Science Education, Teaching Science, Experiential Inquiry

Teaching Science with Compassion and Wonder

May 03, 2021

By Lee Beavington

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?

The chemistry of seawater, the geography of oceans, the physics of waves, the language of birds, the colours of photosynthesis, the biology of life, and the land as teacher. Being outside, students are reminded that they learn through their bodies. That these bodies consist of myriad senses that allow them to experience the world. That this world is full of wonder. And perhaps they will have more respect, reciprocity, and responsibility towards the world because they know they are a part of nature.

I imagine a way of being in the world that honours the land we walk, the water we drink, and the air we breathe.

The planet is in crisis. If we want to survive and address the origins of climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to acknowledge and respect all that is not human. To teach learners of all ages not to be citizens of the economy, but citizens of the planet. Let’s start with an educational model that allows students to experience the world with compassion and wonder.

Note: this text was adapted from Lee's TEDx Talk and his SSHRC Storytellers videos.

LinkTree includes links to his recent publications, research, and teaching.

About the author:

Lee Beavington is a TEDx speaker, award-winning author, learning strategist, and interdisciplinary instructor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University and Simon Fraser University. He also served as co-curator for the Wild Things: The Power of Nature in Our Lives exhibition at the Museum of Vancouver, recipient of the Award of Merit for Excellence in Exhibitions. His research explores place-based learning and environmental ethics.