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Connecting Science and Culture
Who Are NASA's Earth Explorers?

The elementary school student questioning if El Niño occurs anywhere besides the Pacific Ocean. The researcher investigating connections between Arctic ozone depletion and global climate change. The citizen scientist interested in how changing land cover and use affects animal migration patterns. And the businessperson projecting future needs for harvest, delivery and storage of crops. All of these people are Earth Explorers -- they are all connected by their curiosity about Earth system processes. This series will introduce you to NASA Earth Explorers, young and old, with a variety of backgrounds and interests.

Jennifer Evans and four of her students

Jennifer Evans works with students to create a clay model of the solar system from NASA Solar System Math. Image Credit: Nellie Francisco

Jennifer Evans teaches at Mesa and Nizhoni elementary schools in Shiprock, N.M. Since most of her students are from the Navajo Nation, Evans has organized the curriculum around issues that are culturally important to the Navajo. This includes the science curriculum. Many of Evans' students, who have been identified as gifted, had limited experience with science before arriving in her classroom. Now, they have become Earth and space explorers.

Evans' curriculum spirals, moving between studying the land and the past to studying water and the future. Her students learn about what has shaped the Navajo Nation over time as they investigate the land. They often take their classroom lessons outdoors and speak with locals who have knowledge of rocks and native plants. Evans and her students also have worked jointly with students from Hawaii on science projects, learning about volcanoes and exchanging stories from indigenous cultures.

One of Evans' biggest influences in developing her curriculum has been Dr. Fred Begay, a Navajo nuclear physicist who has been connecting Navajo traditions to science. He encourages teachers to teach from the natural environment. In addition to field trips and speaking with local experts, Evans uses the NASA Kids' Club and the NASA For Students Web pages to collect recent news items and images from other planets and space.

Evans' approach is to encourage her students not just to learn about the different science fields but to embody them. "If we're doing science, you're a scientist. If we're doing math, you're a mathematician. Whatever we're doing, that's their career," Evans says. Her students explore the connection between different fields as they learn about the importance of writing, mathematics, storytelling and history in science. The local focus of the lessons encourages students to think about the positive impacts they can have on their immediate environment via science.

Students on a field trip wade in a river

Jennifer Evans and her students visit the San Juan River to study the local environment. Image Credit: Jennifer Evans

When not focusing on the local environment and Earth, Evans' students are studying space. They use NASA astrobiology materials to study the past and future beyond our planet. "We are looking at astrobiology to learn about what constitutes life but also considering what our future might be like," Evans says. Students ponder questions like "How far can humans travel in space?" "Why might humans want to visit other planets?" "How could it help humankind in the future?" and "What can we learn from space travel to make life on Earth better?" Most importantly, they connect space exploration and travel to their immediate environment by asking what they can learn from their expanded frame of reference to help make the Navajo Nation a better place in the future.

Evans' lessons about climate change and Earth apply the same focus on the students' futures and their connection to their community and land. Students are challenged to create new solutions to local climate change, in addition to incorporating common practices like saving water and using alternative energy forms. "Our strategy is to ask our own questions framed around how we could help future generations," Evans says, "because that's important to the future of the Navajo culture." Looking to help future generations is also critical to the United States as a whole, but starting locally shows Evans' students how much impact and presence they can have.

Related Resources:
› NASA Kids' Club
› NASA -- For Students
› NASA Education Materials Finder   →
› Earth Explorers Series

Brandi Bernoskie/Institute for Global Environmental Strategies