Barrier island workshop helps teachers combine history and STEM

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With its windswept beach and dense maritime forest, Bald Head Island, N.C. is not a conventional classroom. The island is a 20-minute ferry ride from the coast of mainland North Carolina and has significant ecological and historical value. While the island is generally the domain of tourists looking for a relaxing week on the golf course or the beach, Bald Head Island recently played host to a group of science and history teachers.

The group of 12 teachers participated in the pilot year of the Barrier Island History Workshop, a professional development program that takes teachers on a week-long, STEM-meets-history adventure in the Wilmington area. Participating teachers take long kayak trips, hike through forests, identify trees and plants, learn the history of lighthouses, and collaborate with their fellow teachers. Throughout the week, the teachers gather teaching ideas and methods that they can bring back to their classrooms.

The program is run through the Center for Education in STEM (CESTEM) at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. CESTEM hosts a number of professional development programs often working with other UNC-W faculty and staff.

“The majority of work that we do is professional development for teachers,” says Dennis Kubasko, associate professor and CESTEM director, “We’re very fortunate to have a college of arts and sciences who are more than willing to provide the content knowledge, skills, and activities that feed into our professional development activities for our teachers.”

The Barrier Island Workshop benefits from the partnership between CESTEM and UNC-Wilmington. The instructors for the workshop are Bryan Bishop, a science teacher at Isaac Bear Early College High School, and Dr. Rob Hart, a history professor at UNC-Wilmington. The goal of the workshop is to combine history with traditional STEM subjects in order to make classroom content more relevant and engaging.

“You have a little bit of history of the Civil War as you’re walking through the salt marsh and you talk about the Fort Fisher Hermit,” said Bishop, “You can blend everything together as you hear the interest from the student.”

In addition to blending history with STEM, another goal of the Barrier Island Workshop is to show teachers how, through collaboration and dedication, they can bring the outdoors into their teaching.

“I’m a lot like my children,” says Christina Fisher, a fifth grade teacher at Belville Elementary School in Leland, N.C. “I don’t like books and worksheets and sitting and listening to someone lecture; I learn a lot more actually touching it and experiencing it.”

Kubasko and others at CESTEM hope to use feedback teachers give after this first week to improve and continue the Barrier Island Workshop. They hope to reach out to other teachers and help more schools bring the outdoors into their classrooms.

“This is the first time they’ve offered this program, and I think it’s a great program. I think when we all have our debriefing our responses will be helpful to continue it. I would definitely recommend this program,” says Karen Dunn, an environmental educator.

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The Center for Education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (CESTEM) at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, works to foster STEM education in North Carolina schools through programs for teachers and students. CESTEM hosted the Barrier Island History Workshop, a week-long professional development program for teachers looking to incorporate the outdoors into their classrooms. The program tied history and ecology together to encourage teachers to take an interdisciplinary approach to their lessons. On the third day of the program, June 26, the teachers explored Bald Head Island and learned about the different ecosystems on the island.

(Photos and captions by Anna Starnes)