to make science more personal and how to better connect children's learning to the natural world.  


Jill Anderson: I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast. Megan Bang and Carrie Tzou know science education needs to shift, if we want to make a difference on issues like climate change. Those shifts aren't what you might suspect and require more than just teaching about the environment. Their research project Learning in Places develops innovative and equitable field-based science lessons. Making science more personal for children is a goal in their work. We don't always think about science as something personal. So I asked Megan why that's important.

Megan Bang

 I come to this work as a native woman, I think about human relationships to the natural world as fundamental to who we are, and in the schooling world that has meant science. Science has been the domain of making sense of the natural world to natural phenomenon. Part of how I got interested in science education was from that fundamental perspective, but I think it's important that we all recognize that human beings are dependent upon the natural world. And lots of times we position the natural world in a sterile view, but actually it's very lived. It is ingrained in our everyday interactions in all kinds of ways, meaningfully, and yet we haven't necessarily recognized that as part of human learning.

So for me, I think there's that piece, I think the other piece is to recognize is that learning and identity are always intertwined for young people. I would argue for all people, but especially for young people who are trying to figure out who they are in this world, what's important to them. What's important to their families and their communities. That those things are always in motion as kids are learning too. So when we don't emphasize it, we're actually leaving them on their own to figure out those things. I often say, when we mute it, we don't make space for it, it's not that it's not happening. It's just, we haven't really supported kids in doing that. Carrie, I'm wondering if there are things that strike you about that or other things to add.

Carrie Tzou

Just adding on to what Megan just said. Kids have their lived experiences that they don't shed when they walk into a classroom. And when you don't connect their learning with those lived experiences, then you make part of them invisible in their learning experiences. And so just as Megan said, with learning and identity being so closely intertwined, that then making part of them invisible in classrooms, also has effects on their learning. In science especially we're really good at pretending that lived experience doesn't matter for the sake of whatever we call objectivity in science. And I think we're arguing in our work for a different stance on what it means to learn science.

Megan Bang: And maybe I would add to that it's true for expert science too. Scientists at the edges of their discipline aren't impersonal. If we actually look at the science studies, how we study things have shifted and they're variable actually across nations or across cultural backgrounds. Sometimes I think we've created a view of science that isn't actually accurate for the most edge expert scientists in the world either.

Jill Anderson: So how do we typically relate with the natural world in STEM education today?

Megan Bang: Well, we've been working for a long time to understand the difference between what we might call models of humans as a part from as kind of extracted or segregated from the natural world. And for us, a kind of other model is what happens when we view humans as a part of the natural world that is that we're embedded in it. Through that we actually are embedded in the natural world, but sometimes we create these abstractions or distances away from the natural world, in psychology we call it a psychological distance. And for us, literally, what that has meant is that learning happens inside boxes, called buildings, even learning about the phenomena that is right outside people's windows still happens in these rooms. And not that there isn't really important. I think we've thought a lot about, what's a model of what we call field-based science education, where learners can actually go outside as well as things like indoor or lab based sciences too.

And the history of science education in the United States has privileged a lab view of the sciences in the way that we've organized things. And in many ways, our paradigms of how we've physically organized learning, hasn't always been informed by the best science of learning and human development. And for us, we're really trying to move to a model of science education, where kids are a part of the natural world. And we've done a lot of studies to demonstrate that actually kids have been taught that being outdoors is playtime, at least explicitly. And we've really been trying to move towards models where kids are reasoning around the complex ecological system. That's what we call it, but making sense of the natural world in its wholeness, as well as their relationship to it and actually human relationships to it.

Carrie Tzou: And I guess I'll just add onto that, that if we continue to think about humans, as apart from separated from the natural world, we also make invisible the decisions that we make to influence the natural world. And when we think about issues like climate change, that becomes a detriment and a barrier to thinking about how we can make a difference in climate change. So that's also part of what we're striving for is with like part of and connection to the natural world.

Megan Bang: People have increasingly studied whether it's children's geographies or in the study of environmental decision-making and reasoning. There's been a degradation at a societal level of people's everyday understandings about the natural world. College students 40 years ago actually knew more plants by their name or trees than the average college student does today. But when you change your level of expertise, even if its routine expertise, what your reason is relevant to those decisions that Carrie was just talking about completely changes.

