I LOVE PODCASTS! My students do as well. It's amazing the ridiculous number of podcasts that are out there. You can find one on any topic you could imagine. It's actually difficult at times to wade through all of the options. There are plenty of bad options, but there are some fantastic ones as well. Every single time I listen to a podcast I think of my students and how I could use the podcast in school - "my psychology students would love this podcast", or "wow, so and so needs to hear this statistic for their project", or "how could I incorporate this podcast into my advisory curriculum?", or "what projects could my students do that are relevant to this podcast?" I'm not even teaching right now, and it's still where my mind goes, because podcasts, when working with the right ones, can be such a a great learning tool.
As I was pulling together resources for this post, I quickly found that there is not a lot out there in way of podcast curriculum, and lessons that have already been created are usually tied to English courses. That's okay, because podcasts ARE great learning tools for English classes. But they can be applied to so much more than that! The brilliant thing about podcasts is that even if the initial intention is for an English activity, the experience is integrated. Students practice listening skills, critical thinking, writing, and they absorb a variety of content knowledge in an interesting and unique way. Anyway, I added whatever podcast teaching resources I could find below, but if anyone reading this has other insights, please share! When I share podcasts with my students, it's in the context of project-based learning for the most part. On the bright side, lack of podcast teaching resources leaves an opening for anyone who has the interest and time to design curriculum! However, as most of us lack enough time in the day to pee let alone design elaborate curriculum from scratch, consider making your class podcasting experience project-based. By taking that approach students have choice, and the learning experience is student-directed. It takes a lot off of your plate and comes with enormous benefits to your students. Check out this PBL project specifically designed for podcast projects. You can find similar projects here.
I have used all of the podcasts selected below (with the exception of the "maybe") with my students in some way or another. I use them most often as a project brainstorming activity for my PBL students. I have also selected specific episodes relevant to a seminar I was teaching. I have even taught entire seminars on one podcast series. The RIGHT podcasts never fail with students. So that you don't have to spend an enormous amount of time finding those "right" podcasts - the most audience appropriate and informative podcasts - I have shared below the podcasts I have used with my students. This is not a comprehensive list, as I have not listened to every podcast out there! I would guess that there are hundreds more. The general point of this post is to encourage podcast use in your classroom. As for the "maybe" podcast? It's a great podcast in general, but maybe not great for the classroom. Let me know what you think!
12 Great Podcasts for the Classroom:
1) Storycorps -
Storycorps is one of my favorite podcasts because the stories come from real, everyday people with relatable stories. The listening piece of the podcast is great in itself, but the best part about using Storycorps with students is that they can record their own story and publish it using theStorycorps app. It's a great learning tool for storytelling, writing, and interviewing. It's even a great resource for social emotional learning as it helps students gain perspective and build empathy. I have played stories from Storycorps for my advisory for various reasons and had my PBL students publish interviews on the Storycorps app as their final product. The stories are typically short, so it's not a huge time suck. Bonus. I included below an example of how powerful Storycorps can be. I will always remember this particular story because it changed how I think about forgiveness. Take a listen, maybe with your student as a introductory piece to using podcasts in class.
2) The Daily -
The Daily, by no surprise, produces a DAILY podcast on global and national news. Best for high school students perhaps. It's interesting, brief, and promotes responsible and productive citizenship. It would be an interesting and unique resource to incorporate into your class as a current events activity. The Daily encompasses the major local and global issues taking place right now. Check out Experimenting with Sound and Story: Teaching and Learning with 'The Daily" Podcast for teaching ideas.
3) This American Life -
This American Life is usually my go to podcast when it comes to teaching. It has been around since 1995, so there is no shortage of topics to choose from. Content covered is vast, including episodes on anthropology, art, biology, performing arts, business, law, communications, psychology, multi-cultural studies, writing, diversity, economics, and so on and so on. Episodes of This American Life are long, which may feel like a downside, but what's nice is each episode is separated into 3 "acts", each story independent from the others, so you can pick and choose small segments to focus on. I have even singled out episode openers, which are often times the most interesting part of the show. One student favorite is act 3 of "Bad Baby", episode #521. I listen to this episode with my advisory students, which inevitably launches a discussion about discipline, child behavior, and the telling of family and childhood stories. Another one that I use with my advisory students is "Tell Me I'm Fat", Act 2: It's a Small World After All. It's a good way to broach the topic of self-esteem and development of a healthy self-concept, which is lacking in the majority of teenagers. This American Life has it's own educational resource page. Take a look.
4) Stuff You Should Know -
Stuff You Should Know is great for integrated learning and project-based learning. I love this site because it covers a broad spectrum of topics. If you are looking for supplemental materials to teach on a specific topic such as the Stanford Prison Experiment for a psychology class, you can have students listen to the short podcast episode on that subject. There are thousands of "Stuff You Should Know" episodes. I personally use this as a brainstorming activity for my project-based learners. They may not know what topic they want to do a project on next. Listening to podcasts, particularly Stuff You Should Know, inspires ideas. Scrolling through the archives for a few minutes just now inspired a few topics I would love to do projects on myself! The PBL research process requires a variety of sources. Some students are audio learners. Gathering information from a podcast is a great option for those students.
5) Freakonomics Radio -
You may have heard of "Freakonomics" from the book series, written by Steven Levitt (economist) and Stephen Dubner (journalist). Together the two explore the curious enigmas of the modern world. The books spun off into a podcast called "Freakonomics Radio", hosted by Stephen Dubner. The episodes cover a variety of topics from cheating sumo wrestlers to what the world would look like if economists were in charge. Freakonomics Radio episodes could be applied to an economics, psychology, writing, ethics, statistics, politics, law, philosophy, biology or citizenship class, among others. And as I've said already, it's a great resource for project-based learners. The topics are vast, so students could choose a topic based on their interests. Or if you are confined to teaching to your subject, choose a relevant episode and have students design PBL projects based on that topic. Even if their topic is chosen for them, they will still have choice in final product, community experts, and presentation.
6) Climate Cast -
Climate Cast is a podcast that covers all things climate change. I love this podcast for so many reasons. One is that I'm a science teacher, so the topic of climate change is interesting and important to me. What's cool about this podcast is that it doesn't take a doom and gloom approach, even though it's a pressing issue. The hosts generally stick to the science and research. The purpose is to share information from relevant and credible sources. The episodes also vary in length, some 10 minutes, others 50 minutes. I use Climate Cast in my climate change seminar, but the topic of climate change naturally encompasses a variety of subjects - economics, geography, business, agriculture, environmental science, geology, statistics, technology, sociology, etc. - all of which are mentioned in one episode or another. Peruse the archives to find something that would be a good fit for your students.
