In this episode, Doris speaks with Katy Yan, instructor of AP Environmental Science and Honors Biology at The College Preparatory School and former Science Teacher at The Bentley School. Katy explains the shift from research papers to real world problem solving that resulted in meaningful learning about food systems and climate change. She also shares how this led to students developing better research techniques and critical thinking skills in her science courses.
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Doris: Hello, Katy.
Katy: Hello, Doris.
Doris: How are you with your new job?
Katy: I’m doing very well, thank you. I’m loving it.
Doris: I’m so excited. Listen, please start by telling our listeners about yourself.
Katy: Sure. So I’m currently starting a new job at a school called The College Preparatory in Oakland, California. And I teach AP Environmental Science and Honors Biology to juniors and seniors. And I came to the position after having taught a few years in a few other Bay Area schools, including the Bentley School and University High School. But I’ve always wanted to teach. And my parents are both art teachers, and so I grew up in sort of an education environment. My parents and I came to the U.S. when I was four from China, and basically grew up in the Bay Area. Went to school here. Went to college around here. And then after graduation knew I wanted to teach, but also knew that I wanted to work in the environmental sector first before teaching about environmental issues.
Doris: Why did you decide that? By the way, we both have in common, I also was brought here by my parents when…
Katy: Oh really?
Doris: …I was four years old. So, same age.
Katy: Oh wow, exactly.
Doris: Yeah. It’s interesting.
Katy: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Very interesting. Yeah, I think it definitely gives a very different perspective, right?
Doris: I agree.
Katy: So why I decided to work in the environmental sector?
Doris: Yeah, yeah.
Katy: Mm-hmm. I decided to do that because I wanted to…I think wanted to get some actual real-world experience in environmental advocacy, environmental science before actually bring that into the classroom and having these stories to share and a particular perspective. And I also was just in generally very interested in water issues, water management issues, environmental justice through my graduate school program at Stanford University. And so I had an opportunity to do an internship at this organization called International Rivers right after graduation. And I started there as an intern, but then gradually moved through that organization to focus really on climate change policy as well as dam development and human rights in Southwest China.
Katy: And so as a program coordinator for those…both of those programs, I had the opportunity to do some traveling, research, and communication work, writing blogs, and creating videos, and communication tools to sort of raise awareness about some of the threats to river resources and river dependent communities in all parts of the world, but in particular in Southwest China.
Doris: That’s really interesting. So then what? That’s really fascinating. Then what?
Katy: Yeah. So then after doing this work and really sort of traveling, focusing on Southwest China, I had…I think I was ready to go to the classroom and work with kids. And an opportunity came to teach at University High School, a school in San Francisco, as a sabbatical leave replacement for an AP Environmental Science class. And I jumped at that opportunity. And it was fantastic because I loved bringing in some of those stories, and I think a lot of issues that may not make the front page or that people may not have been as aware of, and then as a way to get students to think critically, more critically beyond the sort of headlines and front pages and what it really means needs to do deep research on a particular issue. Because these environmental issues are so complex and multilayered. And I was able to get a glimpse of that while doing work with International Rivers.
Doris: So then what prompted you to come to the workshop?
Katy: That’s a good question. I think I was really interested in Design Thinking at the time and also Project-Based Learning, because environmental science is such a rich area for projects that are applied and relevant to a student’s daily life and what they’re hearing in the news, or the sustainability issues at their school that I was really interested in, seeing examples of how other teachers were able to do that in a meaningful way, and so projects that weren’t just one-off projects that maybe could be sustained or have a sort of impact on student lives.
Doris: That’s fantastic. And I’m really excited to hear more about your pilot and how you implemented it. And talk about what you’ve created, how it went.
Katy: Yeah. So in the winter, I taught a course called, “The Past, Present and Future of Food,” which examines the relationship between food production and the environment. So we’ll cover major issues that students are may or may not be familiar with like pesticide use and concentrated animal feed labs and GMOs. And really give them hopefully a deep dive in some of those big issues that they hear about. And then the final projects, because it’s a shorter semester, we don’t usually do final exams, we do projects. And so in the past years, I’ve done projects that have been things like research symposiums where they do like a research paper on an issue they’re interested in. But this year, I was particularly looking at the group of students that I had and thought something that was a bit more applied to their every day, might be something that was more engaging, more meaningful to them. And so I designed a Social Entrepreneurship and Food Symposium where they essentially brainstorm ideas, topics they’re interested in and brainstorm some issues around those topics and then develop a business idea that will, hopefully, solve or help solve those issues.
