In April, three Texas middle school students joined marine veterans and a team of surgeons on a 12-day expedition through the jungles of Central America, learning about sustainable agriculture, reforestation, and ecosystems, and helping create a mobile surgical clinic for an indigenous Nicaraguan tribe that lacks access to medical treatment.
The expedition was part of a science education program called Exploration Nation, featuring real students applying STEM topics to the real world.
Exploration Nation is a series of supplemental STEM videos and lesson plans from Enzoology Education, a social enterprise that produces the program. Enzoology was born after president Pete Monfre and his then-7-year-old son, Enzo, from Texas, made a short video about the life of a praying mantis that went viral on YouTube in 2007, leading to appearances on national television and attention from teachers looking for more engaging science lessons.
Monfre used teacher input to develop Exploration Nation, which schools can subscribe to online for videos and materials for lessons. Today, videos feature 12-year-old Enzo and friends using STEM concepts to show how science is used in everyday life, such as the physics of cars in a race. A teacher’s guide includes student worksheets and hands-on activities, such as how to demonstrate friction with a shoe, tape measure, and rubber band.
Parts of the Central American expedition were broadcast live by satellite to classrooms worldwide each day, while other parts were used to make more Exploration Nation videos and lesson plans. The student explorers worked with modern scientists to learn about wild animals and concepts like the carbon cycle, while the Nicaraguan tribe’s shaman taught them about natural medicines from the jungle.
An estimated 6.5 million students watched the broadcast, Monfre says.
Though overall STEM interest has increased recently, only 28 percent of high school freshmen declare interest in a STEM-related field, according to a report from MyCollegeOptions.org, a college planning program, and STEMconnector, a STEM tools provider. And of those students, over 57 percent lose interest by the time they graduate.
Monfre adds that there are far fewer STEM programs in early grades. “We aren’t focused on elementary and middle school when it comes to connecting them to what it means to study science,” he says. You can’t tell fifth graders they should do it to better their career, he adds—instead, teachers need to show them what science means by applying it to the real world.
“We want to inspire kids, and keep them on this track,” Monfre says. “Then we’ll get better results in high school and college, and someday, these students will be finding the cure for terminal diseases.”
To learn more, visit ExplorationNation.com.