7) Planet Money -
Ok, if your students are like me, dense when it comes to money, this may be a good podcast to introduce to your class. It's funny, interesting and perfect for a financial novice. My life was forever changed by the episode "Buy Low, Sell Prime", all about the strategies used by Amazon sellers. I always wondered how they make money, since Amazon is cheaper than everywhere else....right? Not necessarily. Another Planet Money resource I love is a series of videos that show the route a t-shirt makes through the production process. Planet Money Makes a T-Shirt. I implement these videos into my climate change class. You could take any episode of Planet Money and apply it to whatever class you're teaching, or you could do a project-based learning approach and have students do independent projects on episodes of interest.
8) Invisibilia -
Invisibilia is one of my favorite podcasts to use with my students. Each episode focuses on one theme around mysterious human behavior, which from a life science teacher's perspective, is an interesting way to teach neurology and human anatomy. My favorite two episodes go back to the first season. The first one, "Fearless", enlightens listeners on the science of fear, and you hear a story from a woman who was born without the "fear" gene. Wouldn't that be nice? Or maybe not? The other favorite is "How to Become Batman". A blind man tells his story on learning how to "see". This podcast would be great for a psychology class or a neurology unit and of course, PBL!
9) Serial -
OK, if you shrugged when you saw "Serial", I hear you. It's been around for a while, it's all people talked about for a long time. But truthfully, all the good things people said about it have checked out. It is truly amazing, especially for my students. The first season of Serial has been a particularly powerful teaching tool for my inner-city, teenage students (not appropriate for younger audiences in my opinion). This true story is about the murder of a teenage girl in the late 90's. Her ex-boyfriend was charged with her murder and has been in prison ever since. There is no physical evidence that he actually committed this crime. Sarah Koenig, reporter and host of the show, reports on the case. The characters in Serial, season 1, are my students, 30 years later. They are inner-city teenagers, some from immigrant families, that have made similar mistakes, similar life-choices. I have been teaching a seminar exclusively on Serial, season 1, for 5 years in a row. It never fails. I use an amazing resource from TpT, written by Mike and Melissa Godsey. Check it out here. The Serial website is also a great resource where maps, documents, and updates are posted. I require a final PBL project (chosen and designed by the student) from each of my students as well. Check out the examples in the photos below.
If your goal as a teacher is to exclusively teach content, don't give up on this podcast just yet! There is a lot to be learned from it. There are lessons on writing, reading, critical thinking, evidence analysis, mapping, interpreting different perspectives, memory, law, ethics, speaking and listening.
Oh! And Serial, season 3 was just released!!!!!
Student project: this student analyzed the evidence, drew conclusions, and presented her very convincing and well supported version of what happened that day the day Hae Min Lee was murdered.
Student project - this student created a website for our seminar class that he updated daily with character analysis, important document updates, looming questions about the case, and notes about evidence (or lack thereof).
10) Radiolab -
Arg, maybe Radiolab is my favorite? I think I've claimed every podcast as my favorite so far. Radiolab is all about the strange world of science. What's more interesting than that (says the science teacher)? Radiolab is so cool because the team of guys that host the show answer really random questions about the world. Listening always makes me very aware of how little I know, and how much there is still to learn. Knowledge is infinite. Radiolab in class is fun because my students and I learn together. Radiolab is particularly great in project-based learning settings, because one episode leads to an explosion of more questions to be answered. It inspires students and sparks project ideas. For fun science curriculum on Radiolab, check out Science Prof Online.
11) Ted Radio Hour -
Each episode of Ted Radio Hour, hosted by Guy Raz, is a mashup of three different Ted Talks on a given theme. There are so many Ted Talks to rifle through. Okay, again with project-based learning....sorry. I love Ted Radio Hour for my students when it comes to project-based learning. It is a great resource for student projects. Rather than rifling through the thousands of Ted Talks on "hate" for example, Guy Raz pulls together the three best Ted Talks on hate and presents them in an interesting and informative way.
12) RFK Tapes -
RFK Tapes is really just a fascinating listen. It is about Robert F. Kennedy's assassination. It has a "conspiracy theory" sort of theme, which I'm not a huge fan of, but my students are. That element is an awesome hook. You can teach history while satisfying student interest.
Now for the "maybe"....
1) Dr. Death -
Ahhh, what to say about Dr. Death? What a phenomenally enlightening, weird, glorious and frightening podcast. This podcast had me on the edge of my seat, BUT it also made me question everything I thought I knew about health care. The podcast is about one doctor, Dr. Death (aka Dr. Duntsch), a neurosurgeon who killed several people and paralyzed many others under his watch, under his knife, including one of his friends. He was the first Dr. in history to be prosecuted for his botched surgeries, tried as a "crime" rather than a law suit for malpractice. The podcast is about him and the long line of failures by the system. How did this guy get into medical school? How did he get his license? Why didn't anyone observing his surgeries - nurses, anesthesiologists, physicians assistants - say anything to anyone? And how in the world did it take 33 injured, paralyzed or dead patients to stop him from practicing medicine? This podcast works to uncover the answers to some of those questions.
So, why not play this podcasts for your students? My thoughts are that it probably depends on your audience. It may be appropriate for high school students. I also sense that it could be a trigger for those that have had unfortunate medical experiences or treatments. Descriptions of botched surgeries are also quite vivid, which had times made my whole body numb. It wouldn't be good for students (or teachers) that get queasy when it comes to bodily functions, body parts, blood, etc. The reporter and host of the podcast, Laura Beil, is a phenomenal storyteller. She makes you feel like you're right there, in the scene, in the hospital holding hands with a victim who just woke up from a surgery just to realize that he's paralyzed from the neck down. That may be hard for some individuals to stomach. Finally, I wouldn't want it to deter my students from seeking medical attention when it's needed. To instill a fear of Dr.'s or hospitals isn't very productive.