Doris: Oh, that’s exciting. So did they do this as individuals or on teams?
Katy: They worked on teams so…
Katy: Yeah, after brainstorming some of these ideas, teams, we start trying forming teams around common interest and there were a couple students that were really passionate about particular issues where other students sort of rallied around and we ended up with four different topics. One of them was very research-based on had to deal with integrated pest management consulting which was really cool. They did some great research on that and looking at stakeholders and pesticide use. One of them looked at sustainable school food lunches. Clearly, that came out of interest in improving the current school food system that we had.
Katy: And our school food delivery system. One group was just really based on that one student’s passion around social justice came up with an idea for an app that would link community members that live in food deserts with farmers markets and local farmers and providing discounts at farmers’ markets and things like that which was really cool. Yeah, and the last idea was a group of students wanted to start a sustainable fast food restaurant.
Katy: That was a lot of fun for them interview their friends and see what the willingness to pay was and kind of food that they wanted to purchase. So, yeah, I think it worked well because they were really seeing something that they were familiar with and we’d gone through the Business Model Canvas together before hand. And so, they have the tools and the language to really feel like they were talking about it like experts, which is really cool to see.
Doris: Sure. Well, so basically, if I’m understanding this, what had been in the past are a research paper maybe?
Katy: Yeah, it was a research paper and presentation.
Doris: Got you. You took this sort of models and the curriculum, and the practices from the workshop and you created a final project where you are using entrepreneurship and had teams of students solving problems they themselves cared to solve.
Katy: Yup, exactly.
Doris: And they presented their solutions. I think as a student, when I’m given license to solve a problem to solve a problem that hasn’t been solved yet and get creative about how I form a solution, that’s a type of creativity that students don’t often get a chance to use in school. Can you talk as a pilot, if you think about this sort of learning the students did in this versus when they did a research paper, would you choose this again?
Katy: I think I definitely would. I think both types of projects are necessary and I think I was really responding to the students I had in the room as well and what they were interested in and what they were really lit up around. Yeah, and I think doing this again, may if I were to do again, I would try to beef up the research pieces a little bit more.
Katy: I mean, a lot of them were taking issues that we had studied before. For instance, the pesticide consulting group took a lot of what we had been talking about around pesticide use and impacts on insects and things like that. Or integrated pest management and then some of the couple of the few took a lot of what we’re talking about organic food. But I think there could have been a bit more of that background research feeding into their ideas. But I think overall, it was something that was memorable and meaningful.
Doris: Yeah, you know you bring up an interesting point. How do you structure the learning of these students and you’re teaching in such a way that the students are really engaged in chasing something they care about. That’s a meaningful to them and that has purpose and I think, I believe I’ve seen it, these methods which really are kind of redefining academics. It’s the whole point approach. I think when they’re applied in whether it’s a chemistry class or a social entrepreneurship class or whatever, it’s really interesting to see the way it engages students in their learning very differently.
Doris: Than even a very interesting project that a teacher defines. I think most important really is the completely different mindset and methodology. And you have to sort of approach school and learning from the very different way. I’d be interested in hearing with your one pilot, how your experience as a teacher felt different than what you do in a unit where you’re having students write a research paper.
Katy: Right. I think for this particular project, it felt great not to be necessarily the expert in the room because they would have questions about running a particular type of business which I won’t necessarily have the answer to. It’s like, that’s part of your research, we can look it up together, we can sort of explore this together but now you are the expert and your group is going to be the expert among all of us, so teach us. And so, I think that was very exciting. I think in the past when doing research papers, they’d usually been on topics that I had some expertise and I’m familiar with and could guide them. But really, I think there was particular challenge with this project and how best to guide them
and there was really more about guiding them and some really fundamental skills around research, around asking the right question. Like we did a number of exercises just brainstorming questions that they had and then prioritizing these questions in thinking about what really mattered to their project, and I think those are important skills as well.
