Teacher Spotlight: Edna Pajela – McKinney, Texas on STEM and STEAM in Iceland
Edna Pajela works at McKinney Christian Academy in McKinney, Texas and has traveled with her students several times throughout her career. She recently completed a trip to Iceland where she integrated her curriculum as a STEM and STEAM educator into the itinerary of her trip. We asked Edna how she planned and executed her trip to meet her educational goals:
How long have you been traveling with students?
I have been traveling with students since 2011.
What inspired you to lead your first trip?
Experiential learning is so much a part of my approach to education. I also stressed the application of learning outside the four walls of the classroom. Traveling with students answered both, allowing my students to experience what’s in their textbooks, while at the same time, being able to apply what they’ve learned. Learning beyond classroom walls also gives me the flexibility to engage students beyond the constraints of grade curriculum, allowing for authentic experiences, providing students with effective ways to connect, communicate, and build relationships, not only with those in their own travel team but with other students from all over the globe.
What led you to choose ACIS as your student travel provider?
Leading these trips is all about building relationships.
ACIS was a clear choice when I was looking for a new provider this year. Response rate was quick and I felt that the staff was always working on my side. Obviously, being new to ACIS, I had a lot of questions, and some phone conversations lasted almost an hour. Not once did I feel hurried. It’s as if “let’s not hang up until you feel all your questions were answered” kind-of-deal. I loved it.
What led you to choose Iceland as your destination?
The first student trip I led was a pilot STEM program in Costa Rica. As I researched other destinations, my eyes focused on Iceland. So, for the past three years, I have been preparing to bring students to Iceland. However, cost was a huge deterrent.
I was fortunate enough to participate in a teacher training in Iceland last February. I knew then that Iceland would be the Summer 2017 destination. I searched for many Icelandic student programs. I discovered that ACIS’s Iceland program is one of the most reasonable and yet comprehensive programs of the industry. The destination easily allowed for that S.T.E.A.M. focus I was looking for.
During my February 2016 training in Iceland, I timed a Google Hangout session with my class. Using my cell phone, I went live from Iceland while my students watched me do a quick lesson in my classroom’s big screen.
How do you structure your trips to accommodate [your STEM/STEAM] educational goals?
It is so important to work with a student travel company that offers flexibility to an already excellent program. Upon review of the initial itinerary, I communicate any need to add additional educational goals.
For example, Iceland’s Natural Wonders already included STEM educational objectives. However, it was very important that I include the “A” of S.T.E.A.M., Arts. All my research say that Iceland is a photographer’s dream. So, why not include a lesson on photography?
In addition, I stress the importance of giving back to the community. ACIS worked with me to include a hands-on land conservation pilot program by Carbon and Land Restoration Volunteering Program (CARES) organized by the Icelandic Environment Association, in collaboration with the US Embassy in Iceland, to help out with soil conservation.
What are some of the highlights of the trip that you and your students are most looking forward to?
This is a hard question to answer. As I talk to my kids, some are excited about the springs and the geyser, while others can’t wait to learn about the volcanoes. Personally, I love the variety of activities because it exposes my students to new and out-of-this-world explorations. Seeing the wonder and excitement in their eyes is worth every minute spent planning and time spent away from home.
What do students stand to gain from a life and educational experience perspective by going on a trip like this?
Parents have shared that their children come home from these trips changed. They are more independent, organized, and become more aware of their blessings. Students come away with a sense of gratitude, not only for the opportunity to travel but thankful for the blessings they have at home. (One student jokingly shared that he will never complain about slow internet connection ever again because what he used to consider slow was super fast overseas.)
Students shared that their participation has given them a deeper understanding of other cultures, which led to increased interest in serving and community service. Many of them are now interested in study abroad programs for when they go to college. In addition, my high school students have included these experiences as part of their high school resume. One of my seniors who completed his 4th trip with me shared that “the fortitude of my college applications are due to my many educational adventures with you.” He was accepted to one of the top engineering schools in the country.
As a teacher, I noticed that students who came back from trips like this improved in their critical thinking skills and are able to collaborate well and work in groups. Working in groups has always been a challenge to many students, especially in middle school. These students are now more willing to embrace those who might appear different from them. It seems that they have come away with a new awareness of acceptance of those differences.
While language and history teachers are the ones most frequently leading trips at their schools, STEM educational travel is an exciting field unto itself.
What message would you share with STEM educators about educational travel?
Every destination offers opportunities to enhance and strengthen your STEM objectives. There’s that challenge and beauty of integrating STEM objectives with those of ELAR and history.
Are there any other classroom activities that you’re doing now with your current students enrolled on your tour to prep them for this experience, or to integrate what they’ll be encountering while in Iceland with you?
Prior to introducing the Icelandic program to my middle school students, my lessons were on teaching students a more in-depth use of Google Maps. I used Iceland as the teaching destination. Students were able to discover the culture, language, cuisine, history, and natural beauty through Google Maps, incorporating images and videos to enhance their projects.
I used this project to springboard my invitation for them to participate in this summer’s Iceland student trip.
I have found that incorporating the destinations in my lessons lead to student interest and success in the registration process. In addition, students are able to ask relevant and in-depth questions regarding the people and the culture due to prior research.
While in Iceland, we will have a pow wow daily and review the places and experiences of the day. Students will also do journaling at that time while I connect with parents and families via social media (usually FB) through pictures and videos.
Check out the full itinerary of our Discovering STEM in Iceland Educational Tour!