STEM and Sustainability


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Sustainability in STEM subjects can be a great way to link standard physics, science and mathematical concepts to topics applicable to the real world and of interest to students. Education is being called upon to prepare responsible citizens to meet the complex challenges we are currently facing as a means of addressing the rising economic, social, or environmental challenges. In order to realize large scale changes in the educational practices and content in the classroom, there first must be changes implemented at the curriculum policy level and I think that the topic ‘sustainability’ has to be the central thread which ran through all our teaching.

It is important that educators not view these topics as others subject to add to a crowded curriculum plate, but as an initiative acknowledging deficiencies in current practices and supporting broad-based educational reform leading to youth being active and effective members of their communities To arm my students with the necessary skills to be future “Good citizens” focusing sharply on more complex social issues, such as the links between environmental quality, human equality, human rights and peace I choose the topic ‘natural and induced hazards’ for many reasons:

  • According to recent researches it is very likely that human activities will impact future catastrophes, like earthquakes, storms, floods, landslides, also because population growth and urbanization make communities much more vulnerable to natural hazards. Actually, in the last year this hypothesis became reality.
  • Several studies confirm that effective results can be obtained in this field by combining direct experience, observation, discovery and action, so disaster and risk education should be part of the national primary and secondary schools curricula and be included in several school subjects.
  • Students are engaged by these topics which let Interactive and Effective Learning (brainstorming; interactive multimedia presentations. sharing feelings about disasters; …) Inquiry Learning (team case study research and analysis; use of ICT; project work…), Experiential Learning (field trips; hazard mapping and vulnerability assessment in schools and in communities; reports..), Action Learning (student community partnerships to raise hazard awareness, poster campaigns, events..)
  • The topic allows to enable students not only to consolidate academic learning, but also extend and apply their understanding, and encourage them to solve real-world problems, to participate in social and political life and in volunteers associations, enhancing their sense of European citizenship.

I have been working on this challenge for three years and I was able to link the topic to all standard concepts in my teaching subject (Maths and Physics for students aged 14-18). It is impossible in an article describe all the activities done, so I would like to introduce just as an example a subject matter: natural and induced earthquakes.

For younger students: Physics, Earth and rheology

Students think that matter can exist in three different states, solid, liquid, and gas, but how can hair gels, creams, toothpastes, ketchup be classified? This question allow us to introduce the rheology, the science that studies the flow of liquid or semisolid or the deformation of solid and the rheological classification of the layers of the Earth. Students are asked to do some activities to explore the mantle properties (using silly putty and wax).

and geophysics (Deformation – folds and faults).

Students can carry out other researches about induced earthquakes and building safety.

Some activities in my school have been carried out in collaboration with experts and researchers.

For students aged 17-18: Earth monitoring

To verify that earthquakes follow the natural plate boundaries and that these boundaries help us to predict where earthquakes are most likely to occur or if the earthquake can be related to human activities students are asked to record the earthquakes data > 2.0 magnitude each day for two weeks, then they can use a database to track all global earthquakes that happen daily and plot these quakes on a dynamic world map, comparing their earthquake activity map to that of the plate boundaries.
Starting from the problem of induced earthquakes, it is possible introduce the cutting edge technologies for the monitoring of the Earth with experiments related to Earth observation satellites, GPS…

Students can carry out other researches trough outdoor activities or be engaged in active tasks.

In these 3 years, I saw students very engaged by these topics and interested in going in deep in many STEM subject matters related to sustainability, improving their academic learning, their critical thinking and non-cognitive skills, enhancing their sense of European citizenship,
Other school join in a common project , eHAND (effects of Human Activities on Natural Disasters), an eTwinning/ Erasmus+ project. If you are interested in teaching Maths and Physics trough these themes, take a look at all our works.

Article written by: Franca Sormani, STEM teacher.

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