With that said, it is a good reminder for all to do research before having surgery of any kind, especially spinal surgery. Anyone who is operating on your body should come highly recommended, by more than just your physician, and have an outstanding reputation. It's a great lesson in critical thinking. You could easily incorporate the podcast series into any course on law, ethics, journalism, neuroscience, philosophy, anatomy and physiology and more depending on how you use it. The options are particularly limitless for project-based learners. They would design a project on the podcast that fits their learning styles, interests and needs.
My final thoughts are this: use Dr. Death in your classroom with discretion. Obviously listen to it before you play it for your students. Also seriously consider your audience. What is the class subject, how would you be using the podcast, what are student backgrounds, how well do you know your students and what they can handle, etc.? What do you think? Is Dr. Death a good podcast for students?
There are so many great podcasts out there. The ones already mentioned are just a few that I have used with my students. There are many others. The Moth, Science Friday, Crimetown, Malcolm Gladwell's Revisionist History, Hidden Brain, Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!, and S-Town are a few other great podcasts with potential for classroom use. Crimetown and S-Town should also be approached with caution. Listen first and have a clear purpose! I'd love to hear your opinions on great podcasts for teaching, plus any resources you'd like to share.
One last thing. I came across this resource that guides students in creating their own podcasts. The homepage has a link for students to enter in a podcast competition as well - Project Audio: Teaching Students How to Produce Their Own Podcast. I have not actually done this with my students. If you do, I'd love to hear about it!
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Earlier this week my two children were walking around outside collecting colorful fall leaves off of the ground that were already beginning to fall. I LOVE fall, but in Minnesota, the fall season is fleeting, and that means WINTER IS ALMOST HERE! Right now is a great time for schools to fund-raise, as many of the best fundraisers happen outdoors. So let's get to it before our fundraising is limited to shoveling snow!
As you know by now I was heavily involved in our school travel program. I have traveled with students to Costa Rica, Hawaii, Colorado, Texas, California, Florida, the U.P., and many very close to home. These trips are not free, nor are they cheap. They weren't possible without significant fundraising efforts by my students. I have been traveling with students for 9 years, so have a lot of experience with fundraising at this point. A lot of trial and error! A LOT OF ERROR. What I have found is that the best fundraisers are those that are student led - entirely planned and executed by students (with some guidance and a few seeds planted here and there.) There are enormous benefits to student-led fundraisers, one of which is the load it takes off of your already spread-thin plate, especially if there is one or two really ambitious, organized, motivated students that can take the reigns. There are also many benefits to students that participate in student-led fundraisers. They invest their time and put hope in the outcome, so see to it that it goes well and goals are met. Fundraising where students can get involved also provides opportunities to build important life skills such as marketing, communication, team-work, budgeting, conflict management, and organizational skills. A bonus? Kids love fundraising! I'm not sure what it is, but I won't argue with them if they're willing to participate in the effort.
I had many students that wanted to organize fundraisers, so I created a graphic organizer to help them streamline the planning process. That template is available at my TpT store (Experiential Learning Depot). Download it here for free - Graphic Organizer for Planning a Student-Led Fundraiser.
Now for the fundraisers. Some fundraisers are better than others when it comes to those that are student-led. I have listed the top 11 student-led fundraisers in my experience. I'm certain there are many great ones, and I'd love to hear about those!
Student-Led Fundraiser Tips:
1) Great fundraisers for students to lead are those that require little money upfront, are local or require light travel, the fundraiser location is easily accessible, the product for sale is made by the students (baked goods, candles, t-shirts, etc. - people are more likely to buy when they can see the effort put in), or the service provided is by that of the students.
2) Encourage students to connect with their community - hugely important. That might mean students spending some significant time just setting the stage for future fundraisers. Their neighbors will be their biggest allies when it comes to raising money because those neighbors could be their "customers" and they can spread the word.
3) Encourage students to collaborate with the school board - ideally you will have members on the school board that are well connected with potential big donors. Keep them in mind when fundraising. Ask student fundraisers to speak with or present to their school board, and ask the board to support student fundraisers.
4) Marketing! Planning and having a fundraiser is just a small piece of the big picture. Students must also get the word out there. There are a variety of ways to market fundraisers. Students know better than anyone how to use social media as a marketing tool! Work with that. Creating a marketing plan is one feature of the free graphic organizer already mentioned.
5) Students should have a specific project in mind - donors want to know where their money is going. Students should create a portable presentation (poster board) that they can put on display wherever they are fundraising. The board should lay out the purpose of the fundraiser. Whether it be a field trip, student travel opportunity, chemistry lab equipment, robots for a robotics class, iPads for your class, or simply notebooks and pencils, donors want to know. It makes it more personal.
6) Encourage students to start planning early. Marketing takes some time, and you don't want to spring a fundraiser on anyone. Give people notice so they can plan to be there!
Ok, here we are. Finally to the guts of this post. I have tried A LOT of different fundraisers with my students. The following 11 were the most successful in terms of student-involvement, money raised, and efficient use of time.
Easy to do Student-Led Fundraisers
1) Donors Choose - if you are an educator and you have not yet donated to a project on Donors Choose OR created a fundraising project of your own, you are truly missing out! Donors Choose is crowd-funding for educators. The best part? The website is deliberately designed to get students involved in their own fundraisers. For example, there might be a "project" created on an educators site to raise $1,000 for classroom Chrome Books. Students can create the project, market their project to friends and family, and are required to write a thank you letter if the project is fully funded. I have used Donors Choose for several school traveling experiences. One of my students created a "project" on Donors Choose asking for enough money to pay for student passports to get to Costa Rica. She met her goal in only two weeks. Passports paid for. The interesting part is that corporations looking to fund interesting projects surf the site. Our passports weren't paid for by donations only from friends and family. A big chunk of the money was donated by businesses.
The projects below are the fundraising projects, written by my students, that have been fully funded.
2) Hometown Calendars - several years ago my boss, a long-time loyalist to St. Paul, MN, noticed a lot of changes happening in our school community. A light rail was going in right in front of our building that would connect the two major downtown areas. He asked students to take photographs of some of the work, then had them go back into archives to find photographs of those same areas from decades ago to see how it has changed over the years. That is how the JCS calendar fundraiser got its start. The students formatted their photos into a calendar to sell. The students take the photos, find old photos to compare and contrast, create the calendars AND sell the calendars. They work closely with the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce as well. Check out their latest calendar below!