And so part of what we've been up to is thinking about what are the baseline knowledges and expertise and ways of reasoning about decisions that have to do with humans in the natural world, that we actually need in the what I think we talk about is in times of adapting to a changing climate. Right? Climate change is a phenomena, but we're living amongst adaptations in it. And so for us, yes, we need to know about climate change, but we also have to think about how do human communities need to evolve and shift given the realities of how our environments are shifting?

Jill Anderson: I definitely want to ask you about climate change, but I keep thinking to myself when hearing about how kids relate outdoor time to play time, or just college students not being able to identify as many plants as they used to be able to. And I'm wondering, how should we relate to the natural world? How could this start to look a little bit differently In the classroom?

Megan Bang: I think that's a really big, important question that fields are asking in all kinds of ways. And I think we have to move from what we've called, the view of human entitlement and extraction to views of reciprocity and what sustainability looks like. So that we actually are evolving systems where there's a bit of a human different role. I think we facilitate actually kids and people not really taking into account the full scope of the impacts of their choices and the rippled effects. So for me, this is really about developing a sense of reciprocity, a sense of humility, a sense of collective as distinct from individual needs or desires or wants towards how do we engage around thinking and decision-making, that's around collective wellbeing? And I mean that for humans, but I mean that for all life, I don't think we facilitate that kind of sensibility yet in the way that we engage in forms of education. Carrie, I'm wondering if you think about it a little differently.

Carrie Tzou: I don't think about it differently. I think that it's about shifting how we view our positions in relation to the natural world. And Megan, when you talk about humility and talk about, how do you include the natural world as part of yourself and as part of your decision-making, and as part of your fundamental to your lived experience? This is all about the part of. Could you imagine yourself as equal to the more than humans that are out in your backyard and in your neighborhood? We require a fundamental shift in how we educate young people about the natural world in order for that shift to happen I think.

Jill Anderson: When I think about something like climate change, one of the things I imagine is that it's troubling and difficult for educators to teach about it's highly politicized. And I don't know how that's playing out on the ground in schools. Do you have any insight into that?

Megan Bang: I think you're right, it's highly politicized. It's partly why though, I'll say Learning in Places doesn't claim that it's about climate change education, but it has to do with our view of what live life has to change. If as societies, we actually valued the natural world differently. If we didn't think about it as only natural resource that we were going to extract from for our entitled uses, what has created the Anthropocene and the times of changing climates would have been different in the first place. So it is politicized, but I think that there are ways to engage around. What I think we're talking about is ethical reasoning about relationships between humans and the natural world. And also what I think we've worked on a lot is to recognize what systems level understanding needs to look like. I think we've seen a struggle over time to think about a paradigm of climate education that helps accomplish what we need for a functional democracy about this. Part of what I think teachers struggle with is been the approach to how we teach about climate because of the politicization.

I think the other thing is, is that we scientized it in particular ways where we didn't elevate issues of identity in relationship to climate change. We didn't elevate that we're talking about all the little decisions that we make in our daily lives that lead up to the large scale climate change. So what we ended up getting is these macro scale paradigms that often make people feel pretty distant, right? So carbon sequestration, as an example, is an absolute necessity for us to do. Curbing emissions is an absolute necessity to do, and we have not necessarily helped people understand, we talk about carbon footprints or we talk about emissions footprints, but in many ways it hasn't helped us understand, what are the identity transformations? What are the ways of our daily lives that need to change?

And so I sometimes think that what we haven't a great job of is supported educators in navigating kids' everyday lives. In ways that line up with some of those macro scale policy things that we also need in ways that make sense. That are teachable, right? That are meaningfully engageable. I think that, that's a big part of it. I also think that there are all kinds of consequences about what needs to change that we sometimes don't engage in thinking about. So it's partly how it gets politicized. We have industries that probably need to shift, but we don't really educate our kids about industries. We don't really help them understand economics. There're real challenges to accomplishing this, and I think it speaks to, what are the different dimensions that you have to understand about climate change in order to think about it in particular ways?

If you only get components of it, or if you only hear the politicized narratives about the phenomenon, it makes it harder rather than really sinking into what is this really about at a lived level? I also think that we've tended to have narratives of fear as theories of behavior change in the way that we've constructed climate narratives. I don't think that, that's been productive and it's not how I want to educate children. I don't want to educate children through pedagogies of fear.

