For this year’s AEOE, BEETLES Director, Kevin Beals, was invited to share some remarks to kick off the conference. Below is a very slightly edited transcript of his words. Read on to find out how Kevin grew up hating science and how he’s come to believe that science can change the next generation, for good.
AEOE Opening Remarks
I’m fired up [in a monotone]. No really, I’m fired up. What, I don’t sound like it? Maybe it’s because I’m fired up in a long-view kind of way. Like fired up about the next generation and our role in influencing it.
In 2015, the supreme court ruled that it was unconstitutional to deny marriage rights to same-sex couples. I heard it on my car radio when I was driving to work. I pulled over, and I sobbed. Tears of joy and relief of long pent-up frustration, and of why the hell does it take so long, and why is it so hard to accomplish things like this. (Anybody else cry then?)
Damn that moment felt great. Sometimes it’s easy to not notice that we are riding on a very sloooow train of progress towards a less judgmental, more kind, and just and environmentally aware society. At least that’s what I believe. It’s usually an uphill journey. On that day, and for a while after, I enjoyed feeling the wind in my hair as we sped downhill for a bit. Weeee!
I’ve cried more recently for different reasons. I bet many of you have too. It feels like that train’s on a really steep uphill and we’re rolling backwards in many ways. But people are doing all kinds of things to try to collectively push that train back up the hill. Something that gives me satisfaction is knowing that I’m helping push that train up the hill by doing my job. My name is Kevin Beals, and I’m an outdoor science and environmental educator, and I’m proud of it! And I’m fired up about that!
“The Next Generation” is the theme of this conference. Good theme, by the way! I’m proud and fired up because I know that collectively outdoor science programs throughout California and far beyond, are playing an important role in inspiring the next generation, and helping them develop tools to get us beyond some of the challenges facing us today.
“Where the rivers change directions across the great divide.”
That line’s from a song by Kate Wolf, and it’s been in my head lately. I recently did an experiment with getting involved in a facebook “discussion” with one of the few ultra conservative facebook friends I have. The facebook conversation didn’t go well. It really illustrated for me on a personal level how great that divide has become. And how hard it is to connect and talk about issues.
I’m not a scientist. I’m a science educator. Throughout my childhood into college, I hated science. I had lousy science classes that were memorization-based, and linear scientific method-focused. I never got to go to outdoor science school. But I loved nature. Loved exploring nature/hated science. I spent lots of time as a child poking around in nature – bugs, rocks, tidepools, river currents, more bugs… (one of my favorite days of my childhood was when I noticed lacewings landing on my family’s patio in Chile, and as they landed they were attacked by ants. That patio was filled with gladiator battles to the death, and I spent 2 days with my face down there watching them) Loved it. I spent tons of time watching ants, watching snails and collecting rocks. In middle school my family moved to Pacific Grove, California, near here, and I spent days and days poking around in the tide pools. But science class – ugh! At the end of high school I was gonna be an artist. And a hippy. And I wanted to be outside. Oh yeah, and I wanted to change the world. I wasn’t sure hoooow, but I sure was passionate about wanting to change the world.
But a funny thing happened in college. I had to take a science course for a breadth requirement. Since I’d spent so much time on my own in tidepools, I signed up for a class called Intertidal biology at UC Santa Cruz. The first day of class I looked through a dissecting scope at a tidepool organism. I was looking at the world from a perspective I’d never seen before. I teared up looking through that scope. I was crying in my scope lenses. I had no idea this was science education. That and the field trips we did up and down the coast. The thinking and figuring things out that we did. So….I ended up majoring in environmental studies/natural history, with a teaching credential. A fellow student who was doing environmental ed. took me for a visit to a place he’d worked at called Jones Gulch (where we are right now) to get my first glimpse of outdoor science school. Suddenly I had a new direction! And I liked science.
I’ve built a career in science and environmental education, and it’s been hugely gratifying, partly because I love kids. And I love people. But largely because I discovered that science education is a subtle, not flashy but an effective way to accomplish that goal I had: to change the world. If you aren’t passionate about science, I get it, cause I wasn’t either. But like me, it might’ve been how science was taught to you.
So what do I appreciate about science? The world is messy. Science is a messy and imperfect attempt at explaining it. And one thing I like about science is that it recognizes the imperfection of its own findings. I like that. It doesn’t pretend that things are neater and tidier than they really are.
We now have an interesting large scale social experiment going on of what it looks like when a huge segment of the population doesn’t understand or value science, and when a large segment of the leadership of the country also doesn’t understand or value science. We can see what that looks like. Lucky us. And if you don’t like what that looks like, it’s time to get fired up.
As outdoor science and environmental educators, we’re in a position to stand on top of the ridge of that great divide, and to see if we can help students to stand there too, or at least to move a little closer to it. In our jobs, we get to affect changes in this regard, some immediate changes, but particularly next generation changes. I’m fired up in long view way!
“For we can do nothing substantial toward changing our course on the planet, a destructive one, without rousing ourselves, individual by individual, and bringing our small, imperfect stones to the pile.” – Alice Walker
Every day I go to work, I’m bringing my own small imperfect stone to the pile. So are you.
