In my recent article, The Promise of Sustainability Education, I discussed the importance of introducing whole systems thinking and environmental sustainability into the American educational system. There are a variety of organizations using a range of methods to bring sustainability pedagogy into today’s schools. David Miller created Enclave Harbour as an on-line location offering virtual field trips focused on environmental science and believes that virtual worlds can play an important role in the transition to sustainability education.
David uses a variety of alternative energy solutions within Enclave Harbour to teach Life, Earth, and Physical Science principles. The subject matter is taken from the National Science Education Standards (NSES) and from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). He says that within this mix it seems appropriate to teach all forms of energy being used as well as create opportunities for discussion about new forms of energy. He stresses that Enclave Harbour teaches science rather than policy and in this respect there is no right or wrong energy. This freedom is bolstered by working in an environment where one’s imagination is the only limitation.
David started working in virtual worlds at the end of 2006 when Second Life was all the frenzy in mainstream media. He was interested in using Second Life for teaching science, but it was far too expensive and Second Life does not allow anyone under 16 years of age to enter. Before venturing into on-line worlds, he had been working with the open source 3D animation program Blender 3D as a hobby and saw the opportunity to make buildings that could be used by others. His first project in Second Life was an art gallery for a Norwegian artist that was having a real life reception and wanted it mirrored “in-world.”
David sees immersion and engagement as the primary advantages of teaching Earth Science with Enclave Harbour. The concepts that he has students explore in the virtual science field trips have traditionally been taught with illustrations or photographs in a text book and “if your students are lucky, then maybe they will see a video or even a 3D projector image. All we are doing with Enclave Harbour is taking that illustration or photo and making it a 3D model that a student can walk around in.”
“It is certainly more fun to have an avatar and walk around a desalination plant or a landfill than to read about it,” says David. “Kids love to explore, even if it is just virtually. Most kids won’t ever participate in a field trip to a hydro-electric plant. And they certainly won’t calculate the kinetic energy captured by a wastewater turbine attached to a toilet they flush atop of the world’s tallest building.” These activities are two of many found in Enclave Harbour’s science workbook that teach through exploration and play.
One clear advantage of working in virtual reality is that you can also teach the fantastical, which allows this virtual world to introduce core sustainability concepts from an intimate and unique perspective. For example, Enclave Harbour has a space station that teaches closed-circuit systems like the water cycle and the carbon cycle. It also has a spaceship that serves as a way to discuss future energy possibilities; a topic crucial in sustainability presented in a way that is fun to explore. Because all of this takes place on-line, “in-world” activities can also be enjoyed by those at brick-and-mortar schools, virtual schools, and home schools.
David develops all of his activities with an eye towards closing the gender gap in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). He presents activities designed in such a way that students do their own research on current events and can write papers on differing topics. The goal is for them to uncover various sides of issues and to question assumptions presented by the media. They will make up their own minds about energy solutions and be better equipped to make sound decisions regarding them as they become older.
He believes that the question about how today’s youth can be best educated on sustainability is on the verge of becoming moot. We have seen significant changes in the last five years in the automobile industry and recent incentives, such as San Francisco allowing the free charging of electric cars, that are now making these sustainability programs a day-to-day reality and not simply novel.
He believes that science literacy can help us become sustainable in our lives and our decisions. Science literacy in the US is lower than in many countries and we are now aware of this. Science needs to be restored to its former glory of the days when dreaming of space travel was something many kids did. “Today we have no planned manned missions and the lunar walk is from a time far before today’s kids were born. The romantic side of science is not as bright as it could be.”
David blames standardized testing to an extent because it removes some of the reward for passionate science teachers who want to teach, but are ranked on their ability to have students memorize facts, not on helping their students develop passion for learning. Rote memorization might look good for test results, but we can see that this does not inspire great science nor does it allow the US to lead the world in science innovation. Despite having taught three years at the secondary level and seven at college, David says he would not teach secondary science again unless it was at a very progressive school that valued enthusiasm, passion, and real life experience.
When asked about the most important actionable item he would like readers to take away from this story, David encourages everyone to question the science that you hear in the media. He feels that it is sometimes pseudo-science presented to further a political agenda that may sound plausible but falls apart upon cursory inspection. He also suggests that we remember that science is all around us:“It’s in your cell phone, the water you drink, the transportation you use, and science is magical and sometimes invisible. From pollination to hurricanes to sail boats, wind is an important “thing” that we have studied and understand very well, but have you ever actually seen the wind?” Insightful and inquisitive thoughts such as these are examples of a whole systems approach to education that is possible using virtual worlds like Enclave Harbour and represent one important avenue for our country to follow on our journey to sustainability education.
Matt Courtland of The Natural Strategy educates people on sustainable business practices while reconnecting them to the energy and inspiration found in nature.