Carrie Tzou: Right. It leads to a paralysis and a disconnection. Another thing that we're doing in Learning in Places is also understanding where we are today in terms of where we've been and where we want to be in the future. Right? And so thinking about what we call histories of places from multiple dimensions. How we understand a place, our local place or places in general are really dependent on what human decisions, what geologic processes have happened in the past. But also a really fundamental way to understand place is to also imagine what kinds of ethical futures you want to imagine for those places in the future. It's that time element that also I think is missing in climate change education.

Jill Anderson: I do want to talk a little bit about the Learning in Places project that you're working on, because I keep hearing about really complex problems. And if I'm understanding it correctly, we're not really teaching about these problems or necessary the complexity of them. And there are ways to do that. And so I want to ask about the Learning in Places project, what is it? And what's the goal of it?

Megan Bang: The Learning in Places project was after developing a model of field-based science education originally. And it was about, what does it mean to educate for living in a changing climate? I'm being deliberate about saying we are wanting to educate about living in a changing climate, not just about climate change. And for us, that means, what does it mean to teach about complex socio-ecological systems? And so we wanted a model that did that, and we wanted a model, for us we have this core idea that humans learning in outdoor places it expands the opportunities for young people to learn and to learn in deeply meaningful ways. So at its core that is Learning in Places, we're trying to come up with models of education for complex socio-ecological systems. We did that through a process of what we call co-design.

We engaged families, we engaged classroom teachers, we engaged informal educators from community-based organizations and culturally based organizations, district administrators, and then scholars and researchers through a process over a couple of years of really imagining and building what that model would be. We came to organize the model around the larger, huge concept of phenology, which is the science of the seasons. And in part, we did that because one of the things that's happening with changing climates is that seasonal patterns are shifting. And many of our families pointed out that a lot of their cultural practices revolved around seasons. And so it was a way for us to build a model that deeply connected culture and identity and everyday routine practices with some of the deep sciences that are connected to changing climates. Over this time, we've built a model. And I guess I want to say that the model, we have what we call our project rhizome, there's a bunch of deep theory to that too, but it's our clever way of asserting our plant people status that we like rhizomes.

And we think about how are you growing a different model, a different paradigm that can move and shift? We did it with PK-3 in part, because the focus on science education in the younger grades has been a lift. I think that our literacy math dominant paradigms have meant that often the science is pretty thin for younger grades. And from the science of human learning, it's also when kids are deeply interested. Because we care about teaching about social systems and dimensions of social systems alongside ecological systems, means that dimensions of what we call power and historicity are always also at play. And what we mean by historicity is not history exactly, although you need to know that, but it's what kinds of historical sensibilities are you recognizing as always shaping what is unfolding and what kinds of futures, what kinds of histories are you hoping to make?

So we really did this model development that had these core principles. And over time, what we've done is we've built a model and then we've done the detailed work of building learning engagements. We have what we call our seasonal storyline, and that storyline is made up a series of bundles of learning engagements and learning engagements have a series of specific lesson plans. And the idea is that educators engage in a seasonal storyline once a season to do different kinds of investigations. I think one of the things that emerged for us that was super important is that oftentimes science investigations are driven by particular forms of questions. And over time our model asks what we call, should we questions. And those should we questions motivate what we think about as ethical deliberation and decision-making, but they also motivate the need to engage in scientific inquiry so that you're engaging in ethics with evidence base.

Jill Anderson: What is this look like in the classroom?

Carrie Tzou: So classrooms and families end up asking, should we questions about natural phenomena that they've observed and wonder about and have collected data around. And so one example in a kindergarten classroom was, should we move worms off the sidewalk, move earth ones off the sidewalk? And in the process of investigating that, should we question the class had to learn a whole bunch about worms and their anatomy, about worms ecosystem and who the worms are in relationship with in those systems, about soil and soil saturation. They role played, they collected data and analyzed what happened in Seattle in our rainy season. So the should we questions end up not only stemming from what the kids and families are already wondering about, but also lead into all of these branches of investigation and deep reasoning about socio-ecological systems. And also have the kids wondering what should our role be in that system?