3) Class or school t-shirts - the last few years of my time teaching, my advisory students created school t-shirts to sell to students, teachers, parents and community members. All t-shirts were designed and created by the students. This type of fundraiser involves students from a variety of backgrounds with various talents, and it's fun if you make it an annual thing that the school community can look forward to each year. The picture below is a student-taken and edited photo of the St. Paul skyline that was printed on sweatshirts and t-shirts. It's a great student-created product for a student-led fundraiser.
4) School store - I like this fundraiser because it is mostly student-run, and they take pride it being a part of it. My students survey the student body asking for store product suggestions. It is where we sell healthy snacks, our school shirts, some quick and easy breakfast foods. The downside to the school store option is that the funds raised come exclusively from students. This worked for my students though because we didn't have vending machines in the building. We served breakfast and lunch and that was the only access students had to food throughout the day unless they brought their own snacks. The school store was the only place to get a quick snack in between meals. If the students aren't doing the bulk of the work for this fundraiser, it isn't worth doing. It is an enormous undertaking if you're doing it alone. The students can take charge of stocking, book-keeping, selling, etc.
5) Ready-bake holiday pies - the holiday season is upon us! Okay, I know that seems soon, but for Minnesotans, apple picking has begun already, and that means apple pies! It's never too early to get holiday pie fliers and order forms out to school staff, parents, board members, and neighborhood friends. Several years ago, one particular student who was raising money for a school trip to Hawaii, took charge of this fundraiser. We went to an orchard to pick apples, created fliers and order forms, spread the word on social media, and made freezable, ready-bake pies for pick-up. We wrapped them up and printed out holiday themed baking instructions. Making pies isn't cheap. The apples can get especially pricey. Work with an orchard in the community to arrange a discount or work exchange arrangement. Your fall-back could always be pumpkin pie. Canned pumpkin puree is fairly cheap. If you and your students are ambitious, consider extending this concept and start a school garden where you can grow pumpkins, blueberries, or whatever climate appropriate fruits would make for great pies! This fundraiser is great because it could be and should be almost entirely student-run (with some oversight on your part). They can create all of the marketing materials, design an order form, collect the ingredients (or start a garden), organize orders, make the pies, sell, etc. This was one of our most successful fundraisers because the community wanted to support student-driven endeavors. How good does that look!?
6) Venue events - there are a variety of venues and/or sports teams in the Twin Cities that support local schools and want to see them succeed. The Minnesota Twins and St. Paul Saints are two of the Twin Cities' baseball teams that have school fundraising programs. They put fundraising groups to work behind concessions at games and give them a large stipend at the end of the shift. Valley Fair is an amusement park in Minnesota that has a similar program. They take students behind the scenes to do various tasks in exchange for a large stipend after the shift. My students raised $2,000 toward their earth science trip to Hawaii from Valley Fair alone. This style of fundraising is great because the students did the coordinating. I just chaperoned. Check out local opportunities like this in your own community.
7) Rummage sale - before I talk this one up too much, I'm going to say that this one requires some serious work for everyone, even when it is student-led. However, if it is done well, you'll see serious payout. The reason for this is because it shouldn't cost you, students or the school a dime upfront. Items for sale should be donated. Students leading the fundraiser can ask students, teachers, parents and community members for donation items to sell at the rummage sale. A student of mine organized a rummage sale several years ago. She scanned Craigslist garage sale posts regularly, emailed garage sale hosts, and asked that they donate any leftover items to her rummage sale. We had so many donations, and ended up raising more money from this fundraiser than any fundraiser I have been involved with since. Last bit of advice is for student fundraisers to try to get their hands on baby and kids items!
8) Bake-off or cook-off - bake-offs and cook-offs are by far my favorite student-led fundraisers. Students get SO excited about these events. Bake-offs and cook-offs are both fantastic, however, our cook-offs have generally been more successful than bake-offs. Here is the gist of a cook-off:
9) Yard work service - basically a student fundraising team creates a lawn business. It's best to keep it simple. They can offer raking services, shoveling or weed pulling. This is a great student-led fundraiser for several reasons. One is that few materials are required, therefore it is cheap upfront. They would need rakes, shovels if for snow removal and some bags. They would also need transportation. That is why this is a great student-led fundraiser because students could advertise their services in their own neighborhood. My students usually made fliers and passed them out around the school community. Local businesses would have my student's shovel their sidewalks on snow days. The key to this fundraiser is marketing. A lot of folks are happy to do their own yard work. Others hire professional services. What we did was make it personal and meaningful. We advertised who we were and our fundraising goals. Most people want to support local schools. We also left "donation" amount up to the customer. Typically they give more than we would have asked for. This is also a great way for students to connect with the community, which is important for a variety of reasons.
10) Raffle - this is a great student-led fundraiser to add to any other fundraising event, such as a cook-off. My students wrote letters to local businesses introducing themselves, their fundraising goals, and their purpose for fundraising. They asked in their letters that these businesses donate gift cards to be used for a raffle fundraiser. The students wrote these letters and mailed them right before winter break. When we returned from winter break there were about 50 gift cards from various local businesses. We used the gift cards as raffle prizes at our cook-off fundraiser. It didn't cost anyone a dime, and the planning and prep was fairly straight forward. Students just wrote letters and mailed them to businesses. Simple.
11) Car wash - I probably don't have to tell you that a car wash is a great student-led fundraiser. We see them everywhere because they are straight forward, great money makers, and students love them. Do this before it gets too cold! Car washes are also great spring time fundraisers. I don't know about everywhere else, but in Minnesota, people are outside in shorts the second it hits 60 degrees. They flock to the outdoors, and are typically in good spirits, ready to give, because it may be the first glimpse of sunshine they have seen in 9 months! Have students check out Wikihow's simple instructions on having a car wash fundraiser. Encourage students to add smaller fundraisers to the car wash such as a hot dog stand, drinks for sale, and/or a bake sale.
Fundraisers aren't easy, but a little more manageable when they're student-led. The benefits of student-created, student-organized and student-run fundraisers are enormous, especially for the students.
What successful student-led fundraisers have you seen or been a part of? Please share!
Happy Monday! Have a great week everyone!
