Michigan Teachers to Explore Africa, Use it to Inspire their Students

By Jennifer Donovan | Published

Teachers trek up Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Teachers trek up Mt. Kilimanjaro.

What’s one good way to get kids excited about science?  Tell true stories about real experiences, says education researcher Brad McLain. And when those stories are about a personal visit to Gombe Stream National Park—the African research center where iconic chimpanzee scientist Jane Goodall and her team work—or climbing Mount Kilimanjaro—how much more exciting can you get? 

This summer, 15 Michigan teachers are going to get the chance to do just that—and more—in the Michigan STEM Partnership’s first Xsci Africa trip.  Michigan Technological University’s Institute for Leadership and Innovation is coordinating the teachers’ adventure, and Michigan Tech’s Doug Oppliger will be in Africa with them. Oppliger is a senior lecturer in Engineering Fundamentals and head of the university’s High School Enterprise program. 

XSci Africa is the University of Colorado-Denver’s (UCD) Experiential Science Education Research Collaborative, run by UCD’s School of Education and Human Development and underwritten in part by the Merck Company Foundation.  Colorado teachers have already traveled to Africa six times.  This year, UCD reached out to the Michigan STEM Partnership to expand the program to Michigan. 

The Michigan STEM Partnership is a statewide collaboration of educators, business and industry leaders and others working to improve science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills. Their goal is to build Michigan’s economic strength and attract and retain desirable jobs. Michigan Tech President Glenn Mroz is on the state’s STEM Partnership Steering Committee. 

The Michigan STEM Partnership is part of a nationwide “STEMx” program established by Battelle, an Ohio-based institute that supports cooperative efforts of science, education, business and government to advance STEM education and workforce development. Seventeen states, including Michigan and Colorado, now are members of STEMx, which is why Colorado reached out to Michigan to help expand its program.

Michigan’s STEM Partnership chose Michigan Tech to head the project.  Fourth through 12th grade teachers throughout the state were invited to apply for the trip of a lifetime. More than 500 applied and 15 were chosen, including three from the Upper Peninsula.

Guided by Oppliger, who has done a lot of work with teachers in remote locations, the XSci Africa teachers have established an active network as they prepare for their July 6-26 trip. They met in person in January and now are sharing information and ideas online. Their focus: “How are we going to use what we see and learn in our classrooms.”

The teachers are already bringing Africa into their classrooms, Oppliger says, as they complete their own homework assignments, learning about the places they will be going and the sights they will be seeing.  And through the online network, each shares what he or she is learning with the rest of the group.

According to McLain, who heads the parent program at UCD, “The Michigan teachers are one of the most active, enthusiastic groups we’ve ever had.” Each teacher is making a documentary video of Africa and their experiences there.   

“This is the stuff of inspiration,” says McLain. “An extraordinary STEM learning experience like this can change our sense of who we are.”

McLain and his research group are studying what he calls “science identity construction.” They want to see how life-changing experiences impact teachers’ sense of identity, of how science is integrated into their sense of self as educators and science professionals.  

The project’s ultimate goal is not just to produce future scientists, engineers and technologically skilled workers—although that’s certainly one of the outcomes sought. 

“Science is a human endeavor,” says McLain. “It’s fueled by a passion to know. We want to create a generation of lifelong learners—interested, curious, science-literate people.”

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 54 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.