Megan Bang: And just to build on that, right? On the one hand, we might think that that question is, Oh, well, there're worms on the sidewalk. The scientists are asking other questions like that. Should we remove invasive species? Should we intervene with populations of particular species that are struggling for life? That question, should we move the worms? Is a thinking that is actually really a kin to some of the more sophisticated or expert forms of questions that scientists, natural resource managers are having to model and think about all the time. And are pressing questions of things like climate change when we think about potentially economic collapsing and those sorts of things. And so I think the other thing that I'll just say is that we work hard to take the intellectual work of young people and imagine the seriousness of it, to take it as really dignified thinking that they're trying to do.

And so a lot of our project has been supporting an educators re-imagining, hearing kiddos thinking, noticing what they're paying attention to and thinking about different trajectories. And I think for us that means really upending some of the implicit deficit models that we tend to project on kids and that we tend to not see the seriousness of their wonderings. And so for us, this way of actually helping to recognize this is what it looks like when a five-year-old is asking actually a really profoundly important question and what it looks like to help support them in deepening that question. Because we could just say, Oh, it's okay. There are more worms, right. But what Carrie just pointed to is if we see interest in worms in their behavior, what does it look like to deepen those interests through cycles of inquiry?

Jill Anderson: Right. I imagine if an educator is listening to this and they're struggling with trying to figure out how to do this on their own, what do you recommend for them? How do they get started? Is this just something that applies to younger kids? Or can you apply these concepts and ways to maybe an older classroom with older children?

Megan Bang: Well, a couple of things I'll say so one, we will continue to run professional development, free programs that people we would love for people to join. Two, we are intending to continue to grow this. Our intent is to have a PK-8 models. Our model is not age specific. Some of the tools are not probably fifth or sixth grade ready, but the model itself is not only about younger children. And so I think absolutely one of my favorite things, there was a high school chemistry teacher that when the first shutdown happened, he was doing all of our Learning in Places tools on his own and tweeting about them. And it was so satisfying, because he kept on saying, Oh, I'm going to do this with my students when we returned to school. So I think absolutely the model could be used. We spend a lot of time with educators thinking about how power plays out in classrooms, how their perceptions of boys of color show up in their interpretive stances, how they engage in thinking about and worrying about children's behavior outdoors.

Certainly go to our website, you're welcome to all the materials, participate in our programs. We're making this all publicly free, partly because we're hoping people will innovate and make it better. That is our orientation to it. But I also want to say that I think that for all educators really reflecting on your own assumptions and taking up, that the dynamics that we're talking about, the social interactions and the forms of power and historicity that give rise to our current context. You have to be willing to really engage them, even with five and six year olds. And I think that one of the major things that we've learned is when educators first go outside, many of their under examined micro dynamics elevate. And so I say that because I think we started to feel an ethical responsibility to educators who want to take this up, is that you have to think about racialized dynamics between children, between adults and children and the ways that the natural world itself has become racialized.

And without it, you can lead to all kinds of complicated assumptions. Even at the level for example, we sometimes get folks who teach in very densely urban communities and they assume that Learning in Places is for suburban places. And I think it's in part because the way that we've started to view the natural world is its absence from life. And I often say I started out as an educator doing walks in the alleys of Chicago and looking at the plant life there and understanding that the things that people call weeds are actually our native species that are still in the soil banks. And that we can learn something about that. So our frameworks are designed to do this is to help raise up the big ideas and to do some self-assessments and to think about it. So I might also recommend that educators take a look at the frameworks before you jump to all the learning engagements. But Carrie, what'd I miss and how could you extend that?

Carrie Tzou: I think I would extend it in one way in that just as we're trying to really support a change in relation between children and the natural world, I think teachers need to also examine their own relations to the natural world. And that can start by taking a walk and really reflecting on what you wonder about and what you notice and what your own cultural practices are around the seasons. And to realize that you actually do have cultural practices around the season. So I guess I would just say, if you want to get started, another thing to do is to take a wandering walk and see what you notice and wonder and think about your own relationship with the natural world around you.

Jill Anderson: Thank you so much, Carrie and Megan.

Megan Bang: Well, thank you so much.

Carrie Tsou: Yeah. Thanks so much for having us.

Jill Anderson: Megan Bang is a professor of the learning sciences and psychology at Northwestern University. Carrie Tsou is a professor in science education at University of Washington at Bothell. They are lead investigators on Learning in Places where they co-design innovative research and practice in science education. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening.


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