What role does religion play in science education?  This is a question I have started to ask myself lately.

In my years as a science educator at an aquarium, religion seemed to be a dirty word.  It had virtually no place in the institution I worked.  Organization leaders shied away from the topic, and educators would roll their eyes if a group of religious home-schooled children were coming to visit.

And yet, research by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums shows that some people visit zoos and aquariums as “spiritual pilgrims” with the specific intent of seeking out contemplative/restorative experiences.  According to the Pew Research Center, over 80% of the American population self-reports having a religious affiliation. 80%!

The mission statements of so many zoos and aquariums now involve more than education; there is often a goal to change the attitudes, beliefs, or actions of the visitors to their institutions.  Yet these organizations continue to shy away from that which so many people’s value system has been built upon – their religious upbringing or affiliation.   It’s as though zoos and aquariums have decided that science and religion are incompatible, “therefore we will pretend that religion doesn’t exist.”

How do these institutions expect to foster change if they are not willing or able to have an open dialogue with their visitors, many of whom clearly have a religious affiliation?  How do they expect their visitors to address the internal conflicts that come up when science and religion butt heads?

Members of religious groups ARE opening up the dialogue around faith and the environment.  As a Fellow with the organization Greenfaith, I participate with leaders of a variety of religious faiths as we grapple with questions about environmental justice, the definition of stewardship, and clarify the meaning of religious texts and traditions.

This open dialogue among and between members of all faiths is helping to fill the gap that the science education community has ignored.   I am heartened to see people come together to create a clearer environmental identity.   This is where the free-choice learning is really happening.

To the informal science education community – zoos and aquariums in particular — I say there is a place for religion in science education.  Moreover, if your organization really expects to meet the lofty goals of your mission statements, it is imperative to open up a religious dialogue and directly address the religious attitudes and beliefs of your visitors.  If you really want to change behavior or instill an environmental ethic, make your institution a relevant force in people’s lives.  Foster a truly free choice learning environment by including religion in the conversation.

(Traci Reid is a guest poster to the FCL Blog and a 2013-2014 Greenfaith Fellow.)

For the past couple of posts, I’ve written about trying to the take the work of Mikhail Bakhtin seriously in designing and carrying out learning research. I wrote about the need for the voice of the researcher to enter into real dialogue with the voices of learners, and I wrote about the need to include learners as co-authors in research about their experiences. Bakthin’s account of dialogicality holds another important lesson for social sciences and study of human activity. Namely, the meanings of what people say (and by extension do) are never completely part of what they say and do. That is, we can’t unpack the meaning of an utterance or a gesture or a thinking routine by focusing on the utterance, action or routine itself. This is because everything we say or do responds to something someone or something else said or did and because it anticipates some response from the world or other people. As a result, the meaning can’t be found in the isolated words or actions themselves. It resides (or perhaps emerges is a better word) instead in the dialogue itself – the utterance-anticipated response-response-utterance or action-anticipated result-result-action sequence.

The meaning of any given element of that chain for the actors involved as well as for the observer can’t be isolated to any one of the elements. To understand the sense or meaning of these actions and utterances, we as analysts have to see them in their whole dialogic context. If as a researcher all you care about is the end state or result of what people say and do, then you an afford to ignore the rest of the chain of meaning. This is, in fact, what many learning researchers do – focus on end results alone rather than developmental sequences. Such approaches are the result of product-based research and design practices seeking to engineer better products (i.e., learners who know more, can do more, or believes the right things).

A researcher who is interested instead in either the processes that lead to learning and development as a clue to supporting it or who is interested in illuminating the meanings of what people say and do and how these meanings are shaped and constrained by the contexts we live in, then that researcher can’t ignore the chain of activity from which meaning emerges.

After reading Jen’s blog about her relationship with podcasts during her weekly commute between Eugene and Corvallis, I got inspired and decided to check out her suggestions and got hooked on a few. I also have a few suggestions of my own that I think can be interesting to you if you are into podcasts.

A podcast really does represent some kind of ultimate free-choice learning – it’s not tied to any particular time and place, you decide what you want to listen to and when, you pace your time on it yourself like Jen said, no one is there to make sure you are paying attention or drifting in and out, and with the huge number of podcasts out there, you can delve as deeply or as shallowly as you want into almost anything that interests you.

To feed the science geek inside, “stuff you should know” is a good podcast to explore concepts in any discipline. Their slightly irreverent approach to everyday knowledge answers all those questions we had as kids, but somehow forgot were important to us when we become adults, like why the sky is blue. It is really about stuff we all should know. “Bytesize science” demonstrates the relevance of science in daily life situations, much like what we talked about in our weekly theory meetings when our group was reading “Everyday Cognition” and investigating the how everyday activities shape and are shaped by all kinds of mathematics thinking. “A history of the world in 100 objects” is my attempt to become more knowledgeable about the world and its development. Each episode is shaped around a single object from the British Museum as a historical landmark. “The writers block” is for those of you who love writing because, lets face it, who doesn’t? “The Naked Scientist” is a podcast to keep up with the scientist within. Finally, of course I could not forget “All in the mind” to dive deep in the human mind, brain and behavior.

