There he stood.
Bear 126, one of Canada’s most iconic grizzlies, was wrestling with bear 142 in a field of wildflowers as the sun rose on a new Rocky Mountain day. Was it a fight over food or territory? No.
In fact, it wasn’t a fight at all. Bears, we’re always told, are anti-social creatures, vicious and aloof. Yet in the early days of August – long removed from mating season – these two bruins are not only tolerating each other, but are engaging in what can only be described as play, undoing decades of accepted knowledge in the process.
Was it the by-product of a bumper berry crop? What role did the national park have on their behaviour? Is it possible we don’t know as much as we think we do about these icons of the high alpine? What can these bears teach us about biodiversity and our role in safeguarding the systems that sustain us?
Most importantly, how can we take what we learn and use our knowledge to start informing new ideas that can build a better balance between people and nature?
Today, in science class, your teacher introduces a new unit. Together with your peers, you enter the Nature Labs online portal, but rather than learning through a unified text, you each get to choose a story – an animal – through which you want to learn. Your best friend selects the quirky Rocky River bighorn sheep herd. But bears speak to you and you decide on the story of grizzly bear 126.
Immediately you’re transported into this animal's world, being taken on a narrative-driven, multi- media journey – through the lens of your subject – that immerses you into the life of 126, a metaphor for Canadian biodiversity. This more-than- a-documentary brings your animal to life through a mix of video and writing and imagery and makes you rethink what you know about this species and the interconnectedness of your animal to those animals your peers have chosen to learn through. Most importantly, you understand the unit you’re about to study is more than just dry definitions; you understand its real-world connection.
As you leave your story, you enter into your own online ecosystem, a place where resources have been curated for you to explore and learn about the themes of today’s lesson; a place that will be your home for the duration of the unit. Unlike your one-dimensional textbook, you realize this digital classroom appeals to the different learning styles of everyone around you: Info-graphics and detailed maps, media videos and articles with analysis, podcast-style interviews with experts, and interactive virtual presentations and field trips all help relate your animal back to the overarching class lesson.
What you love most is that this platform is like the social media world you live in, with the material provided being constantly updated before your eyes, relating the subject matter to what it means to your animal and its home – and how that relates to your community and to your world – not a year ago or even yesterday, but today.
Each class, as your teacher unveils the lesson (a research assignment, a topic tutorial, term definitions, current event analysis, a class discussion or debate), you realize that your learning is building toward a cumulative challenge project, a chance for you to think critically about the impact you and your peers are having on biodiversity in Canada. What you love most is that while your project must fit within the course parameters, you’re free to innovate and no one is telling you what to think or believe, so long as you can defended your concept.
Since your school subscribes to Nature Labs Premium, you see that your digital ecosystem is expanding to create specific links between bear 126 and issues in your hometown. In exploring the resources, you identify an issue that speaks to you – the challenge of living with wildlife – and decide to build on the lessons you’ve learned in this unit and integrate them with your skills and passion.
Your project outlines how the development of an app that leverages real-time data from the radio collar of a bear in your community could be used to help people stay out of the animal’s way, without disrupting your town’s way of life. For your work, you get an A and your teacher enters it into a competition to compete with your peers to win a Nature Labs mentorship scholarship that will develop the best concept with the help of national experts.
A month later, in English class, a new unit is introduced that also uses Nature Labs. You’re worried it will be redundant, but quickly discover that the immersive journey into the life of 126 is completely different – it’s like a different chapter of the same story, this one using English as the lens. Your digital ecosystem? It’s the same as the one in Science, but now it has evolved to unlock new content specific to English, with each lesson helping you understand the parallels between the courses. And when the time comes for the challenge project, you have the choice to develop a new idea or evolve the one you’ve already submitted, enhancing your innovation with the new subject’s parameters.
Nature Labs has made learning fun and interesting, but mostly it has helped you connect the dots between your classroom lessons and the real world; between nature and human impact; between you and your planet.
For eight years, an accomplished educator – Jill Cooper – and an award-winning storyteller – Simon Jackson – have immersed themselves in the Canadian landscape, documenting the remarkable stories of Canada’s biodiversity through GhostBear.org, an online community that connects over 15,000 people. Throughout their journey, they’ve travelled to small town Saskatchewan and big city Toronto and everywhere in-between to share their tales and to listen to what everyday Canadians think about nature. Their takeaway: Nature unites us all and that by making the seemingly irrelevant relevant, it’s possible to showcase that nothing is black and white and through better education, a more thoughtful citizenry is possible.
21st Century education might be the buzzword, but creating inquiry-based, project-style, exploratory learning with ever-changing technology in a resource-strapped system – especially in rural communities – is almost impossible without partners. For a decade, Jill worked to create connections between technology and nature as a high school geography and media arts teacher and when she found resource gaps, she worked to fill them. Having advised the development of education resources for organizations such as the Jane Goodall Institute and having helped create cutting-edge teacher and student programs for the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity and the 10th World Wilderness Congress, Jill understands how to develop innovative programming from development to curriculum integration to classroom implementation. Jill’s unique insight is at the heart of Nature Labs’ design and what ensures this platform is both useful and used – for only a teacher knows what a teacher needs.
For two decades, starting at the age of 13, he built the largest youth-run environmental network in the world – the six million-strong, Spirit Bear Youth Coalition – to bring balance to a divisive issue and empower young people to create a solution that could save Canada’s white Kermode or spirit bear. And they did. Having wrapped up his organization, Simon – who has been honoured by Time Magazine as one of sixty Heroes for the Planet and inspired CTV’s movie Spirit Bear: The Simon Jackson Story – has travelled coast-to- coast-to- coast to share the lessons from his journey, as his powerful story is a reminder that one person can make a difference. Indeed, Simon’s storytelling ability, combined with his extensive relationships with schools and Canadian community leaders, is the foundation on which Nature Labs is built.