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Take Learning Outdoors
I have always been an avid outdoors-woman. I was raised with parents that valued and encouraged outdoor play and experiences. My second home growing up was a family cabin up north. When home from school for the summer my mother basically told me and my siblings to go outside and not to come back inside until dinner. All of our family vacations were outdoors. We had pretty strict video game and television rules. Even when we were in a position to break those rules, we would more often than not choose to be outside. An appreciation for the outdoors was so instilled in me as a child that I went on to get my degree in wildlife ecology and spent the first part of my adult career working with endangered species. Then I became a bio teacher, and now am a stay-at-home-mom raising two young children to love and appreciate nature as well. My children are the light of my life, and of course I want whats best for them. Their mental and physical well-being is my top priority, and I know spending time outdoors is the ticket.
The last few weeks I have been feeling on edge. Groggy. Foggy brained. And because I'm a stay-at-home-mom, my children and husband take the brunt of it. No one likes when I'm in "a mood". When I'm feeling that way, I know it's from one of three things: stress, not enough physical activity, or not enough time spent outside. In this particular case, it was all three. So! We hopped in the car and drove to the North Shore to camp at Gooseberry Falls State Park. Well, we didn't just "hop" anywhere. If you know me, you know that I am not a spontaneous person. I require diligent planning, and this trip was no different. It was great timing though! I really needed it, and so did my family. It was just what we needed to reflect, relax and refresh. Was it just a vacation that I needed? I don't believe so. I took a vacation with my family to an indoor water park over the winter, and as fun as it was, it was certainly in no way relaxing or reviving. There is something to be said about being in the great outdoors. I feel it, and research says so!
Study after study have shown the benefits of spending time outdoors, especially for young people. Harvard Medical School published a report in 2010 stating that spending time outdoors may be the prescription for better health. Stanford reported in 2015 that taking regular nature walks may lower risk of depression. Amazon is loaded with books dedicated to the simple idea that the human brain is wired to be outside: "Go Outside and Come Back Better" by Ron Lizzi, "The Nature Fix" by Florence Williams, "Balanced and Barefoot" by Angela J. Hanscom, "Vitamin N" by Richard Louv, and "Last Child in the Woods", also by Richard Louv. The list goes on and on. National Geographic published an awesome article titled "We are Wired to be Outside". It gets at the same point I've already made, that nature can be therapeutic. Cultures around the world have various practices and traditions that utilize this thinking. Check out the article for examples, such as the Japanese practice of "forest bathing". If you aren't yet convinced of the benefits of spending time outdoors, read a couple of the books or articles mentioned. Or think back at some of the books you yourself have read. Think of the classic story of the tormented adult, living in a world of stress and chaos, working a job they disdain, looking for a way out, a way to reinvent themselves, start over. You know the ones - "Wild", "Heroes of the Frontier", "Flat Broke with Two Goats", "Into the Wild". All great books with characters that find their way by getting outside! The innate human connection to nature is so profound for some that they will go to extremes to get that "high" as "Into Thin Air" and "Blind Descent" illustrate. My children's favorite books are those that take place outdoors or involve animals. Children have an intrinsic connection with, curiosity of and appreciation for nature. If you haven't noticed, I love books! But that's not what this is about. Keep reading...
The point is that nature is awesome, and it's odd that we live in a time that books need to be written about the health benefits of being outdoors. Why do we need convincing? We currently find ourselves in an environment of screens at our fingertips. Our children and students studying habitats using online simulations. Now more than ever we need to foster in our children an appreciation for the outdoors and provide opportunities for our children and students to spend time outside. That cannot just be on parents. Educators need to do more to get students outside. I am not saying that screens should be completely thrown out of the picture. As I sit here writing this blog, I clearly have some appreciation for technology. But screens should not replace outdoor time, physical activity, or opportunities to create, imagine and explore. Excessive screen time can severely compromise a child's ability to develop a healthy self-concept (specifically girls according to Leonard Sax in "Girls on the Edge".) I observed this on a daily basis with my female students when I was teaching. Social media sucked the life out of them. Excessive screen time can also be damaging to young people, more boys than girls, when real environments and experiences are getting replaced by imaginary ones, also according to Leonard Sax in "Boys Adrift". Boys are replacing real experiences with simulated ones, predominantly with video-games. Screens are not the only obstacle to children enjoying nature. Fear is another obstacle. Media has stirred up irrational fear by highlighting stories about abduction (which is rare by the way). One of my favorite Podcasts, Invisibilia, focuses one episode on fear. They talk with a man named Roger Hart who wanted to study children in their most natural setting. The outdoors. In the 1970's, he studied 86 children in a small town in Vermont, between ages 3-12 for 2 1/2 years. Without getting too wordy, the moral of the story is that he found that the parents of this population were "unmotivated by fear". Abduction was not a concern in the 70's. The children basically ran the town. They didn't have physical boundaries they couldn't go beyond, vs. at my home where I have trouble allowing my children to leave my eye site let alone my house, yard or block. So, yes, fast forward to today, and parents like me are the norm. Roger did some digging and found there are NO MORE abductions today than there were 50 years ago. So why the fear? Media. And what's the problem with that? Parents and teachers aren't allowing their children as much time outside. They are crippled by fear, irrationally believing that screens are safer than being outside. Ok, maybe that's not completely irrational. They probably are. How could one get physically hurt or kidnapped for that matter if they are indoors playing video games? It does hurt them in other ways, however, and I don't need to tell you that. Kids need to take healthy risks to grow and learn. There is such thing as "healthy risk", says Heather Shumaker, who wrote "It's Ok to go Up the Slide". "Nurture Shock" by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, and "Free Range Kids" by Lenore Skenazy are books with similar views and practical approaches to finding a balance. As a parent and educator, I know how hard this can be. But read my words, and those of the hundreds of books on this topic. Let them go outside! Make them go outside!
As I flip through photos of my recent family camping trip to Gooseberry Falls, I can pinpoint moments that couldn't have happened under any other circumstance. My children put their hands in the dirt, dipped their toes in the ice cold water of Lake Superior, bonded with their father whom they get little time with, inhaled fresh air, looked at the stars completely free from city lights. They took naps through the sounds of waves lapping on the shoreline. My four year old walked close to four miles and my darling 2 year old climbed on everything. I watched as this experience helped by youngest build confidence. They read books, real hard cover books, under the stars. My children only had each other and the world around them, so there was little time or need to bicker. They bonded over new and exciting experiences. They played cards by the fire. They learned how to build a fire! They found and made their own walking sticks. They learned how to read a map. They looked for big foot, observing their surroundings, getting in tune with their senses, and looking for "clues". They built on their family relationships, learned important life skills, tested their limits, used their senses and imaginations. In just two days my children were able to do all of this, learn all of this, with no plan. No textbooks, no lesson plans, PowerPoint lectures, no note-taking, no testing. Just them. Just us. Just the great outdoors.
