Earth Day 2012 at Prospect Sierra School: Learning about the Earth and the Universe Inspire AWEMay 18th, 2012
Parent Phillip Alvelda is a former NASA scientist chosen by the World Economic Forum as a World Technology Pioneer. He spoke about designing something that has never existed before to solve a difficult challenge. He used his amazing experience at NASA to demonstrate ways technology innovations support space exploration, hinting at what the future might hold for our next generation of young students who are creative scientific thinkers.
Frank Sulloway, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley has been leading research expeditions in the Galapagos Islands for 30 years. Sulloway explained how the Galapagos Islands represent an extraordinary locality for the study of evolution, beginning with Charles Darwin’s historic visit to the islands in 1835. Through stories and photos, he demonstrated how the islands represent almost every major evolutionary process in microcosm, including the role of geographic isolation in the origin of new species and the role of natural selection in the evolutionary process. During his workshop, he conveyed the harsh environment of the Galapagos (which drives the evolutionary processes) through the accounts of his Odyssean-like journeys. Middle schoolers realized how beautiful, dangerous, and amazing field research can be.
Parents and teachers led 20 thought-provoking, hands-on workshops: everything from “nature art” taught by artists outdoors to the magic of moving water taught by a parent-hydrologist (see photos). They also organized a bike-to-school (and walk and roll) day with 140 middle-schoolers participating, which resulted in an estimated savings of 554 pounds of carbon dioxide from not driving! Imagine if all 6 million students in California rode their bike or walked or took transit to school even one day - we'd save millions of tons of pollution.
At the final assembly, students were awestruck by all that we still do NOT understand about the universe. A 5-minute TED video about “how many universes are there?” provided background to a talk by parent, Saul Perlmutter , a U.C. Berkeley and Berkeley Lab physicist, who spoke about our rapidly expanding universe, supernovae, and the nature of dark energy. This talk was a mind boggling, never-to-be-forgotten experience. Perlmutter’s passion and imaginative curiosity were contagious, and his humbleness was remarkable: “Never be sure you absolutely know anything.”
What was thrilling to witness was the brilliant and engaged questions the kids asked. It was clear that their curiosity about the Earth and the universe were sparked. In fact weeks later, on a full day of hiking with the 5th graders in the Marin Headlands, a teacher listened with fascination as two boys on the trail theorized endlessly about the fabric of the expanding universe. They debated, challenging and building upon one another’s ideas for an hour! “If there’s an end, we can always go through the end somehow. Or if it’s infinite, how can there be space growing in between? Can infinity get bigger? Could it be a loop, like a donut? If you go in one direction after a million years would you come back to the place you started? If you graphed space, maybe there are tons of overlapping donuts …” One student wondered how to make a living as a physicist, searching for books he can understand about string theory. Another student wants to learn quantum mechanics and is also looking for books.
Kathryn Lee, Director of Partnerships, Innovation, and Service at Prospect Sierra School remarked “what I’m struck by is this: emotion matters and inspiration matters. Being exposed to big ideas is a tremendous boost to one’s intellectual development because mind and emotion are engaged at a high level. Often environmental education focuses on the huge problems, which can lead to feeling overwhelmed and burdened—not an optimal mood for learning and activating the caretaking behaviors essential for the health of our planet. Hopefully, these feelings of wonder and awe will inspire us to continue learning and adopting the practices necessary to protect our small spinning planet, home to family and friends, our dear Mother Earth.”