When you’re traveling in remote areas of Burkina Faso, it can take multiple layers of translation from English to the tribal language just to ask a single question. So it goes if you’re on a quest to educate the masses about the remote climate hot spots of literally every continent on the world. That’s Institute on the Environment resident fellow Aaron Doering’s mission, and he’s made tremendous strides completing it through the IonE-sponsored Earthducation program.
Doering, an associate professor in the College of Education and Human Development and co-director of the LT Media Lab, has worked to develop this globally interactive education platform rooted in what he calls “adventure learning.” By traveling to all seven continents and interviewing hundreds of local people, Doering has managed to gain remarkable perspective on how environmental problems affect lives and how education and sustainability can most effectively complement each other. And he still has two continents left to go.
Earthducation was born in 2010 out of a number of ideas and aspirations that were swirling around Doering’s various existing programs such as GoNorth!, which took him around the North Pole on dogsleds as he brought his adventure learning to millions. He uses an online learning platform to bring the real world to the classroom by showing his travels and creating a collaborative education atmosphere.
“I have this passion for the environment, I have this passion for education, and there was this connection with technology where I wanted to bring them all together,” Doering says.
He calls it adventure learning, and this teaching philosophy helped shaped the beginnings of Earthducation. Though his GoNorth! program was similar, Doering saw an IonE resident fellowship as an opportunity to make his adventure learning even more ambitious. IonE’s community of researchers and scientists inspired Doering to engage with people around the world through the Earthducation platform.
Through his previous travels, Doering saw a heightened disconnect between the way many kids living in remote areas were being educated and what they needed to learn in order to thrive in their current environments.
“If you look at a lot of Inuit students today, many still hunt caribou, seals and fish. Then they go to their classrooms and they are many times driven by a Canadian curriculum that has no resemblance of their culture and way of life,” Doering explains.
With Earthducation, Doering is working to bridge that gap and ultimately make education and sustainability a more cohesive pair. As he explains it, there are two goals. The first is to get students out of the traditional classroom and into their environment so they can collect their own media artifacts (such as interviews) and share them with the rest of the world. Secondly, Doering wants to serve as a model for how adventure learning can work while educating millions who want to see and learn from what he and his team are doing.
“I think I took it ‘times 10’ beyond what I was envisioning,” says Doering. He and the rest of the Earthducation team have developed an interactive website and learning environment that compiles the interviews, updates and discoveries of the Earthducation expeditions and offers a space for students to upload and share their own educational discoveries.
Since 2010, Earthducation team members have traveled to the Baffin Island in Nunavut. They’ve been to Burkina Faso, Africa, trudged to rural Norway, trekked to a remote island off the coast of Australia, and seen the Atacama Desert of South America. They have traveled well over 10,000 miles and visited more than 50 towns. They’ve been translated into 14 different languages. They’ve discussed the importance of converging education with environmental sustainability with more than 150 people and gathered well over 2,000 gigabytes of media to share with a worldwide audience.
By projecting his adventures to a huge group of students in a slick online learning platform that features live interaction between a far-reaching network, Doering is teaching thousands of kids about areas that are being impacted by environmental problems through firsthand accounts with just a click of a button.
These firsthand accounts are vital for environmental education, Doering says, because it breaks people in more developed countries out of their comfortable shell.
“When people are aware of it, when we can see how the change is affecting people in developing areas who already have to change their lifestyles because of climate changes,” Doering says. “It gives us new perspectives and can help us prepare for the future.”
While the goals of Earthducation have remained the same, the design of the learning environment is constantly evolving and improving. As Doering and the rest of his team prep for the sixth expedition to Asia, where they’ll visit Mongolia and the Philippines this coming spring, the behind-the-scenes work on the website, curriculum and travel arrangements are all being molded.
The Earthducation adventure will end in 2015 with a trip to Antarctica, but Doering is sure that the mission will not. He has enough plans floating around in his head, from lengthier regional visits to further developing an expedition program for students, to last a lifetime.
“I think I’ll go crazy If I don’t have somewhere to travel and share with the world,” he says, “because that’s what motivates and inspires me.”
Justin Miller is a student communications assistant with the Institute on the Environment. Photos courtesy of Aaron Doering.