This Earth Day start with STEM

Published on: 
22 Apr 2014
Melissa Moritz

My favorite part of my job by far is getting to watch and hear about STEM teachers who are making science and math come alive for their students; teachers who are using issues that are both interesting and applicable to their students to demonstrate how STEM truly is all around us. 

As we prepare to celebrate Earth Day (which should be every day, by the way), I caught up with one of Teach For America’s alumni teachers, Irene Hsieh (DC Corps ’11), who was awarded a service learning grant from Youth Service America (YSA). Working with an after-school group of 10-14 year olds called “The Germinators” to tackle real-life STEM issues, Irene has done what some folks might think impossible: she has them identifying and brainstorming solutions to complex problems without realizing the amazing math and science efforts they’re putting forth.

As part of Irene’s healthy living curricula, The Germinators addressed the healthy food access gap that exists in Washington, DC. They plotted the large grocery stores in DC on Google Maps, and looked at how many grocery stores per capita are in each ward.  Her kids used ratios and proportions to determine that there is unequal access to grocery stores across their city, and then wrote letters to the president to share this information with him. 

Because identifying the problem with healthy food access isn’t enough, Irene is also giving her kids the tools to make the right food choices and even grow their own. They used their knowledge of percentages to calculate percent daily value of fat, sugar, and salt in their favorite snacks, and even looked at what really goes inside a chicken nugget. The Germinators started a community garden and have utilized volume and measurement to determine how much soil they need for the raised beds they are building. Irene’s class recently entered the “Grow Anything Tour” and won over $15,000 in fresh produce and 100 plants for their community garden!

Perhaps most importantly, her students have learned the power of teamwork, communication, and group problem solving – all skills they will need for future opportunities in STEM and life, including how to generate support and resources for your idea. 

Seeing Irene’s success with her students, I am reminded of how crucial STEM education is to solving the challenges we face as a country. As the Germinators have demonstrated through their work with food access and cultivation, our kids are hungry to solve real problems. They might need some guidance, resources, and a push in the right direction, but they are beyond capable.

So enough with the rote memorization and procedural problem solving – lets fuel our kids’ passion with what’s happening all around them. And what better time to start than now?  While every day is an opportunity to make the world a better place, let’s take particular advantage of Earth Day to share the amazing world of STEM with our students!

Melissa Moritz is Vice President, Education Initiatives at Teach for America. After graduating from MIT with a B.S. in Biology in 2006, Melissa joined the Teach For America corps as a middle school science teacher in New York City. In 2008, she joined Teach For America’s staff as the Recruitment Director for MIT and other Boston-area schools. Melissa was recently named one of the “100 Women Leaders in STEM” by STEMConnector.  She believes passionately that all children should have the opportunity to experience the wonder of math and science.