PHILIPSBURG:--- The Nature Foundation St. Maarten and California Academy of Sciences can look back at a successful first harvest from their partnership under the Islands 2030 St. Martin/Maarten Seed Environmental Learning project. The partners in education joined forces in May 2022 to collaborate on a wide-scale plan, focused on creating accessible and equitable science and environmental learning opportunities with schools throughout St. Maarten. This initiative is in line with one of The Nature Foundation’s most pressing principles to educate the youth about the environment, as many environmental issues that arise on the island are linked to a lack of awareness and education.
The Foundation Manager, Ms. Leslie Hickerson has always been an advocate for nature education. “We have growing environmental issues on the island, and it is often a challenge to find local experts to fill vacant positions. At the same time, the number of St. Maarten students pursuing STEM-related studies is on the decrease. It is therefore necessary that our government invests in STEM education. As the Nature Foundation is a small organization with limited resources, we are continuously looking for ways and alliances to maximize our educational efforts. This collaboration with the California Academy of Sciences has enabled us to initiate relevant resources that will support nature education in our high schools.”
In the month of October, the Nature Foundation together with the California Academy of Sciences facilitated various educational activities with the schools. These educational efforts are a follow-up to the gap analysis that they conducted in May and June earlier this year to assess the strengths and needs in science and nature education in our high schools.
From the listening sessions that were then held with students, teachers, school management, and community members, several common needs were identified by the various stakeholders. For example, both educators and their students expressed the need for hands-on learning, away from the textbook and into real-life situations. Teachers explained that they have limited time to cover the school’s curriculum and that they are therefore in need of more support for practical activities, useful resources, and field trip possibilities for in-context learning.
Moreover, because St. Maarten’s secondary school system offers various curricula that are regionally or internationally recognized, topics taught in schools like food webs, ecological systems, and pollination, all use examples that students don’t often resonate with, because they are not applicable to St. Maarten’s local environment and situation. Education Project Coordinator Eudoxia Williams-James explained: “There is no local curriculum established on the island, and teachers find it challenging and time-consuming to incorporate local topics in their classes. Simultaneously, the individual teachers that do find time to integrate local content do so based on their line of expertise or personal interest, and so the offering remains sporadic and never all-encompassing. We also have to consider that St. Maarten schools have many teachers that are recruited from other countries and although competent, they do not know about our local flora and fauna.”
Nature Foundation and California Academy of Sciences used the outcome of the listening sessions and the curricula review to propose ideas for what can be done to support Science and Nature education. Based on feedback received, the team worked on activities tailored to both teachers and students, which were piloted in October.
A teacher training was designed to equip teachers from subject areas in both the natural and social sciences with strategies and resources that they could use in their everyday teaching for hands-on environmental learning experiences. Teachers from Charlotte Brookson Academy, MAC High School, Milton Peters College, St. Dominic High, Sundial school, and faculty of the University of Saint Martin all took part in this training. Based on their feedback, the group left the workshop feeling inspired to plan and do their own practical nature investigations with their students.
For the students, field trips were organized at Emilio Wilson park. Students from Sundial, Milton Peters College, and St. Dominic High School became community scientists on their field trip day and did various investigations using real-life scientific tools. The field trips were well received by the students, and many of them indicated that this was the first time that they did a science activity outside of the classroom.
Mrs. Williams-James elaborated: “While traditional learning through books is necessary, it is just as important that students are able to learn about their environment by actually being in it. This allows students to be more engaged during class time, whether it is indoors or outdoors. It also provides the opportunity to connect with nature, which leads to a greater appreciation for the environment. It is only by helping St. Maarten’s youth build personal connections to nature and the environment so that we can ensure long-term ownership and protection of the island’s biodiversity. By working directly with teachers, as this project does, we understand what resources are truly needed to begin to make this shift.
Nature Foundation hopes to continue supporting schools in environmental teaching and learning as it is becoming increasingly evident that lack of education and awareness lies at the basis of negative human impact on the environment. The Foundation is in the process of adjusting its Articles of Incorporation to reflect a 21st-century approach towards management and protection of the environment. Plans are also in the making to set up an education unit within the organization and seek support from the Ministry of Education, Culture, Youth, and Sports by discussing sustainable funding possibilities. The Foundation currently only has a service level agreement with the department of VROMI.
Foundation Manager Leslie Hickerson concluded: “Protection of our natural resources starts with education, but this work must go beyond the classroom as well. To feel connected to nature, students and the community at large must also be able to spend time in natural spaces, which is why it’s important for St. Maarten to move toward protecting its remaining untouched areas. By improving access to nature while also increasing nature education, we can work to create a new generation of island stewards, and a thriving, greener future for St. Maarten itself.”