In a recent podcast I listened to they talked about people’s notion of happiness and of a meaningful life. One would think both would normally positively correlate, but not always. In fact, some people who say they try to live a meaningful life are not always happy. The point is that people who are happy are normally “takers” and people worried about building a meaningful life are largely “givers”. So, in the spirit of the solstice and the change with the new year, I recommend you listen in to that one and think about giving and taking and what it means for making you happy and for making your life meaningful.

Thanks Jen for sharing and inspiring me to share some meaningful resources.

Happy New Year Everyone! Or should I say Meaningful New Year Everyone!

These days, I spend more time than I would like on the road in my car.  For those of you who have an actual, daily commute, I apologize in advance for my whining, but my twice weekly commute between Eugene and Corvallis for school and monthly or so trips to Portland for work- really add up! As a consummate multi-tasker, I resent wasting so much time just sitting and driving (and don’t bother quoting any of that anti-multi-tasking research at me! I have heard it all before!).  I had heard about podcasts from a few friends and hadn’t really found the time to listen to them in my daily life, but my commute has turned out to be the perfect excuse to learn as I drive.  While I am a fan of audio books for doing chores and exercising, I wanted something more stimulating for my drive time and between pursuing my hobbies and professional interests, I sometimes have more hours of listening to do than hours of driving. Not a bad problem to have.

I have tried to keep a balance between things I listen to just for pleasure, with things that I feel are more educative, although, they have all turned out to be both educative and enjoyable.  I actually look forward to my new downloads.  For more of my personal life, I listen to a knitting podcast, from Knit Picks that comes out biweekly and a few food related ones.  My local NPR station had a great one for years, called “Food for Thought”, but they have recently ended their run (a problem I have had with a few other podcasts too…), so, I am on the lookout for a new one that talks about local food if anyone has any suggestions. There is also a defunct one on crafting, Craft Rock Love with Vickie Howell, that had a short run, years ago, and I dole out the few podcasts created for when I really need a boost.  I also listen to a few nerdy science ones, just to keep up with the field, “Living on Earth”, for my enviro-girl fix and “Science Friday” to keep up with the broader field.  For my Maker interests, the best I have found is “Destination DIY” out of Portland, that is about the larger idea of “do it yourself” from home repairs to home funerals.

The harder finds for me have been education related, but my perseverance has paid off. For a few years, all I could find was a well-made podcast out of Australia, “EdPod” which was interesting and at least in the field.  Just in the last few months, one of my friends who initially turned me on to podcasts, found two new ones- “American RadioWorks”, that may be the best one on current topics in education, and it even presents multiple sides of an issue, and Slate Magazine has started occasionally producing a show called “Schooled” and I have enjoyed all three I have found so far.  Lastly, while not directly related to education, I thoroughly enjoy “Dan Pink’s Office Hours”. He interviews authors, more often in the area of entrepreneurism or the psychology of business, but a surprising number of them turn out to be relevant to our field, and I have even bought a few new books, inspired by the interviewees.

All in all, I still resent my commute (oh Google car that will drive yourself, where are you?!?), but I will miss my podcast lifestyle when I am no longer doing the regular trek up I-5.  I might just have to find a new hobby that will enable me to listen to podcasts!

In the spirit of the New Year to come and the incredible need for change in the world as I see it, I have decided to blog about feelings. I know I know… not very objective here, but wanting to provoke a bit of thinking about the role of informal education in a world in crisis.

Earth is feverish fighting human disturbance. The education landscape is a force to help change such condition. Many authors in the environmental movement talk about cultural, economical, political and social forces as conditional modes to influence patterns of natural resource use and development. With that in mind, it is my opinion that our environmental education programs need to go beyond teaching about the natural systems to incorporate teaching about these other forces as well. It is time to venture a bit out of the objective fence of empiricism, to pay a little attention to the socio-cultural-economical parameters that influence our land use.

The cosmopolitan bioregionalism really spoke to me as a possible way to move in this direction by being a framework for governance representing a “profound cultural vision, addressing moral, aesthetic and spiritual concerns” in an attempt to change the contemporary political economy. In many different ways, we all are knowledgeable, moral, aesthetic and spiritual beings, and the dynamics of our cultural and ecological diasporas have much to say about our sense of place. If we want to give others the tools to develop a sense of place, we have to give the first steps towards a new culture of education, with multiple voices and interpretations, where the end goal is not just reaching desirable learning outcomes based on a preset of standards, but do more than that and more than entertain. Building a sense of place needs more than instruction, it needs provocation.

Is our education system ready for this? Are science museums ready to embrace a shift this big? One can think it would be impossible to do for many political and economical reasons, but if there is anything I learned in my academic endeavors as I learn more and more about environmental sciences and social movements, is that change is possible, it may take a long time, but it happens. I think that a new culture of nature is on the making now in many forms of empathy and manifest. We are in transitory times, fighting controversial views, when environmental movements and initiatives abound. It is the worse of times given the catastrophic environmental problems we may be facing, but it can also be the best of times if marked by the beginning of a new cultural and ecological era. Can the museum really act as a cultural broker in this sense?

