2020 PAEMST Spotlight: Dr. Erin Lark

Dr. Erin Lark teaches Environmental and Life Sciences at Vancouver iTech Preparatory School in Vancouver Public Schools

Check out the rest of our PAEMST Spotlight interview series here.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach and why?

I love any lesson that allows the learner to expand their boundaries of awareness. The first time someone looks through a lens to witness the movement of microscopic organisms or to see that planets really do have rings is a magical moment for me as the teacher.

Scientific discovery requires a mixture of wonder, inquiry, and accident, and my favorite instructional days open wide the doors to exploration and excitement.

What is one concept your students struggle most to understand and how to you try to address this struggle?

In all STEM endeavors, and specifically the math and science practices, we want students to support arguments with compelling evidence and factual reasoning. Students often struggle with communicating clearly and effectively to this end. I work to address the struggle by first creating “anchor arguments” with students. Students choose a topic about which they are passionate and for which they have a lot of experience, research, and data at their fingertips to write an argument. We analyze and diagram the arguments in work groups and then apply our framework to language arts and social studies statements to test for integrity. When students experience the efficacy of quality arguments and understand how argumentation serves an important, interdisciplinary purpose, their ability to communicate improves significantly.

Where do you see more opportunity for collaborating with other disciplines to teach math or science?

Societal needs and advances in technology have not only moved STEM careers to the forefront, they’ve put a new spotlight on the need for arts and aesthetics to inform outputs and language applications to communicate ideas and innovations. As a student once told me, no one will use a phone that looks like a brick. Building collaboration on creating authentic learning experiences that mirror career experiences should be a cornerstone of unit planning. Further, the more we discover about how the brain codes learning experiences, the more research on interdisciplinary learning is released that can and should affect instructional choices of educators. Rather than perceiving this as an added burden, I use it as a honing tool and would like to see more school systems restructure to support and require these types of experiences for the majority of a student’s day.

What are some of the jobs and pathways you are most excited to see your students preparing for?

I work with so many students who care deeply for the health of communities around the globe and want to turn their compassion into solutions. They are considering careers that will allow them to closely examine and effectively influence complex systems, knowing that however challenging the work their role will be vital.

I am most excited about students pursuing pathways in environmental conservation, disease treatment and eradication, and legislative careers built on equity for all of Earth’s inhabitants. These students are pairing their strong sense of purpose with the belief that they can and will make a difference.

What experiences do you think best prepared you for your teaching career?

I grew up in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona and having the freedom to explore that unique, riparian environment gave me a profound respect for the interdependence of all components in an ecosystem. The southwest is a beautiful landscape awash in diversity of life, geologic history, and concern for future viability, and this appreciation for variety and fragility I’ve carried with me into my teaching career. Consequently, I also happen to love reptiles and arachnids.

How do you keep current on emerging trends in your field? Any publications, blogs, etc. that you love to follow for interesting research or stories?

My favorite way to keep current is meet more teachers. Everywhere I travel on the planet, I seek out educators and their stories, grateful for the wide perspectives and resources they provide, let alone the fantastic stories of trial-and-error in creating student success. When project-planning, I check out Labroots and Scientific American to read up on what researchers around the globe are sharing. I also like to follow the Washington State Legislature page to keep tabs on which topics have bills on the table in our own state and the Harvard Center for Educational Policy Research to get a broader picture. Lastly, I follow @natgeo on instagram — not only does the account share current events from around the globe, the pictures are stunning.

The Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST) is the highest recognition that a kindergarten through 12th grade science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and/or computer science teacher may receive for outstanding teaching in the United States. Awardees will be announced this spring.

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