Earth Day 2012: Earth, Universe—Awe

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Celebrating Earth Day at Prospect Sierra

On Thursday, April 19, three remarkable scientists presented to our lucky students to celebrate Earth Day. Twenty inspiring parents, teachers, and community members led workshops designed to cultivate the emotion of “awe” while teaching about our planet and universe. Three weeks later, our faculty and students are still talking about it. By all accounts, we were awe-struck!

Dr. Phillip Alvelda is a former NASA scientist chosen by the World Economic Forum as a World Technology Pioneer. He spoke about designing something that has never existed before to solve a difficult challenge. He used his amazing experience at NASA to demonstrate ways technology innovations support space exploration, hinting at what the future might hold for our next generation of young students who are creative scientific thinkers.

Cal psychology professor, Frank Sulloway, a MacArthur Genius who holds a Ph.D. in the history of science from Harvard University, has been leading research expeditions in the Galapagos Islands for 30 years. Sulloway explained how the Galapagos Islands represent an extraordinary locality for the study of evolution, beginning with Charles Darwin’s historic visit to the islands in 1835. Through stories and photos, he demonstrated how the islands represent almost every major evolutionary process in microcosm, including the role of geographic isolation in the origin of new species and the role of natural selection in the evolutionary process. During his workshop, he conveyed the harsh environment of the Galapagos (which drives the evolutionary processes) through the accounts of his Odyssean-like journeys. Our middle schoolers realized how beautiful, dangerous, and amazing field research can be.

After these two speakers and a feast of 20 thought-provoking, hands-on workshops, Saul Perlmutter (Noa 3), U.C. Berkeley and Berkeley Lab physicist who recently won the Nobel Prize, spoke about our rapidly expanding universe, supernovae, and the nature of dark energy. This talk was a mind boggling, never-to-be-forgotten experience. Perlmutter’s passion and imaginative curiosity were contagious, and his humbleness was remarkable: “Never be sure you absolutely know anything.” To hear the kinds of questions our students posed was also thrilling. Visiting alum parent, Deborah Moore, wrote, “The kids’ questions today were brilliant and mind-blowing. Wow!”

In fact weeks later, on a full day of hiking with the 5th graders in the Marin Headlands, I listened with fascination as two boys on the trail behind me theorized endlessly about the fabric of the expanding universe. They debated, challenging and building upon one another’s ideas for an hour! “If there’s an end, we can always go through the end somehow. Or if it’s infinite, how can there be space growing in between? Can infinity get bigger? Could it be a loop, like a donut? If you go in one direction after a million years would you come back to the place you started? If you graphed space, maybe there are tons of overlapping donuts …”

Sixth grade teacher, Suzette Duncan, shared this story: “The conversation about string theory and physics has continued in my class. I just loaned my book about the physicist Richard Feynman to a student, and on “twin day” (Spirit Week) my students wanted to ask my twin sister if she believed in string theory. One student wondered how to make a living as a physicist, searching for books he can understand about string theory. Another student wants to learn quantum mechanics and is also looking for books.”

What I’m struck by is this: emotion matters and inspiration matters. Being exposed to big ideas is a tremendous boost to one’s intellectual development because mind and emotion are engaged at a high level. Often environmental education focuses on the huge problems, which can lead to feeling overwhelmed and burdened—not an optimal mood for learning and activating the caretaking behaviors essential for the health of our planet.

This earth day celebration revealed the vastness of the universe—an experience that rooted us in the powerful and pleasurable emotions of curiosity, reverence, and awe. And hopefully, those feelings of wonder and awe will inspire us to continue learning and adopting the practices necessary to protect our small spinning planet, home to family and friends, our dear Mother Earth.

Kathryn Lee
Director of Partnerships, Innovation, and Service