A colleague once told me, “Biology is the study of dead things in jars.” For dissections, humans used to cut the vocal cords of living animals so they couldn’t scream. But we must hear their voices.
Science education is human-centred. In order to understand the world, we objectify and dissect. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a scientist, and through science we have learned marvellous things. Our bodies build two million red blood cells a second, trees communicate through their roots, and melting polar glaciers influence the entire earth’s climate.
We have made a lot of progress. But the question still remains: how do we align our actions with what we have learned?
Conventional science has pushed us toward atomistic thought, where we dissect the organs of a frog, one by one. Yet this narrow gaze loses sight of the larger webs of relationship. My research aims to broaden our sight to a holistic approach that remarries science and philosophy. As an alternative to Newtonian science, Goethean science is creative and participatory; it has us learn from and with our subject. Through deep empathy and prolonged looking, scientists both perceive and receive from their subject. Nature becomes our teacher.
My first principle of ecoliterate science education? Place-based learning. Study a frog in her native pond, and you come to know and care for her and her environment.
Second: contemplative education. When we rush through life, we can forget what matters. The prolonged gaze of contemplative science slows down our focus. We pause, reflect, and start to consider the ethical ramifications of our actions.
Over nineteen years of teaching science, I have witnessed the disparity between ecological thinking and science education. In response, my doctoral research aims to co-create intentional outdoor learning environments. Through immersive field schools and experiential inquiry, these learners don’t simply do science: they ask why, for what purpose, to what moral end. Instead of dissecting life, they build a relationship.
Here are three touchstones for ecoliterate science education:
1. Learning outdoors is vital to reconnect us with nature.
2. Science and ethics need to go hand-in-hand.
3. Nature is an extraordinary teacher.
Think of the western red cedar, the “tree of life” to the Coast Salish peoples. This tree is not a thing, or an it, or a dollar sign. The cedar is a pharmacy, an oxygen gifter, an air cleanser, a creative technology, and a wisdom keeper.
Here’s my son. A spontaneous moment on this windy shore, a place we often visit. What can we learn outside the four walls of a classroom or lab?