Twenty-First century teachers need to embrace lesson plans that leverage digital tools to help students understand, interpret, and analyze the world in which they live. Unfortunately, doing so is like swimming against the current. Most of the rhetoric around technology is teaching our children to see STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) in opposition to nature. That’s a disservice to our children. It puts them at a huge disadvantage in a rapidly changing world. Luckily, some folks are “Hacking STEM” education in all the right ways.
My children go to “forest school” once a week. Their teachers walk them into Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park, a 2,054-acre historic landmark that winds in and out of the city, along creeks, and through the woods.
Rain or shine, the classroom moves outdoors for the day. The kids play, explore, and get their hands dirty. Meanwhile, and usually without them noticing, the academic material for the week is artfully contextualized within a natural setting.
I’m thrilled with this part of their academic experience. It is playful, experiential learning at its best. My kids come home happy to share details about their day. Describing how they built shelters and swung on vines with their friends, they are uncharacteristically enthusiastic and articulate.
One of their teachers told me that for some of the students, Forest School is the only time they experience the outdoors void of concrete. That got me thinking about how bizarre it is that organic food, shampoo labels, and a slew of self-help books managed to frame being-in-nature as a lifestyle brand: the site of blissful serenity and active well-being. Urban greenery is imagined like a luxury for privileged people.
My kids are privileged. So I guess that’s why they were already familiar with the park before forest school started. We often hike there on the weekends. But sometimes, when my boys’ friends join us, I can see that the woods are unfamiliar to them. You’ve heard of sea legs? When I became a parent, I never considered that kids need to acquire “nature legs” though practice. How else will they become accustomed to running on dirt trails without tripping on tree roots? Or avoiding low-hanging thorny branches? You learn these things through trial and error. You trip. You get scratched. You become accustomed to certain kinds of terrain.
A ton of reputable psychologists and education specialists have talked about the cognitive and emotional benefits that come from exposing kids to nature. But it bothers me that a few of them have mistakenly framed outdoor play in opposition to screen time. I’m sure you’ve heard this nonsense before. Today’s kids, we’re told, don’t go outside enough because they’re too busy playing video games. Nature legs get dichotomized with tech-mindedness—human innovation contaminates our purity of mind. It’s an old story, dependent on a fantasy of humanity’s pre-civilized state: technology ruined us; it interrupted our pastoral bliss.
I guess, to some extent, we’ll always be unconsciously beholden to the Book of Genesis, framing tech as a sinful obstacle that blocks the way back to the Garden of Eden. Even when trains were invented, parents worried that it was unnatural for people to see the world go by so fast. They worried that the speed would damage children’s brains. In every era, technological shifts are framed as an affront to a more natural—and therefore, preferable—state.
But simultaneously, another opposing narrative also thrives. It says that human ingenuity brings order to an otherwise chaotic existence. It argues that civilization and its technological advances carry us closer to the divine realm—offering the social, moral, and ethical progress that the natural world lacks.
Consider ancient Mesopotamia’s Epic of Gilgamesh, which tells how wild-man Enkidu must learn to embrace the refined gifts of human ingenuity—bread, beer, grooming rituals—before he can restore balance to the city of Uruk. Or, better yet, recall the ancient Greek myth of Pan, god of the wild. His completely un-domesticated state leads to anxiety. It’s destabilizing. The wild is, in essence, Pan-ic.
And remember history class: the Abrahamic version of the civilization-as-godly perspective drove the Holy Roman Empire missionaries to exorcise savagery from the far corners of the earth, replacing it with “progress.” It’s a story as old as time.
But neither side of this primordial tech vs. nature dichotomy is accurate. Mythology is not about answers. Instead, each perspective represents an essential dialogue thread. And both regularly weave their way through our thoughts as we live our tool-enabled human lives. Why? Because it is through our tools—both the material ones with which we tangibly shape our surroundings and the intellectual tools with which we shape meaning—that we experience the world.
Teachers should be the trail blazers here. They need to embrace STEM curricula that leverage digital tools to help analyze, interpret, and understand the planet. In fact, this is the one single answer to the two most common questions that people ask me everywhere I go. They either want to know: how should we integrate technology into schools? Or: what do today’s students need to thrive in the 21st Century economy?
The answer to both questions is the same. And it’s not about job skills. They don’t necessarily need to know how to write code. But they do need to understand the ways in which today’s (and tomorrow’s) digital tools will shape humanity’s ability to interact with the social, political, economic, and natural world around us. They need to be familiar with the conventions of digital meaning making.
One place where I’ve seen this done exceptionally well was during a recent visit to the “Hacking STEM” Maker Lab on Microsoft’s Redmond campus. They say, “we’re customizing powerful tools like Excel to support teachers building inquiry-based and project-based activities” which “demonstrate the fundamentals of science, bring the emerging world of Internet of Things to the classroom and help them meet the NGSS requirements for STEM and data science.” But I think its way more profound than that.
While my kids and I were there in October, we made a Seismograph from a paper cup, some wire, and a few magnets. Then, we shook the table and watched the data stream into Excel. We built an Anemometer with a few everyday materials, a LEGO motor, and a tiny Arduino computer board. Then, we collected, visualized, and analyzed data about the wind speed. We imported weather data from the web and watched our devices spin to reflect the wind on the other side of the globe. We even launched our homemade devices on a weather balloon and collected data about the wind above the tree lines via Bluetooth.
I know it sounds complicated. But these were really very simple multi-disciplinary projects that taught us how to understand mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, software engineering, and data science as tools with which to interact with the natural world. The screen didn’t take us a way from nature, it brought us closer.
Teachers take note. Parents, tell your kids’ teachers about this—it’s a perfect example of great education for the 21st century. Here’s a link where all the necessary resources are available for free: aka.ms/hackingstem. This includes the lesson plan, instructions for the project, and links to a customized Excel worksheet. (It’s all part of a Hack for Good prototype that Microsoft is looking to learn from).
“Science” used to be called “Natural Philosophy” because we used to understand that it was about the ways in which we make meaning from the natural world. Then, in the enlightenment era—post Descartes and leading through our industrial modernity—these things became separated. I’d argue that it is this bizarre relegation of the STEM subjects to their own domain, imagined to be objective truths rather than symbolic meaning systems, that has moved our children away from nature.