The sun was high overhead as we stood in the open, slowly baking in the hundred- degree heat, which was abnormally hot for late October, even by southern California standards. It was late in the afternoon of day three of our expedition, and we weren’t sure what to expect as we got out of the van.

As one of 26 middle school teachers participating in EarthEcho International’s Water by Design Expedition, part of an annual program sponsored by the Northrop Grumman Foundation that leverages exploration and discovery to bring STEM education alive, I had been ferried about this bustling metropolitan area to learn how Angelenos use and manage their water. We were in good company, joined by various scientists, experts, and explorer and EarthEcho Founder, Philippe Cousteau, Jr.

Our destination was the terminus of the Los Angeles aqueduct, near the Van Norman Bypass Reservoir in Sylmar. Try to picture several hundred cubic feet of water per second cascading–no, raging–through a 12-foot diameter cement channel down the hillside and then leveling off in front of us. The snowpack in the Eastern Sierra Nevadas that feeds the aqueduct was abundant last winter, and the torrent of meltwater that had traveled over 400 miles to reach its destination was an astounding sight. I knew that I could use this powerful image with my students, along with the story of the aqueduct’s construction, as an engaging example of how people can engineer solutions to complex, real-world problems.

Being from Michigan, I can appreciate large quantities of fresh water, but nothing prepared me for what I saw and learned about in California: the commitment to conservation, the challenges of desalination, advanced water purification that turns wastewater into drinkable water in a matter of hours, and—most of all—the engineering marvel called the Los Angeles Aqueduct. This expedition changed the way that I think about water on a global scale, and it has changed the way I will teach my students about our rights and responsibilities regarding our freshwater resources.

(Next page: 3 ways to globally expand your lessons)

How real-life experience informs instruction

EarthEcho Expedition: Water by Design wasn’t my first professional development (PD) trip. In the last seven years, I have sought out and been granted incredible opportunities to travel to Costa Rica, Hawaii, Alaska, Austria, Iceland, and Antarctica, often in the company of other teachers and scientists. The firsthand experiences I’ve had on these expeditions have allowed me to step out of my role as teacher and into the role of explorer, darer, doer.

While I could certainly learn about these places by watching videos or reading articles, there is no replacement for actually being there. Our memories are shaped by the kaleidoscope of sights, sounds, and other sensory input we experience. Not only do these memories make my travel stories come alive for my students, but the opportunity to satisfy my personal curiosity about the world has been a motivator for me to create place-based environmental-stewardship projects that engage my students in the work of real scientists and community organizations.

Global citizenship is defined by Kosmos Journal as identifying with being a part of an emerging world community and recognizing the importance of taking part in building this community’s values and practices. As a teacher in a rural school district, in a county where many people never move away for college or jobs, it is important for me to use my travels to inspire my students to empathize with others beyond our county and state. While our young people are increasingly connected with others through technology, these connections are often superficial, which leads to an underdeveloped world view. My goal is to get them excited and curious about the world, and I model what it means to be a global citizen through expeditionary travel.

If you’re inspired to bring the world to your classroom, here are three ways that you can start right now.

1. If you aren’t already doing so, engage your students through authentic, project-based learning. Organizations such as the Buck Institute for Education have valuable resources to get you started. I’ve worked with the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative to connect my students to their community through projects such as planning and hosting an environmental film festival.

2. Look for ways to make your lessons—and students—more globally minded. Mapping tools such as Google Earth can help your students see beyond their classroom and community. Find your state’s geographic alliance online for more ideas to expand your students’ worldview.

3. Last but not least, broaden your professional network. I have made many connections through social media, Google+ communities, and teacher blogs. Some of my favorites include the #worldgeochat on Twitter, the Global Read Aloud, and the National Geographic Certified Educator program.

Through my travels, my professional learning community includes teachers from across the country and around the globe. Staying in touch with these talented educators has provided opportunities for my students to engage with other students and has enriched my teaching through new lesson ideas. After our Water by Design expedition, my EarthEcho cohort created dynamic curricular units that are NGSS-aligned and cover topics such as aquaponics, groundwater replenishment, irrigation, water transport, and desalination. I encourage teachers to check out these free lessons and accompanying expedition videos at EarthEcho Expeditions and to continually look for opportunities to be an explorer, a darer, and a doer.

About the Author:

Susan Tate is an eighth-grade science teacher at Whitehall Middle School in Whitehall, Michigan, and an EarthEcho International Expedition Fellow.