Solutionary-focused education is the transformative approach we most need: An Interview with Katie Coppens

Introduction: Katie Coppens is an award-winning science teacher at Falmouth Middle School, the author of seven STEM-themed children’s books, and an experienced solutionary educator. In 2018 she participated in the Institute for Humane Education’s Solutionary Pilot Program, and her students shared their solutions to the problem of animal testing at our Solutionary Summit in Portland, Maine. Since then, the entire sixth grade at Falmouth Middle School has participated in solutionary units, and during hybrid learning last year Katie and her students continued their solutionary work. Katie’s new book for middle and high schoolers, Earth Will Survive… But We May Not, was published in October and brings climate science, earth science, and ecology together with citizenship and changemaking to make middle school science deeply relevant to students’ lives and futures. While this book was written for young adult readers, I loved it and learned so much from it, too. All author royalties from the book are being donated to the non-profit organization One Tree Planted

Zoe Weil: You’ve been teaching your students to be solutionaries for four years now. What has the impact been on them and on you from your solutionary units? 

Katie: One of the biggest impacts on my students and myself is teaching a unit that has direct action as part of the final project. After researching and exploring the systems and root cause of the problem, students thought about their strengths and interests in developing an action plan. I’ve had students do art projects that end up going on tour at local nursing homes; other students made pollinator gardens in their neighborhood; others organize fundraising events, and so much more! Students are learning how to understand the complexity of problems, find leverage points for change, and become problem-solvers. There is an exciting buzz in the room throughout this unit because the learning feels relevant and meaningful! 

Zoe: Teachers are overwhelmed, and students are experiencing so much stress. We are hearing that teachers don’t have the bandwidth to learn how to integrate our Solutionary Framework into their classes, and yet we know that solutionary education makes learning come alive for kids and teaching even more meaningful for educators. What advice would you give administrators and teachers who feel exhausted and resistant to considering new approaches during the pandemic? How can we make this easy?

Katie: Firstly, I need to say that I hear them. We’re all feeling exhausted and like our job is constantly changing. However, in addition to those feelings, I’ve chosen to look at the last two years as a chance to reprioritize. This type of learning is transformative for students and it’s empowering. Right now, so much feels like it’s out of our control, but this type of work helps students follow their interests, take action, and accomplish a goal. I’m able to apply standards and skills in a way that resonates and helps students discover more about who they are and what matters to them. The teaching feels important and dynamic because it’s about real life problems and reflects the interests of my students.

Zoe: Your new book, Earth Will Survive… But We May Not, is fabulous. What compelled you to write it, and how do you hope it will be used?

Katie: I teach about geology, Earth’s history, ecology, and do the Solutionary unit. All of these concepts are intertwined in my mind, and I wanted to write a book that helps people better understand humans’ impacts on Earth’s habitats and species and also what we can do about the problems we’ve created. The mindset of learning about problems – followed by the “now what?” – is a very solutionary way of thinking! But, before going into action mode in part three of the book, the first section of the book explores humans’ changing understanding of Earth over the past few centuries. Part two is evidence of the current climate crisis. Interwoven throughout these chapters are spotlights on what I call “Climate Change-makers,” who serve as role models for making a positive impact. These “Climate Change-makers” range in age (including three teenagers), the countries where they live, and their educational background.

Zoe: I know this is a big question, but if you had the power to transform the education system, what would be one change you’d want to make?

Katie: I would give teachers more time. It’s amazing how much is put on our shoulders. Teachers are some of the world’s most hardworking, dedicated people, but they need time to do the work they are asked to do. And if we want them to try new things, like integrating the Solutionary Framework into their curriculum, we need to give them not only the time, but the tools, training, and support to make that happen.