It may have seemed like just another day for NASA. But when I heard that rapper Will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas debuted his new song, "Reach for the Stars," from Mars, I grabbed my iPad to learn more. Here was a Grammy-winning artist promoting science education, and more specifically STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). His teenage fans could relate to something as unreachable as space exploration by connecting it to something they do every day -- listen to music.
As the Executive Director of REAL School Gardens, an organization that creates learning gardens that increase academic achievement, I applaud Will.i.am's efforts. I hope he's turned the heads of teens who might otherwise scoff at science. Will.i.am is right: we need to make STEM more appealing for young people, especially if we want to grow the pool of talent for scientific and technological innovation.
Without a solid foundation in science, students will find it difficult to integrate it with math, engineering, and technology. According to the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress, more than 60 percent of U.S. fourth graders aren't proficient in science. And even though our eight grade scores are on the rise, 65 percent of students weren't proficient in 2011. Our students are capable of so much more.
Science doesn't have to be as cool as sending a Will.i.am song to Mars to engage students. If we bring science down to Earth, we can use the simplest of resources to make it relevant: the outdoors. As a mother of a three-year-old boy, I am constantly reminded that science comes naturally to young children when they are outdoors. My son knows which brick to turn over to find roly polies, and when he finds them, the questions begin: Why do they live there? Do they live there when it rains? Do they like the summer? His drive to learn is strong, and while I like to think my son is special, his sense of wonder is common among children his age.
Our children don't lose their curiosity once they enter school, but they often lose their drive to learn. Once we start treating the outdoors as a living laboratory, children will continue exploring the things that attracted their attention in the first place.
Take for example a fourth-grade lesson on sedimentation. Teachers often extend a textbook lesson by bringing examples into the classroom or by building a hands-on model with cookies and whip cream. Children learn about these processes at a basic level, but probably don't know how to apply that knowledge in a real-world setting. Imagine what happens if you take children on a scavenger hunt to find examples of sedimentation on their school grounds. Children see sedimentation occurring in a natural setting, notice what else is at play in the environment, and understand the larger context in which the process occurs.
The outdoors -- and especially well-designed learning gardens -- also give purpose to data collection, experimentation and problem-solving. In an indoor classroom, students graph data that is given to them by their teacher. In a school garden they collect data that is necessary to the garden's growth and survival. They record and graph the daily temperature of their compost bin, determine the necessary conditions for decomposition, and problem solve if the compost cools down. At the same time, they learn about a sustainable way to manage waste.
In the climate of high-stakes testing and a growing achievement gap in our country, some may argue that outdoor teaching takes kids away from the classroom instruction they desperately need. The greater danger is depriving them of the engaging, interactive and real-world learning opportunities that nature provides. Rather than a substitute for "book learning," the outdoors and school gardens are living classrooms that reinforce, extend and bring to life what children are learning indoors.
Over the past nine years, REAL School Gardens has worked with 81 schools serving children from low-income families. We build learning gardens with a variety of educational features (vegetable beds, wildlife habitats, geology beds, composting systems, ponds and rain barrels, to name a few) and train teachers to use them as academic resources. This year, 84 percent of the fourth- and fifth-grade students surveyed report being more engaged in learning math and science while in their school's garden than the classroom.
Thank you again, Will.i.am, for your efforts to make science relevant for young people. But please don't forget: some of the most relevant things are much closer than Mars -- a step away, just beyond the classroom door.