Doris: Yeah, and what you just described I think that’s the essence of which is having structuring a learning experience where the students are going deep based on a focus on what are the most important questions. Once they have the question, can you see how doing this kind of thing, the second, third, fourth time that you could even with every team working on very different things, some of the things you have no experience in, can you see how students could actually go very deep into learning science for example in a project like this?
Katy: Yeah, absolutely. I think particularly with asking question, I think that’s central to you, that chemistry classes that I teach and biology class that I teach is asking how to ask the right questions. That’s really kind of start someone on the right experiment to just know how to design the right experiment to answer these questions. I think that’s all very related.
Doris: So, as a teacher, when do this, what you’re constantly thinking about are what are the questions I should ask next of these guys as opposed to how do I answer?
Katy: Right, absolutely. I think yeah, for the exercise we did was coming up with the questions was great because I forced them to ask at least 10 questions, so that was the challenge.
Katy: I don’t think they’re used to being asked to do that. They’re usually given one question like whatever class it is, like one question and they have to use their textbooks, use their primary or secondary resources to answer that one question. Whereas in this particular project, I told them to come up with as many questions as possible and then to think about what types of questions those are? Are they open-ended questions? Are they close-ended questions? And then really prioritize like what are the most important questions to them that they want to have answered. And then also the difficult part that came later which was creating the surveys was what kind of questions work best in getting the information that you need? What kind of questions bring out the useful data from the not useful data. And that was challenging too and I think one to the things that was helpful from the workshop was some of the resources you provided around articles from let’s say the Harvard Business School without designing a survey. I gave them that to read, have them think about really what makes for a good survey question and what doesn’t and they think was helpful.
Doris: And there’s even the question before that which is based on what question you are trying to answer, what is the right research methodology? Surveys only work for very specific kinds of questions, right?
Katy: Yeah, absolutely.
Doris: Coming out of a science having learned how to distinguish between one research strategy versus another and how to execute those is massively important. And given that finding the data is not the problem, it’s knowing the question and then how to go about answering it, I think these are really important things. So Katy, if you take a step up as somebody whose work is rooted in a passion for kids and having them develop a love for science, why is any of the stuff we’re talking about are important? Why get creative with these kinds of projects and how you teach science, why even do it? When we’ve done these research paper approaches and lectures and all that for many, many years and we’ve had amazing scientists emerged, why are you even experimenting with this stuff?
Katy: I think I do like being very creative in what I do and that’s part of the reason I enjoy teaching so much. But I think for my, particular in teaching environmental science, I have some very specific reasons why I turned towards these sort of project-based learning experiences and activities and exercises. There is always a few students who I think come in having never really taken an environmental science class and don’t know what to expect and are kind of surprised that it can be equal parts science as well as policy, as well as economics and sociology. But overall, the students I feel like, can get very depressed often times with the seriousness and their weightiness of some of the environmental issues that we talked about. And sometimes it feels like there are sort of smaller day to day solutions to those issues. Things, like turning off the lights or even biking to school, don’t feel enough. And on the other end of the spectrum, the solutions that area really meaningful in long term feels really difficult. Things like policy change, societal behaviors changes, those seems really challenging and intimidating. And I feel like something like having a social entrepreneurship project gives us the students a sense that this is something they are familiar with that they can potentially accomplish within their lifetime or when they’re in college.
Katy: And it’s sort of a medium span of time to at least feel that it’s something that they can see around that them that is also making a difference, that isn’t just the daily actions where there’s originally long term policy changes. So, I think that’s one very specific reason why I feel like to work small in a particular environmental science class. And I think overall in our general science class, I think it does continue to exercise their data collection, their critical thinking, their data analysis. I think one of the hardest things that they and I learned to do is how hard it is to write and execute a good survey.
Katy: You have to still take the skills you learned in a science class around data collection in sample size and apply that to your project to really have effective results. Otherwise, your results are just not going to be reliable.
Doris: Yeah, when you think about these methods of teaching and learning and applying them what are some of the things that you’re using now in your other classes that you got out of this?