The Fun and Learning of Snow Days …..
The last week has brought an unusual amount of snow to the Willamette Valley and in particular Corvallis – 9 inches. The town is not well prepared for this amount of snow coupled with extended below freezing temperatures. This means that the snow stayed around till today on roads, sidewalks, parking lots, and well everywhere. Coming from back east this seems a bit unreal that 9 inches of snow has kept schools and businesses closed for 5-7 days. However for a free choice learner, a studier of human nature and a parent these past 7 days have been a blast to part take in and observe. (The truly only difficult thing was trying to readjust and balance my own personal & work schedule with the increased time the children and husband have been around the house.)
Now for my observations in learning from the snow days …
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow – snow predictions where do we find them – Thursday night the house was full of looking up weather predictions, one was not enough, so multiple ones were reviewed. Which site or news show was correct? Who was using the same data? Where were they collecting the readings or data from? All of these questions were flying in the house. Now let’s talk about the social network postings – the questions about whether or not “we” as the collective Willamette Valley would “get” the predictions were flying about. Some were based on data some on past experiences, some on hope for or against the arrival of the snow. The grocery store – I had this person form California come up to me completely upset as my son and I were gathering some special “snow food” to go along with some of our family traditions – he was distort. He had never been in snow and picked living here due to lack of snow. He owned a bicycle and was concerned about how he would get around town if it did snow. He stood there for over 5 minutes, following me around the store trying to convince me that I should not be excited about this and that others are upset. It was rather interesting. I asked him if he had read the weather reports and he said no, he was not going to and was hoping for the snow to not come. Again it is how we each handle things differently. Very interesting. Evening came, bedtime came, how many of you after all the data gathering still slept with your PJ’s on inside out in hopes for the snow to arrive? At least three in our house did. Is this a culture things or just our family tradition?
Snow Fun – The snow arrived and the excitement arrived. Snowman building. There are multiple methods for snowman building. So many methods that some even get upset if you do not follow the methods that they are used to using. For example do you push the snow into a pile or gather in a bucket and place in a different spot? This is a slight difference, but I have learned an important one as the pushed snow can have leave litter making the snowman “dirty” looking. Also do you add a little water to ice over the snowman to make it last longer or let it be? Again another important point. Do you use sticks, stones and moss for finishing off the snowman or do you use buttons, carrots and real clothes? Again these conversations were extremely interesting to listen to – the reasoning and negotiations involved in making the final decisions were at boardroom level from 9-12 year olds. Then after all of these conversations came the conversations of getting the needed materials from the adults and then the conversations with them. It was great to be an observer on these as I had my younger one and was not in charge of these … love it. Social Media postings of pictures of the various snowmen have been great!
Sledding – oh the joy of physics! We live in a hilly area, so there was a large amount of places that sledding could take place. Well different people have different tolerance for difference speeds and sometimes this is learned in a situation like sledding. Transfer of skills from skiing like stopping, proper falling and rolling also took place. Fortunately no one got hurt, but many learned a lot about what they could, could not do and liked and did not like. Again the postings on the social networking sites have been a blast to follow.
Inside fun – the chemistry of baking cookies … the science of washing dishes … the fun of making ice cream by using the freezing temperatures outside … the fun of frozen things on your porch that don’t normally freeze and realizing that there is actually water in that thing …. Your neighbors burst pipes or frozen water pipes so you are helping carry water jugs over … games you never get to play as you are running everywhere to carry out your normally scheduled life. These postings have been the best. The photos of the various baked goods alone have made me gain weight. The postings of people sharing rides with the 4WD is also something that was a nice thing to see unfold. The community seemed to come to each other’s needs.
Inside Cabin Fever – the realization the some sort of regular schedule is a good thing. This was very clear on the social media sites. Cabin fever was mentioned as early as Monday with only being in from Friday through the weekend. By Thursday with the prediction of the freezing rain, the posts were beyond hopeful that this did not happen as they were more than ready for a regular routine to return. I have to admit that for myself I felt it by Thursday, but not really before. This may be because we have a 4WD vehicle and I was able to get out some or having a child with a choric illness does not allow me to have a completely set schedule so I live without a set routine. I have had to come to terms with this over the last few years. The children expressed it in a different way – I saw it in an increased inside volume of noise. The normally quite children from the neighborhood, along with my own were so load that I could hear them all the way at my mailbox when they were in the house. This has never happened before. Again a different way of expressing their cabin fever or change in routine.
All in all the last seven days of snow covered Willamette Valley have brought many different opportunities for fun and learning that have occurred outside of the normal routine. Some have been really cool and others for some (like bursting pipes) are hopefully a onetime life lesson. I feel really lucky that during this time I had the opportunity to sit back and do some participant observations in the make shift learning lab of the snow covered town of Corvallis.