So here are some ways I think we can all help out the next generation and change the world:
Connection with the Environment
“A useful definition for love, is sustained compassionate attention.” – John Muir Laws
We can provide students with opportunities and abilities to fall in love with little bits of nature. By spending time with anything in nature, and using science practices like making observations, asking questions, making connections to our prior experiences, exploring nature mysteries, trying to explain what we see – by spending that kind of intimate time with aspects of nature, we develop a relationship with nature. Who knew that science practices could lead to love? John Muir Laws knows. Now I know.
Understandings about the Environment
Here’s a quote by a Senegalese forester and environmentalist:
“In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.” -Baba Dioum
There is an unfortunate natural human tendency to be attracted to simplicity: simple ideas and simple solutions – the stuff that fits on bumper stickers. But the world is complex. Black and white thinking is attractive, but we live in a world full of gray area, and reality doesn’t fit on bumper stickers so well. We can help out with this disconnect. We can help students become more flexible thinkers. By flexible thinkers I mean those who can hold opposing ideas, who are more OK with not knowing the answer than they are with accepting a simple answer just so they can stop thinking about it. We can help by getting students to realize that changing your mind doesn’t make you a flip-flopper, it means you’re a flexible thinker, someone open to changing their mind based on evidence, and that’s a heckuva lot better than someone who won’t change their mind despite the evidence.
We can help students learn to think. Every environmental issue has gray area in it. It can be tempting to want to tell students our own ideas and opinions, but it is so much more worthwhile to “teach them how to fish,” rather than give them a fish we caught, cooked, cut up, and pre-chewed for them.
The next bunch of things fall under the category of discussion skills. Helping students learn to discuss ideas respectfully. But check it out. They’re not just science discussion skills, they are important life skills too.
Science is about coming up with explanations based on all the available evidence. Not selective evidence. All. If you just look at selective evidence, evidence that supports the argument you like, that’s pseudoscience. And it’s also the basis of biased news. I believe that many of my conservative friends’ beliefs have been fed to her through a diet of biased news full of selected evidence. This happens on both the right and the left, by the way.
Recently a field instructor was ending their field experience with a discussion with students about the skills they’d worked on during class. When asked why it’s important to know how to provide evidence and ask others for evidence, one student said:
“Sometimes people lie and don’t have any evidence to support their ideas.” – student at Camp Seymour
That’s a powerful awareness to have at a young age. It’s an awareness I want students to have. By helping students understand the value of evidence, we can help them become thoughtful consumers of information, and also help ourselves become more thoughtful consumers of information. And this is a valuable life skill.
Science is open-minded, not empty headed. “It’s been scientifically proven” you’ve all heard that said. It’s an unscientific statement. Because an underlying idea behind all science is that this is the best explanation we have based on all the available evidence, BUT if a better explanation emerges, science will embrace that. Not necessarily every individual scientist will embrace it. But the scientific community will. And open-mindedness is a life skill.
It takes humility to look at the world scientifically. Because you’ve got to admit that you don’t know in order to get as close as you can to what is actually going on. You’ve got to do your best to rule out your biases and preconceived ideas. You’ve got to Humble yourself. And humility is a life skill.
Language of Uncertainty
Using language of uncertainty shows flexible thinking. It’s actually easy to coach students to use language of uncertainty when discussing ideas. We can encourage them to use sentence starters like: I wonder if.. Maybe… It seems like… And also to coach them to be skeptical of those who speak with too much language of CERTAINTY. And awareness of language of certainty and of uncertainty is a valuable life skill.
Science is based on curiosity. It’s fun to be curious. The world is fascinating if you’re curious. With curiosity, growth, learning and understanding are possible. Curiosity about nature. Curiosity about your own ideas. Curiosity about other people’s ideas – which makes you want to listen to them. And when someone disagrees with you, get curious. And when you have an emotional reaction to what someone has said, get curious about what’s going on within you. And curiosity is a life skill.
If you ask students what their sources are, it can cause some shifts. Once when I was working with some kids and trying to figure out food webs in their classroom aquaria, one student said, “snails eat the gunk that grows on rocks everywhere.” I asked him what his source was, and he said, “Sponge Bob,” as he hung his head. Just by bringing up the idea of citing your source was all it took for him to recognize that wasn’t a great source of information. That group of kids got used to citing their sources when they shared information, and asking each other for sources when others shared information. We can coach students to share their sources, and to ask others for their sources. To not accept everything that’s fed to them. And that is a life skill.
And these are all science skills, and life and social skills, and skills I want the next generation of humans, and of voting humans to have.
Damn right I’m fired up!
Equity & Inclusion
And in our jobs, we do more than teach science skills. We get to teach and model kindness. We get to help students become more aware of how they participate in groups and in discussion – and how that impacts others. And we get to invite them to participate in discussions. And we get to do a little social dabbling – helping make shifts in social dynamics. Helping students who haven’t seen themselves as “science-y” or “nature-y” find out that we all can be.
“Look closely at the present you are constructing. It should look like the future you are dreaming.” Alice Walker
Let’s make the field experiences we lead look like the future we are dreaming.
I so deeply appreciate who you are and the work you do. And I’m genuinely curious about who you all are and what you do. And if you feel that way too, please tell that to the people around you. Especially folks you don’t know yet. Tell them you’re fired up. Ask them what they do. Tell them you appreciate what they do. Do it now, and do it throughout the conference.
Thank you so much, and let’s have a great conference!