Ecology, AI, and e-books: interview with the school teacher

The Pilot STE(A)M Learning Ecology (SLE) in Slovakia merged multiculturalism, environmental awareness, and digital competencies. The initiative involved two schools (from Slovakia and Poland) into a week-long workshop in the Natural Park of the High Tatras mountains.

During the activities, 13-year-old students learnt about the conservation of endangered species in this special ecosystem, and produced an e-book on endangered plants, as well as posters and dissemination materials to be shared with the future visitors of the Park.

To learn more about this learning ecology, read the interview we conducted with a teacher from the Slovak school!

Can you “paint a picture” of the context in which your STE(A)M Learning Ecology operates? Describe a bit the local setting where the SLE is located as well as the real life challenge it addresses. How does it link to the school curriculum?

Imagine a classroom at the peaks of the High Tatras mountains, where sunlight filters through towering pines and the mountain air invigorates the senses. This is the heart of our SLE initiative, a hub of collaboration between Polish and Slovak students aged 12-13. The real-life challenge here is the very future of the Tatras’ ecosystem. Climate change, improper waste disposal, and unsustainable tourism practices threaten the delicate balance of the alpine ecosystem, endangering many plant species that have thrived for centuries. Our bi-national SLEs program tackles this challenge head-on, linking with the science curriculum of both Polish and Slovak students. With class discussions, interactive maps, and online pictures to identify endangered species, science becomes a bridge between the two nationalities and languages, fostering understanding of the complex ecosystem. Technology comes alive as students use tablets to research plant life cycles, document their findings, and even create virtual e-book showcasing the biodiversity of the Tatras. This e-book, translated into both Polish and Slovak and of course in English, can be shared with the wider community, raising awareness about conservation efforts. The culminating project – the creation of a bilingual, digital herbal e-book – represents the heart of the project’s cross-border cooperation. Students from both Poland and Slovakia contribute their research findings, translate descriptions of endangered species, and collaborate on the design of the e-book, creating a valuable educational resource for future generations. Our SLE program in the High Tatras isn’t just about classrooms; it’s about fostering a spirit of international cooperation, climate action, and creative problem-solving in the face of a real-world challenge. It’s a testament to the power of STEAM education to bridge borders and inspire future generations to become guardians of this unique mountain range.

Could you briefly present your organization? What roles did your organization have in the SLE?

First thing first, we have our schools – representing the core of the project. Polish and Slovak primary schools with students aged 12-13 provide the learning environment, students, and teaching staff. Teachers facilitate lessons, guide research, and oversee project implementation. Next, we have our students, who are the active participants! They conduct research, contribute content, translate information, design elements of the e-book, and participate in discussions and workshops. Students are directly involved through their schools. Teachers used engaging activities and gamification elements to keep students motivated and invested in the project. Finally, we have authorities of the TANAP museum and the Botanical garden authorities, who facilitated the initiative by providing the right opportunities for our outdoor activities.

Have you already worked in similar open schooling projects in the past? If not, how was this first experience?

As a school, we have worked in several international project but this is the first in Visegrad 4 database. This project in the High Tatras was a new and exciting application of the learnings from previous projects. The collaborative aspect across borders and the focus on real-world environmental challenges are particularly innovative.

Were there any challenges occurred while implementing the STE(A)M Learning Ecology and/or interacting with the relevant stakeholders? How did you address them?

During our discussions and the implementation of our activities, we encountered a few challenges. These included some uncooperative stakeholders and adverse weather conditions, as bad weather was forecasted for the days of our outdoor events, potentially jeopardizing them. For future SLEs with outdoor activities, I recommend better time management in the school schedule. The school’s workload is heavier during the good weather seasons – which are ideal for these projects. Perhaps having a less busy agenda during this period would allow for more flexibility to implement this type of activities.

