When I was an inner city high school science teacher in the early 1990s, working with African-American and Latino immigrants, I used to attend ESL or English as a Second Language conferences. In those meetings, trying to figure out the best ways to reach students from different backgrounds, we would call props like this solar panel I'm holding in my hand “realia”. We used realia -- real objects that illustrated concepts -- as a bridge between levels of the learning pyramid using the old Confucian adage: "I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand."
Our goal was to "bring the textbook to life". We wanted our students to do demonstrations, have discussions and practice doing. We created a "trainer of trainers" model of student teacher partnerships where the students got involved teaching others. We were revising Bloom's Taxonomy, showing that teaching students how to CREATE was the most important cognitive skill:
Our teaching method was to embrace the multiple intelligences of each person and provide something for every style of learner: something visible for the visual learners – images accompanied by text, for example -- sounds for the auditory learners, and something tangible for the kinesthaetic learners, students who learn better by actually touching things. So I would always bring something I could pass around, like this folding photovoltaic panel that we use on our solar powered musical tours.
In a refugee camp in Palestine back in 2006 we used it to play musical chairs – one student would hold the panel to the sun while I played the guitar and others danced around in a circle. When the student closed the panel the electricity would stop and the music would stop and the kids would scramble for a chair. In this way, through hands on experience, they could literally get in touch with physics and electronics.
When I left the West Bank after these workshops I would leave behind the solar panel so the kids could continue satisfying their curiousity, hands on. Nobody who touched that panel and made music through the magic of sunlight ever forgot the word "photovoltaics" or even "Copper Gallium Indium Diselenide thin film solar".
So, Hi, I'm Thomas Taha Rassam Culhane, and I do indeed live curious.
I started my teaching career in the inner city “ghetto” schools of Los Angeles where poverty, gang violence and drugs were making effective learning a particular challenge.
The first music video I made with my class, in 1989, was designed as a way to bring the textbook to life and to take the bottom of Bloom's Taxonomy, Rote Memorization, and make it a joyful activity, realizing that the act of repetition worked much much better when it was set to music. And movement. We also learned that in the process of rehearsing for a music video nobody minded going over the material again and again. We moved easily up the levels, remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating and creating.
I was content teaching science this way, traveling around the country and the teaching the melodic-mnemonic method with the National Science Teacher's Association, until 1994 when the earthquake hit Los Angeles and took out our electricity and water and gas, collapsing freeways and making food deliveries impossible. In the poor areas where I taught the disruptions lasted for weeks.
That is when I realized we had to teach science in a different way -- making it not just fun and effective, but RELEVANT to survival issues.
This was the beginning of my mission with my students, making videos not just about the science others did, but doing the science of sustainability and then making videos to share what we learned.
I love solving problems and, as a college professor and former high school teacher, I love sharing the skills of problem solving with my students. Let me start by having National Geographic introduce me on location so you can get an idea of who I am and some of what I do!
When I think about it, I realize that my entire education has really been about learning some kind of language that was once foreign to me, and what I do now as an educator, as a college professor and National Geographic Explorer is essentially teach people to speak and understand different types of languages, for example the language of science and math and philosophy, but in a way that has grown in sophistication through my work around the world with Nat Geo, experiencing so many cultures different from my own
My geographical reach has expanded, from an Arab American kid growing up in a big city in the Midwest of the US -- reading National Geographic magazines and dreaming of visiting other cultures and seeing wildlife -- to becoming an explorer who spends time working in at least 10 different countries every year, from the jungles of Borneo to the Ministries of Baghdad...
And in the same way my definition of languages has expanded, so that I now am beginning to understand how Society and the Earth and the Oceans speak to us through the logic of economies and ecologies. I have learned how to read the world through science and technology, engineering, art and math and music. We once called these subjects STEM education, and there is a movement to integrate them all, but now increasingly we call them STEAMM education. STEAMM education explicitly asks us to bring art and music back into all subject areas so we employ all of our intelligences and capacities.
I teach my students to be able to read the world, to make it legible. I pursue world literacy through animation and video and comic art, through computer games and simulations and through creative projects where they can bring their own deep knowings and interests and personalities to interact with knowledge, focusing on solving real world development problems.
One thing we do in my classes is use computer game engines and 3D animation software like Google Sketchup and Blender 3D and google earth and maps to make simulations of the places we are working in the world. This video we made shows the school we were working in in old Cairo and our apartment in the slums.
I try to teach my students to improve their English and to explore Spanish and Arabic and French, and the Latin and Greek that form the foundation of what we call science speak and that make science classes so hard for so many. But I also teach them how to speak 3D, that is, how to use today's technology to illustrate concepts and ideas not just in words or mere two dimensional diagrams or pictures, but in objects.
And when I want to teach them how to build a simple biodigester that can turn kitchen scraps into fuel and fertilizer, I sent them this:
And then my students helped us come up with this, an even more sophisticated engineering design which we then built at schools around the world because the animation made it so easy to understand:
A 9th grader taught me much of what I know about how to speak 3D -- he was an inner city kid who learned Blender on his own because he loved computer games. He had been considered a failure in many subjects and a slow learner until the computer science teacher discovered Benjamin's passion for 3D animation. Kid turned out to be a genius who just didn't like the way school was taught.
So, If a picture is worth a thousand words, an object that can be rotated and manipulated may be worth 10,000. I teach my students to create 3D objects on the computer and to build them in real life. And I try to teach them how to speak and understand 4D – using animation and process technology – robotics and environmental sensors, to gather data over time and to communicate what they are learning in time.
These are all things that National Geographic has used to communicate effectively for decades in their own educational materials. What I try to do is get students to learn how to create their own materials this way too so that they are creating their own living textbooks and own the material. Why not? The technologies exist and are now affordable and easy to learn.
I guess you could call what I do “teaching the National Geographic way!”. In effect I see my role as a teacher being to transform all my students into members of our National Geographic E-team – our team of National Geographic Explorers and Educators.
This work led me to becoming one of the creative directors of the Wadi Environmental Science Center in Cairo Egypt. There we taught students from rich and poor areas alike not just how to make the textbook come to life in a fun way, but literally how to make their own solar hot water heaters and how to do recycling and grow food and we built a solar and wind powered concert and presentation stage. We used video production for the students to present what they were learning, and through the narration and titles they learned English in a thematic interdisciplinary way.
Today I teach Environmental Sustainability and Justice to students from around the world at Mercy College in New York and I go all around the world teaching communities how to build their own food waste to fuel and fertilizer and fresh food renewable energy systems with National Geographic. We are teaching that we can turn all that waste not just into clean fuel but that we can use it to grow food in the desert, that we don't need soil at all. At my college and in Cairo we use it to produce food from hydroponics and aeroponics in rooftop gardens.