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Go teach!

Editor’s note: with this post we are proud to launch a new EcoPress category: Education. As scientists, education is an important avenue to communicate our research. By sharing new perspectives and knowledge with students, we can expand our impacts by reaching out to broader audiences who might either be interested in or benefit from new understanding of how the world works. The importance of these efforts are reflected both across the academic world- e.g. National Science Foundation’s Broader Impacts requirement with all grants – as well as specifically within NREL, where a summary of education efforts and resources can be found here. Past EcoPress posts with an education focus can be found in the new Education category, and we hope to provide many more in the future.- Nell Campbell

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By Dave Swift

This past November I went to Ponderosa Elementary school in Loveland which classifies itself as a “school of global focus”.  Because of this focus, I chose to talk about Kenya and the research that I had been involved in among the Turkana in that country.  I talked to about 80 second grade students (40 at a time) and found the experience to be really enjoyable.  I was enormously impressed with what the students knew and the types of questions and comments they had.  I came away from the experience wanting to encourage other scientists to get out there into K-12 classrooms and teach.

I knew that these students had recently had a unit on “maps” and another on “communities”, so I built my presentation to meld with what they were already learning.  I started my presentation with a map of the world and they all recognized that.  They also knew that we were not in Brazil or Sweden. That is, they knew where the US was on the map and who our neighbors are to the north and the south.  When I pointed out that the eastern contour of South America and the western contour of Africa looked like they might be parts of a puzzle that had been together at some time in the past, this was treated as old news by them.  They knew that the process of separation took millions of years and one lad, at least, knew that the process was called continental drift.

I then talked about Kenya in general and more specifically about the Turkana people and their way of life.  So we talked quite a bit about poverty, income inequality and unfamiliar dietary customs – such as the drinking of raw blood mixed with sugar.  I emphasized that the Turkana form a community that performs most all of the functions that their Loveland community performs.  It’s just that it doesn’t stay in one place the way Loveland does. I also taught them a little Swahili – mostly the names of the animals I had pictures of but also some other relevant words.  I told them that when they got home they should tell their moms that they had learned some Swahili today and then say to her, “Ninakupenda, Mama” (I love you, Mom).

“Dear Dr. Swift, Thank you for teaching us all about Kenya and Turkana…I learned that people in Turkana drink blood and that’s very different from us. I also learned that kids in Turkana play soccer like we do here in Loveland….”

I used a lot of pictures of the charismatic mega fauna of Kenya, of Turkana livestock and children and of the Turkana people in their unfamiliar (to the students) dress.  This was a really enjoyable opportunity for me.  I was amazed at how much the kids knew and how attentive they were and at the quality of their questions (“Where do they get the money to pay their cell phone bills?”).

Doing this type of presentation is a very good way to get our research out in front of the people in our local communities.  It is also of real value to the kids in the public schools to be able to interact with folks with firsthand knowledge of strange and unusual places.  I have since recruited two of our graduate students to go down and talk about Tibet and the effects of climate change in Peru.  If anyone else – student or faculty – is interested, let me know.

“Dear Dave, thank you for coming to teach us about Turkana. I learned that they drink milk. But it is cool that they drink different kinds of milk. It was funny that spiders scream and tall birds, they are as tall as you…I want to go to Kenya!”

For me, the high point was when, after I had finished, a little girl came up to me and said, “Not everybody lives the way we do, do they.” This was exactly the point I was trying to make – much of the world is qualitatively different from the U.S.  Far too few people in the U.S., of any age, really understand that.