Katy: I think one of the things I did get out of the workshop and this experience is that I think social entrepreneurship as vehicle of doing project-based learning better. And I think we started doing a couple more projects this year in chemistry. And I think if it’s not right away or not necessarily social entrepreneurship, I feel like do have more confidence in developing a project for the students that exercise some of the same skills and engage them is same sorts of issues that they are familiar with. And I think one of the things, which seemed like a small piece from the workshop, but I thought was really powerful, were the News Circles that we did as a group, where we knew we would get together the start of every session and just share major news pieces that we were interested in following. And I started doing and really seen it had a major impact in my current AP Environmental Science class. Because I started this class looking at climate and how that’s different from weather. Because we end with climate change in the spring. I was really seeing climate as sort of a good bookend to the entire class. And right away we started talking about climate versus weather, and whether hurricanes can be linked to climate change or not and what’s sort of the scientific consensus or uncertainty around that area of research. And that was something that I was just planning on doing anyway. And then, unfortunately, all of this stuff around Hurricane Harvey and now Hurricane Irma, it started happening at the same time. And so all of a sudden, the things that we were talking about in class, looking at past data for major hurricanes, category three, four, and five hurricanes, and sort of the human, environmental impacts of that, all of a sudden that became really incredibly relevant to the students.
And so they were in these News Circles, suddenly so animated and excited to talk about what they were hearing, what they were learning. And I’m getting the sense that they are paying more attention now because now that we’ve talked about what causes a hurricane and how it might be linked to climate change because ocean waters are warming up more than ever before. And so that has been really exciting to see them realize that, you know what, their learning can really inform their understanding about the news that they’re hearing. And I think that’s…to me, that’s really critical, because as I told them, sort of one of my main objectives for the class is really for them to be able to sift through a lot of the noise that they’re hearing or reading about and really understand the environmental science and the issues behind what they’re hearing, reading about. We’re using facts and research that they’ve learned about to really critically think about what they’re hearing in the news. And I think that’s coming through, through the News Circles.
Doris: Well and what a great way to set the table every day for the relevance of the rest of what they’re going to learn in that class. They’re not…none of the students, after that News Circle, are going to question, “What do I have to learn this stuff?” They get it.
Doris: And it’s a sad coincidence that you’re teaching this class at a time these hurricanes are hitting. But the interesting thing that I’ve discovered in doing these News Circles all these years, is that even if there isn’t a sad coincidence like this at the time when you teach this next semester or next year…as the students engage and bring in news they find interesting out in the world, it doesn’t take many steps between the news and what they’re going to learn in your class for them to find connections. And they’ll find and build those connections. You know, I know we talked about this at the workshop at first, very often students come in and they view it as a typical assignment, here’s my news article. But very soon, and, you know, they start bringing in news that actually does have a relevance to the class itself, on their own, even if there isn’t something that traumatic.
Katy: Absolutely. Yeah. And they’re able to make some connections too, even if it doesn’t…it might be a news piece that might not be directly related to you, maybe the environmental unit that we’re talking about at the moment, they’re able to make some connections to, like, maybe what’s the environmental impacts of this particular issue, or something like that. Or climate change is always a threat. It’s always a theme in anything we talk about. And which is very kind of intentional on my part because that is…I see that as really critical global issue. And I think they get that sense too. Yeah.
Doris: Well yeah, they’re learning from you. They’re learning the implications and the relevance and the importance of all this thing beyond the science itself. And I love that you’re doing it inside an advanced placement class, because there’s this notion that in an advanced placement class because they’re so content heavy, there’s no room for this kind of learning. And I think that’s completely wrong. I think that how the learning happens and how…what the learning objectives are, are two separate questions, right?
Katy: Yeah, absolutely.
Doris: They’re independent. And a masterful teacher can say, “Here are my learning objectives that include both skills, and also, yes, content.” But I can structure the curriculum and the project that’s real and relevant, and here and now in such a way that the students are engaged in work that’s relevant. And along the way, I make sure that they’re learning deeply the content they need to.
Doris: That’s great to hear, Katy. That’s awesome.
Katy: Thank you. I hope it goes well.
Doris: Well I’m very excited to hear what you’ve been doing, and will be very excited to hear what you do next.
Katy: Thank you, appreciate it. Thank you.
Doris: Great talking to you, Katy.
Katy: You too. Thanks so much.