When it comes to science education and tackling the big environmental challenges of our time, old industrial age educational paradigms must give way to a more nuanced understanding of the way our brains work.
In my classroom we imagine ourselves, students and instructors alike, to be explorers and to be producers. We follow the "prosumer" mentality of futurist Alvin Toffler, who urged that we all be simultaneously producers and consumers, for this is the way that nature operates.
The problem's with education are summarized by the four lower levels of Bloom's taxonomy, which start with rote memorization and move up through Understanding, Applying and Analysing. It was assumed that students needed to get those foundational skills first before they could move on to Evaluating and Creating. It turns out that this isn't so.
So in my classes we start with the creative act.
Our idea is that the creative process itself inspires evaluation, analyses, application, understanding, and, yes, memorization. But we also take inspiration from leading play theorists throughout history, like German philosopher and naturalist Karl Groos who studied and wrote about the survival function of play in both non-human animals and humans in the early 1900s, and anthropologist Brian Sutton-Smith. All have emphasized that in the training phase of learning, the learner needs to be doing it for the intrinsic fun of it, not for some extrinsic reward, even if that reward is survival. Groos oberserved "If the player were playing for a serious purpose, much of play's educative power would be lost."
As a National Geographic Explorer and Science Educator I am aware that the problems we are trying to solve are quite serious. But to get meaningful results I turn what I am doing into creative play.
Survival Horror as a way to learn to Survive
The public is quite enamored with survival horror fiction these days, from video games to television programs like 'the Walking Dead', doomsday scenarios are hugely popular. Even in the latest special edition of Newsweek Magazine, in which my own work turning toilet and kitchen wastes into clean renewable energy and fertilizer is featured, the magazine ends with the section "10 things I learned from the Walking Dead".
As a science educator I can certainly make good use of this phenomenon. There is no hook better for discussing the scientific and technical realities of providing reliable energy, food, water and shelter with students than an imaginative journey into the apocalyptic landscape of The Walking Dead. Every semester we have two thematic projects -- how you would survive a Zombie Apocalypse and what kind of Eutopia you would create if you had the means to build your own community. Both flights of fancy are remarkably effective in getting students to consider the real engineering and philosophical challenges involved with making a better world, and it actually works better than trying to confront "real world" issues like climate change, species extinction, pollution and health issues.
But we take it much further than merely creating a "Talking Dead" dialog or discussion, for that is too theoretical and violates Confucious' principle "I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand."
To truly work our way to deep understanding, we have to DO. But this is much easier than one would think.
In my class, once students have gotten their creative juices flowing, doing is all they want to do. Creating begets creating, and we end up Blending Realities -- Creating Eutopia by Blending the Virtual and the Real. Sometimes we create in the virtual world, using pen and paper, using computer screens and software, like Blender 3D, a free game engine and animation and modelling and video production software. And sometimes we create in the real world, using cardboard and wood and solar panels and tanks and plumbing supplies. Often, like any good theatre or Hollywood stage crew or special effects department, we blend both.
Sometimes this results in fantasy that feels real, like when we create a survival scene in a home-made zombie movie, and sometimes we create realities that feel like fantasy, like when we create real functioning solar hot water systems and biogas systems and hydroponic and aeroponic soil free food growing systems and emergency electric light systems made from aluminum cans and LEDs and realize that we have solutions to some of humanity's biggest problems right at our finger tips.
At my college we have created a club called "Envisaj Mercy: the Mercy College Environmental Sustainability and Justice League" that is dedicated to this approach to science education. We are working on instructional materials that help teach others how we feel it is best to approach learning real and important skills... through play.