When I was teaching, much of my curriculum focused around being outside of the building. As a small, project-based, community school, we were fortunate to have the encouragement and resources to take field trips, sometimes even large school trips. I've taken students camping at local State Parks, we've camped among the wolves at the Wildlife Science Center, I've taken students backpacking along Pictured Rocks National Lake Shore. I've traveled with students to the Black Hills, Colorado, Hawaii (twice), Costa Rica, Florida, California, Madeline Island, and others. All with an outdoor focus, which makes sense, as I am a biology teacher. The biology emphasis however wasn't really the point. I wasn't interested in my students walking away from these trips with a clear definition of a "biome". The purpose was exposure to new environments, developing an appreciation for nature, self-reflection, relationship building and more. I took students to Hawaii in 2012, and to this day they are bonded for life. They didn't know each other when we left home, and were best friends by the time we returned. Teachers (and parents), if you can, take your students on outdoor trips, camping if possible, or on day trips to a local park. If those opportunities are few and far between (or impossible for some), at a minimum take them onto school grounds for lessons. And for goodness sake, educators, DO NOT TAKE AWAY OUTDOOR RECESS from elementary students. Our children's health and wellness depend on it!
At this point you're probably thinking that this post is to provide book suggestions about the benefits of being outside! It is not, although I hope you find some of the books mentioned interesting and consider reading them. All great reads. The actual purpose of this post is to give educators ideas on how to inspire appreciation for the outdoors, and work outdoor time into your already existing curriculum. Check it out!
Books that Inspire
Ok, I'm not quite past books yet. I think you know by now that I believe books make the world go round! They can fix everything. They can teach any concept. They can solve global issues. And this is no different. Want to get your children and/or students outside? Read books with them that give them the urge to explore, or simply the desire to chill in some fresh air for a few minutes. Check out these lists of great reads that inspire a love of (or at least a respect for) the outdoors. The lists vary by age and purpose.
Exposure to the Outdoors Through Student-Travel Opportunities
Ok, I know for some this is tricky, but hear me out. I taught at an inner-city school for a long time. For a variety of reasons a lot of our students didn't get outside. Not just outside of the state or country, but outside of their neighborhoods, outside of their comfort zones. It was mostly for lack of opportunity. Part of the school's mission was to provide those opportunities, that exposure to students. "Global Opportunities to Change Lives" was our motto. And they did. These experiences did and do change lives. But those opportunities have to be there. If possible, plan an outdoor school trip. Propose a travel program to your school director or school board. Highlight the benefits of outdoor time AWAY from class, away from "noise", long enough to bond with classmates, reflect on life and gain perspective. As a project-based learning school, I had most of my students plan the trips (with my guidance of course.) If that is too much too soon, plan it yourself. I use this how-to guide sheet (free) to plan trips. It is also what I assign to my students if they want to plan a trip for a project. I created this when one of my students started taking interest in school travel. Consider assigning this project to your students even if student travel is only theoretical. Just giving students a chance to explore the possibilities will inspire them. They may even go on the trip someday on their own! Here is an example of a completed trip plan project and presentation to California that one of my student completed years ago and presented to the school board. We did end up taking this trip. I also have a "Plan a Trip Around the World" PBL lesson available as well. It's similar, with 5 destinations instead of one, and is designed using PBL principles. Finally, I kept a blog of student travel experiences with my students. Check it out for outdoor student travel ideas.
Overcoming Obstacles to Outdoor Learning
If you are an environmental science or phy ed. teacher, you're probably already an expert at getting your kids outside. That is the assumption anyway. My student teaching experience was with an IB biology class, and not once did the students go outside. Not with my cooperating teacher and not with me. There were "too many obstacles", it took "too much planning", there was "too much red tape", there were "too many standards to cover, not enough time to play around outdoors", "outdoor time is a luxury". These are all obstacles that even a wildlife ecology teacher might face. Every obstacle to taking students outdoors are legitimate. But might there be ways around them? Almost all obstacles come down to subject integration and classroom management. Find tips from an excerpt from "Moving the Classroom Outdoors: Schoolyard Enhanced Learning in Action" by Herbert W. Broda.
Activities to do with your Students Outdoors
At every opportunity, take your students outside. If you have a lesson that could just be moved out onto the grass, do it, even if it means modifying your plans a little. Best case scenario is that your lesson incorporates natural surroundings. This is easy for project-based learners and life science teachers. For math teachers, maybe not quite as easy. Or is it? Check out some of these fun integrated outdoor learning activities.
Top Young Adult Books to Read Outside:
Ok, so these lists of young adult novels isn't of books about being outside, but we've already covered that. These books are about teenagers, about real issues they face like bullying, sexual identity, mental illness, social media, grief, death and love. Children, young adults not excluded, do better with anything relevant to their lives or interesting to them. If you were going to read anyway, take it outside, and use one or all of the books on this list as a persuasive tool.
Best Young Adult Books of 2015 - I know it's almost four years later, but I love this list. The characters and issues they face are so relevant to teenagers today.
Best Young Adult Books of 2018 - Some fantastic books came out this year geared toward young adult readers. I love this list because the characters are diverse in their backgrounds (race, socioeconomic class, culture, gender.) I have found on a lot of "lists" that most of the main characters in young adult novels these days are female. What's that about? I know girls typically read more than boys, but now I get why. At least in part why. There aren't enough books out there that strike the chords of modern-day teenage boys. Anyway, that topic is for another day.
10 Outdoor Literacy Activities - these 10 ideas came from the book "15 Minutes Outside" by Rebecca P. Cohen. These activities are geared toward younger children.
What's great about writing is that you could do it just about anywhere as long as you have a pen and some paper. With phones, Chromebooks, Kindles, and iPads, on the rise, we can even bring along our mobile devices. Taking your writers outdoors is a great way to inspire writing topics, remove disturbances and distractions, and give them the space and peace that they need to focus. I'm always hearing about writers that move to their writing retreat for the season to finish their book, and it's usually to a cabin in the woods or villa in Tuscany, right? Nature! Check out some of these outdoor writing activities created by awesome teachers.
