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The science of experiential education

June 5, 2012
Raina Delisle
Sharon Ryan

Sharon Ryan believes the secret to getting students and teachers excited about science is to take them out of the classroom and into the action. As director of public programs for the world-renowned Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama, she is doing just that.

The MA in Environmental Education and Communication (MEEC) graduate is working on an experiential education program called Desert to Rainforest, which connects middle school children in underserved communities in Phoenix and Panama. The program allows the students to explore each other’s natural habitats and cultures, and to learn how science works through field trips with researchers and educators, online and on the ground.

“People have a perception of science being serious and boring, but I think through these kinds of experiences, you can show that it’s actually very exciting and exotic,” says Ryan, who moved to Panama in January with her husband, Andrew Altieri, a marine ecologist at STRI, and their daughters, Anna, 5, and Lily, 3.

Run in partnership with Audubon Arizona (an environmental protection group) and Arizona State University, the program uses educational technology to take students on virtual fieldtrips to the rainforest and desert. Guided by scientists, the children learn about the differences, similarities and connections between their ecosystems and cultures. The teachers, in turn, will travel to each other’s countries for a week of workshops and visits to participating schools and research sites.

“It’s a unique experience design that will hopefully help teach some critical thinking skills and get kids to use science to explore and to play and to discover.”

Ryan notes that the learning experiences she’s trying to create for students mirrors the ones she had at Royal Roads.

“The MEEC program really exemplified active and experiential learning. The instructors designed the courses and activities to encourage hands-on, minds-on learning. In our public programs, I’m trying to engage people in these kinds of learning experiences, which research has shown are effective features of high quality science or environmental education.”

Royal Roads Prof. Rick Kool, head of the MEEC program, echoes Ryan’s sentiments. He says the Desert to Rainforest program reflects some of the basic learning that people do in the MEEC program around systems and connectivity. With proper analysis, he says, you can see that what happens in the rainforest does have an impact in the deserts of the planet.

“Sharon’s a really inspirational person and always had a big picture idea of what was possible,” Kool says. “She really exemplifies a lot of the attributes of the students who come to the program – they’re go-getters, they are people who are willing to start new things and make things happen.”

Ryan is already seeing the positive effects of experiential learning and living in Panama, which boasts an astounding array of plant and animal life, on her children.

“I’m seeing everything through my daughters’ eyes,” she says. “They’re having the adventure of their lives. They’re out in the rainforest, they’re collecting coconuts and drinking from them with straws, they’re snorkelling just off the dock down here, they try new food every day, they get to play with kids from all over the world and they’re learning Spanish as they go along. It’s an amazing learning experience for them.”

Ryan herself is also learning a great deal.

“I get to work with leading educators and scientists in a variety of different fields,” says Ryan, whose job also includes outreach and sharing the unique and interesting discoveries of the scientists with diverse audiences in different sites throughout the country. “They are very serious, passionate people. They love to share their knowledge. I learn something new every day.”

Ryan, who started her career in public relations 15 years ago, has long had an interest in conservation and education. It was in 2001, when she went to volunteer at the Charles Darwin Research Station in the Galápagos Islands, she knew she had found her calling. In her four years at the Charles Darwin Research Station, she helped with public programs, communications and strategic planning, progressing to head of the institutional development team.

“It was a pretty unique experience working there,” Ryan says. “It definitely inspired that passion and excitement about education and conservation. It also made me realize that if you’re going to do scientific research for conservation, it’s got to go hand in hand with education and participation with the local community.”