Why do you think that your STE(A)M Learning Ecology was so helpful? What are the benefits and the added value brought to the scholastic community? What are the benefits and added value brought to the educational experience of students/teachers involved? Please think about the skills developed.

The High Tatras SLE e-herbal program has been very helpful and brought several benefits to the overall community, students, and teachers! As per the community benefits, the main learning outcome (an e-book) raises awareness about endangered plant species and the importance of preserving the Tatras ecosystem. This informs tourists and residents about its delicate balance and encourages responsible behavior. This document (translated in three languages) could become, in the long term, a valuable educational tool for schools, libraries, and tourist information centers. It promotes environmental awareness and fosters a sense of shared responsibility for the Tatras’ future. If the book were spread among tourist information centers, by educating tourists about endangered species and responsible practices, the project could promote sustainable tourism, benefiting the local economy while protecting the environment. As per the benefits to students, pupils developed a strong foundation in Science (plant biology, ecology), Technology (data collection, e-book creation), and Art (illustrations, posters). The activities also promoted cross-border collaboration, as working with Polish peers has increased cultural exchange, communication skills, and teamwork across borders. Pupils also faced real-world environmental challenges, proposing solutions and understanding the interconnection of issues. In doing this, they developed critical thinking and independent learning through research, analysis, and project design. Regarding benefits for teachers, our SLE provided a framework for integrating STEAM principles into traditional science curriculum, making learning more engaging and interactive. Like in the case of our students, our activities also fostered collaboration among teachers from both Poland and Slovakia, who shared best practices and developed international connections.

Overall, our SLE empowered students to become active participants in protecting their environment. It created a spirit of international cooperation and equipped pupils with valuable STEAM skills that will benefit them throughout their lives!

One dimension of this project is to work to attract girls to science subjects. I know that this has not been a specific focus of the activities, but has this been contributed in some way as well? Or what more can be done in the future to consider this gender aspect more?

That’s a great point! While the project itself might not have been explicitly designed to attract girls to science subjects, there are aspects that could be contributing and areas for future improvement as in this project we had 12 girls and 8 boys. The focus on environmental issues and real-world problem-solving can be particularly appealing to girls who are interested in making a positive impact on the world. Also, the team-based approach can create a more welcoming environment for girls who might hesitate to participate in science-heavy classes traditionally dominated by boys. Overall, integrating art and design elements through poster creation and e-book design can tap into creative skills that might resonate with girls. For the future, we would consider inviting female scientists, botanists, or environmental leaders to speak to the students – as this can provide girls with positive role models and demonstrate career paths in science. In connection to this, we might also establish mentorship programs with female science professionals which can offer girls additional support and guidance.

By incorporating these suggestions, the High Tatras SLE program can become even more effective in attracting girls to science subjects.

Looking ahead, do you plan to further collaborate with the school and the other stakeholders involved? Do you envisage to further sustain this SLE in the near/ long future?

I have some ideas for future collaboration and sustaining the SLE program in the High Tatras. For instance, we could involve new schools from the Visegrad 4 region or other areas with similar ecological challenges. This broadens the educational reach and fosters a larger community of student researchers. We can also choose a new theme within the broader topic of Tatras ecology. This keeps the project fresh and allows students to delve deeper into specific endangered species or conservation issues. Also, we might organise annual conferences or workshops where students from participating schools present their findings and share best practices. This fosters a sense of community, continuous learning, but also communication skills. In terms of sustainability of this initiative, we can create toolkit outlining the project’s framework, activities, resources, and best practices. This empowers new schools and teachers to replicate the program independently. We might also explore grant opportunities from environmental organizations, educational foundations, or government bodies to secure long-term funding for our activities. Additionally, we could partner with local environmental NGOs, tourism boards, or parks authorities. They can leverage the e-book to promote responsible tourism and contribute to ongoing maintenance and updates.

Any additional comment and/or suggestion to improve the methodology and the implementation of SLEs is welcome!

We will see what the future holds for us as we dive into another project work next school year!

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