Examples of Outdoor Activities to get your Students Writing - these activities are good because they could be applied to all ages.
9 Ways to Take English Class Outside - Ok, I'm noticing a pattern. I like "lists". I'm obsessed with Pinterest, so there you go. This resource is intended for secondary language arts students. I like it because it does incorporate technology, which again I think has a lot of benefits, especially when the population you're working with can't live without it. And why should they? That is the direction we are headed, so let's embrace it.
Using the Outdoors to Teach Social Studies:
This resources provided by ERIC will bring you to a PDF loaded with social studies lesson plans (grades 3-10) that get kids out of the building. It's pretty creative and makes me want to teach social studies. When you get to the website, look for the "Download Full Text" link in the top, right hand corner. Click on that to get to the PDF.
Check out these additional outdoor activities from National Geographic's Education Blog - "10 Ways to Take Your Classroom Outside"
Math Activities to do Outside:
There are a lot of resources out there for implementing math activities outdoors. Most of them are for elementary aged students, a few for more advanced math concepts.
Exploring Math in Nature - lot's of ideas for practicing measuring skills.
Math in the Garden - a book with hands-on math activities to do in the garden. I like this resource because it is multi-disciplinary and get's kids' hands dirty! Downside is that it's not a free resource.
Fascinating Facts of Mathematics - this resource doesn't give details on implementing math activities outdoors, but rather explains real life applications, in this case, of trigonometry. A lot of trig concepts can be studied outdoors, like finding the height of a mountain for example.
Outdoor Math Activities for Kids - this one is geared toward pre-k and kindergarten children. Great for stay-at-home-parents. Don't forget about free-play though!
I could go on and on with outdoor math resources. There are so many learning opportunities in nature for measurement, counting, symmetry, and more. I used to do a thing with finding examples of Fibonacci's numbers in nature. The kids loved it. It is just a matter of being resourceful. A simple Google search does the trick. There are so many great free, resources out there from teachers just like yourselves.
Take Your Science Lessons Outdoors:
This one seems obvious. Why wouldn't you have your bio class outside? It's not always that clear and easy. Ecology, sure. There are a lot of awesome ideas for having an ecology lesson outside. You could simply give students a pen and a notebook and ask them to observe their surroundings, ask questions, and design an experiment. Here are some other fun outdoor bio lessons to choose from:
Free Upper Level Ecology Scavenger Hunt and Mini-Project - this gets students outside observing nature while practicing ecology terminology. The kicker is that the final product is a photo gallery, which requires that students not only go into the outdoors, but really awaken their senses in the process.
Free Upper Level PBL Project on Endangered Species - I created this project and used it with my students when I was teaching. PBL naturally gets students outside of the classroom because in theory they should be working with community experts. The idea behind this project is that students get out and actively participate in their learning rather than sitting idly by, passively taking in facts that they will surely forget after the test is over. This project will inspire a life-long love for nature and the desire to protect it.
Other science subjects like chemistry and physics can also, and should also, be done outside whenever possible. Check out some of these fun outdoor activities. What's nice about chemistry and physics is that they are just fun by nature. Right? Anyone?
Outdoor Physics Experiments - some of these look so fun, I want to do them myself.
31 Days of Outdoor Stem - I LOVE THIS WEBSITE! I love STEM, and I love Little Bins for Little Hands. It is a free STEM resource. I have used several of their STEM activity ideas with my own young children and they LOVED it. This particular resource provides outdoor STEM activity ideas for a variety of science areas (geology, biotechnology, physics, chemistry, astronomy, and obviously engineering.
Teaching Secondary Science Outside the Classroom - fun ideas for the outdoors, and includes a variety of science concepts.
Alright, maybe that's enough? I should say before i wrap it up, because I know you're all thinking it. How do I get my students outdoors in the winter? I know this conundrum better than anyone. I live in Minnesota where it seems to be below zero four months of the year and we get blizzards in April. Here's what I'll say. Even bringing students outside for 10 minutes per day is better than nothing. You might also consider again starting a student travel program at your school. Finally, if at all possible, incorporate the weather into your lesson. I'm sure there are some pretty awesome science experiments that could be done in the snow or using the snow. Do a lesson on friction or velocity using sledding as a teaching tool. Using a chemical testing kid, test soil before and after rain. Test snow or rain for acid using a pH kit. Calculate relative density for for snow, ice and water. Paint in the rain! Write in the outdoors on a snowy day! Even tough weather days inspire curiosity and creativity.
With that said, we are down to very few nice days! Get outside now, enjoy the fall colors, get your students inspired BEFORE the weather takes a dramatic turn. Good luck!
Parents and educators, what do you do to get your kids outdoors?
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I was recently told, by two individuals that I admire and trust (best friend and husband), that my blog posts should be more relatable. A little less information heavy, and a little more fun. I can do that....I think. If you know me well, especially when it comes to education, you know I tend to be serious. I feel that the intention of this blog is to share information with educators and parents. So I won't stop doing that, but to appease the crowds, the INFJ in me will attempt to be more relatable. And what's more relatable than the Great Minnesota Get-Together!!??
As I go through any average day, I am always thinking about how to make this or that into a learning opportunity, a project or some kind of lesson. I think this is probably a common phenomenon among educators and parents. It’s purely accidental, I can’t help it, and truthfully I don’t mind it. Keeps my brain rolling when some days it feels like all I’m doing is changing diapers and breaking up sibling fights (my children are wonderful and I love them deeply). Every book I read sparks project ideas, including one I’m reading now about cannibalism! I recently visited the science museum with my own kids (awesome trip) and was thinking the whole time about how I could transfer these ideas into my class. A simple walk around the block with my kids sparks project ideas. I’d try them on my students as we speak if I was still teaching. Yesterday I went to the good ole’ Minnesota state fair. My kids were playing with an interactive pollinator exhibit. I said out loud to my husband, “this would make a great project for my students”. He told me to turn it into a blog post, so here we are! Ahead of you is a comprehensive list of projects or learning activities inspired by our family trip to the State Fair on Saturday (the busiest and hottest day of the fair!) Enjoy!
Something worth mentioning is that I am only offering project and activity ideas here, not logistics for implementation. Doing that would take me a year. I have project-based learning curriculum on my TpT site like that, which did take me a year to put together. If you want a guide for implementing project-based learning into your classroom, with a full year of project ideas, templates, rubrics and a manual for application, check here. Look over the sample and discuss with your school's director if you think making the purchase would be a good move for your school (moving from lecture-based/teacher-directed to project-based/student-directed learning). Otherwise, check out the MN State Fair inspired project ideas below, and execute them your way with your class this fall!
