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  • Writer's pictureMegan Rodriguez

Experiential Learning with #STEAMinthePark

This past week I had the opportunity to attend #STEAMinthePark with Expeditions in Education. It is unique combination of professional learning and adult summer camp. This summer the camp will take place at eight different National Parks across the country. I participated at New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. This series of posts explores my reflections on the week.


As educators we can hopefully agree that when students are engaged in hands-on experiences they are able to build their own learning and make connections to previous content. Countless philosophers, psychologists, and educators (formal and informal) agree with this.

John Dewey says, "Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking, or the intentional noting of connections; learning naturally results."
Confucius is quoted with "I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand."
In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle writes, “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them."

If these hold true for students, then why not for adults and teachers as well?!? During #STEAMinthePark we were pushed into carefully planned and organized learning experiences. On the first full day we were told to gear up with water shoes and life vests. We split into groups with other educators who we had just met the previous evening to collect water samples and search for benthic macroorganisms. We used electronic and manual methods for determining water clarity, pH, temperature, dissolved oxygen, nitrates, and phosphates. We then compared data with each other and in multiple locations at the site. All going back to answer a guiding question for the work: "What makes a healthy ecosystem?"

We continued working from this guiding question as we began our quest for benthic macroorganisms. If you're like me you have NO CLUE what those are...enter Merriam-Webster.

Benthic = of, relating to, or occurring at the bottom of a body of water

Macroorganisms = organisms large enough to be seen by the normal unaided human eye

This is a moment I will NEVER forget. The previous night we found dobsonflies (male and female) on the outside of the main cabin. I thought those looked creepy as it was but enter the larvae of said dobsonflies - hellgrammites. Check out THIS dobsonfly lifecycle graphic. As a kid I learned the lifecycle of a frog and butterfly but there are so many other insects which go through similar life cycles that we can use to expand our teaching and learning.

If you thought the learning experiences would end here, you're wrong! The following day we jumped back into the New River to participate in the Dragonfly Mercury Project. Similar to the dobsonfly, the larvae of dragonflies also lives in the water. The dragonfly larvae is collected by students and teachers at National Parks around the country for mercury analysis to provide insight into the health of the rivers and ecosystems (still going back to the guiding question from the previous day - see what they did there 🤯).

Even though I'm currently teaching engineering and robotics - these experiences energized me. They reminded me the benefits of hands-on learning. Had I not searched for benthic macroorganisms could I tell you the name for a hellgrammite or that it's the larval stage of the dobsonfly? Probably not. Had I not dug for and helped identify the species of dragonfly larvae could I talk to you about the different mouth parts or hooks on the back of their abdomen? Definitely not.

How will you bring purposeful, active, hands-on experiences to your students? I know that my brain is already spinning with ideas!

For more information on Expeditions in Education and #STEAMinthePark visit


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