15 State Fair Inspired Learning Activities
1) Interactive Exhibits - there was a really fun agricultural area at the Minnesota State Fair for kids. The exhibit simulated how food goes from farm to table through active participation in the process. There was a pollination demo that had fishing pole like structures, with pollinators such as bees attached to the ends of the lines. Our kids took the poles and tried to catch "pollen" (plastic golf balls wrapped with Velcro) nestled in a large flower, and moved that pollen to another flower, simulating pollination. This interactive exhibit kept my children busy and engaged for twenty minutes, and by the time they were bored of if, my four year child clearly understood how insects pollinate flowers. As a project-based learning instructor myself, I am always looking for authentic and innovative final product ideas for showcasing projects. Student-created interactive exhibits, on any subject, would be great for student learning and awesome learning opportunities for exhibit visitors. When designing projects this year, consider asking students to create an interactive exhibit as their final product, that they can then display at an exhibition night for family, friends and the community.
2) Mapping the State Fair - using an online mapping program (zeemaps.com is a great one), create a map that illustrates one aspect of the fair. A student could try to locate data on state fair visitor demographics for example, and map the number of visitors that travel from each county to visit the fair each year. Another student could map all of the "park and rides" available to fair goers or parking areas, all of the root beer stands at the fair grounds, all of the kid friendly exhibits at the fair grounds, etc.
3) Local Food Theme Exhibits - at the MN State Fair this year, my family and I ran into an apple exhibit in the horticulture building that we have never seen before. The exhibit was everything apples! It was awesome. My children each had an apple popsicle. This exhibit inspired this project idea. Discuss as a class all of food items that are grown locally, such as corn, soy beans, wild rice, and apples, in Minnesota's case. Have each student cook something using a locally grown ingredient. Host a local food festival at your school where family, friends and community members can sample recipes made with local food. Turn it into a school fundraiser by charging a few dollars for admission.
4) Open a State Fair Food Stand - Okay, students wouldn't be expected to really open one (it's pretty cut-throat), but have students make plans as if they are going to start one. They should think about what they would sell, vision, mission, goals, cost, marketing plan, etc. If you would like your students to go through the actual vendor application process, they certainly may. The Minnesota State Fair provides forms and details for doing so. Click here to be transferred to application information.
5) Fair Impacts on the Local Economy - have students analyze the various ways in which their state or county fair benefits their local economy. Each student or pair of students can choose one economics question or category to focus on (parking, local businesses outside of the actual fair grounds, transportation to and from the fair, fair food vendors, fair entertainers, number of jobs available and in what departments, advertising, etc.) Students can come back together and share their findings.
6) Create a State or County Fair History Timeline - have students research major events around their state or county fair, and insert those events into a timeline with dates, photos, even videos if they use a digital timeline program. Students can focus on one aspect of the fair's history such as musical guests, dates of establishment for well-known food vendors, award winners year after year, and so on. It could also just be a general timeline of the most notable events.
7) State Fair News Project or Activity - students should search for interesting news articles on their state or county fair. Archives at the local library or history center would be a great place to start. Have students select one specific news article to turn into a history project. For example, in 1901, Teddy Roosevelt made his famous "Speak Softly and Carry a Bit Stick" speech at the MN State Fair Grandstand. If a student was doing a project on this news article, he/she would then research what the speech was about, why the speech was given, what the social and political climate was like at that time, etc.
8) Historical Maps Activity - have students pair up or group up and research old state fair maps. Assign each group a range of years (1900-1920 for example) and ask them to find a map from as many years as possible. Once students have had sufficient time to collect maps, have them printed and tape them to the wall in chronological order. As a group spend some time observing ways in which the fair grounds has changed and evolved over the decades.
9) Environmental Impact - have students analyze possible side-effects of the state fair on the environment. For example, amount of waste produced. Brainstorm solutions.
10) State Fair Energy Use - split students up into small groups to research information on energy use at your state or county fair, essentially investigating how much energy is used, what elements require the most energy, how those elements are powered, and energy plans for the future. This information may not be readily available online. Teach students how to reach out in the community to find the answers to their questions.
11) Amusement Park Rides and Physics - have students choose their favorite ride at their state or county fair. Research how and why the ride works. For example, Gravitron is a ride that spins in circles, and because of centrifugal force, you become plastered up against it's walls, thus not requiring a seat belt to stay in place. Once students have chosen a ride and understand the physics principal(s) at play, have them build a moving model that demonstrates that particular law of physics.
12) Food Art - one of the coolest parts of our state fair is seeing all of the art made of food items, like beans and corn kernels. Have students try this unique art medium!
13) Behind the Scenes - every time I go to the fair I wonder what it's like behind the scenes for those involved, such as people that show animals, run food stands, entertain, work for a clean-up crew, take tickets, set-up and take-down rides, etc. Have students choose one element of the fair that they are curious about and contact an expert in that area. They should either shadow that expert or interview them on what it's like behind the scenes of the state fair. This could really be applied to any community event.
14) Conduct a Fair Survey and Analyze the Results - ask a question about fair goers, create a survey, conduct the survey and analyze the results. Topics could be food favorites, average amount of money spent per fair goer, top 5 most visited exhibits, etc. The fair does not need to be going on to do this activity. Have students create a survey online using Survey Monkey, and post it on their social media pages. This activity could also be done on any event, or any subject for that matter. It doesn't have to be on a fair.
15) State Fair Traditions - my family has state fair traditions. We visit the same exhibits, eat the same exact foods, and go on the same rides year after year. Ice cream from the dairy barn, lefsa and cheese curds are state fair staples for us. Have students write their state fair story. Could be in essay format, article format, poetry, they could write and illustrate a children's book about their state fair traditions. Again, it doesn't have to be on the state fair. Students could do this writing activity with any event where traditions have likely been established.
Hope you're all inspired! Happy Labor Day and last day of the fair to all! Good luck tomorrow for those of you starting school!
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To provide innovative educational resources for educators, parents, and students, that go beyond lecture and worksheets.
Sara Segar, experiential life-science educator and advisor, curriculum writer, and mother of two.