Science — science literacy can be greatly improved by teaching it as a key or tool that can be used to make personal decisions regarding health and well-being. It is an important factor in understanding the basics of a doctor’s diagnosis, the weather report, or political and social discussions of scientific topics such as evolution and climate change. Science literacy also helps reinforce the ability to understand and make logical arguments or solve a problem with data. It underscores the differences between opinion and fact, both of which are a part of how humans make decisions. Science, as with all academic subjects taught to non-professionals, needs to include this applied element in the education process.
As a part of my interview series about the things that should be done to improve the US educational system I had the pleasure to interview Professor E.A. Burlingame, M.A.,
Professor E.A. Burlingame is an anthropologist with more than a decade of experience teaching in universities and conducting anthropology research. She is now the head of an innovative anthropology education business that provides people of all ages opportunities to learn and grow through the wisdom of anthropology.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?
I was one of those kids who loved exploring the library. One year I became fascinated with a section of the library that included some physical anthropology books by Donald Johanson, Mary Leakey and Richard Leakey — big anthropology names, but I didn’t know that then. I was simply innocently following my interests in human development, evolution and biology. Once I delved deeper and found out that anthropology had four branches that encompassed even more of my interests — history, culture and language — I was hooked. I’d fallen in love and I’ve never strayed from my career path as an anthropologist.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I think one of the most interesting things that has happened to me in my career is when I realized that I wanted to be more than an anthropologist in a college or university setting. I did that for more than ten years and I loved my students. I loved teaching them how they could apply anthropology knowledge to their lives and careers. But, I really wanted to expand my reach. I’d thought being a tenure track professor was the right path for me, but I realized it wasn’t.
I teach anthropology in practical and useful ways that anyone — whether they’re in college or not — whether they’re a child, teenager or adult — can use to better their lives. I wanted to make that as widely available as possible which is something I didn’t realize until I had started my career.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I am always working on something! I have a podcast and blog that contain bite-sized morsels of helpful anthropology wisdom. I host anthropology workshops in New York City and I mentor students from around the world. I run a 9-day anthropology retreat in Bali once a year. I’m also editing a medical anthropology book about childbirth in America that’s based on my research and a general guidebook for how anthropology can be used in a person’s life.
All of my work, no matter the format, is focused on how anthropology, the study of humans and their lived experiences, can be used to improve people’s personal and professional relationships and decision-making. I take the broad and academic world of anthropology and make it more individual and every day without watering down the essence of this wonderful science.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are authority in the education field?
I am an authority in education because I teach and have done so for more than a decade. I teach multiple ages, in multiple formats and for multiple purposes (some of my youngest students work with me so I can help prepare them for the new rigors of kindergarten!), but I’m always teaching. In addition, I have taken professional training courses in education through my work as a tutor and a professor. I have both theoretical and practical knowledge in education.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?
I would say that America has been struggling with effectively educating itself for the last 50 or so years. This is the result of numerous factors, which means that any improvement will take more than one person and method, but the one factor I notice in my own work is how much we fail to help students see the connections between what they’re learning in school and how that knowledge can be used to make decisions in their lives.
We learn about American government not simply for the glory of a high score on a statewide standardized test, but so we can make informed decisions as citizens living in a democracy. We learn about the human digestive system not simply to get a passing grade on a lab report, but so we can make healthy choices about the food we eat and/or give to our children.
We’ve lost the plot for WHY we educate ourselves and, as a result, we don’t educate ourselves as well as we could or should.
Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?
1. Universal Pre-K
2. After school programs
3. Introducing non-fiction reading with assignments in Kindergarten and continuing it through 12th grade
4. School gardens with corresponding academic learning in core subjects — social studies, science, math, ELA
5. Arts education
Unfortunately, though, not all of these things are available to every student everywhere in America.
Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?
In addition to making each of the five things I listed above available to all Americans, I think the following should be prioritized for improvement:
1. Science — science literacy can be greatly improved by teaching it as a key or tool that can be used to make personal decisions regarding health and well-being. It is an important factor in understanding the basics of a doctor’s diagnosis, the weather report, or political and social discussions of scientific topics such as evolution and climate change. Science literacy also helps reinforce the ability to understand and make logical arguments or solve a problem with data. It underscores the differences between opinion and fact, both of which are a part of how humans make decisions. Science, as with all academic subjects taught to non-professionals, needs to include this applied element in the education process.
2. Arithmetic — arithmetic education can be greatly improved by teaching numbers and calculations through context. So much of how we teach mathematics lacks a connection to anything other than the numbers themselves. For students who enjoy, or have an aptitude for, this kind of process, this is effective. However, for those who do not (and even for those who do), teaching math lessons through practical application reinforces the lessons being taught. This goes beyond word problems and includes activities and projects where math is the central tool used to get the answer. This is how arithmetic is used in life and it is important for it to be similarly done in the classroom as well. Arithmetic also teaches and reinforces the use of logic and problem-solving as life skills.
3. English Language Arts — writing is an academic and life skill that is oftentimes concentrated in ELA. However, writing needs to be done in all subjects in ways that teach and reinforce content and make connections between classroom subjects and how they’re used in life. For ELA, writing needs to be taught in this way with the additional element of reinforcing how people write in life and on the job. Effective communication across the board — speaking, reading, writing, listening — need to be reinforced in ELA classes in a way that, again, brings them back to how they can be practically applied in life. Logic and problem-solving can be taught and reinforced here through language use.
4. History/Social Studies — history literacy is key if for no other reason than because our decisions today are in part shaped by our decisions in the past. The immediate importance and usefulness of history should be a part of the learning process in history and/or social studies classes. Readings and assignments must make that connection between content and use, so that students experience the dynamic nature of how history both informs today and is made today. Less rote memorization and more application should be the goal. This will also teach logic and problem-solving skills.
5. Anthropology — The vast majority of my college students came to me with little to no experience in anthropology. It is not a basic class taught in schools across the country and I think this is a mistake. Anthropology classes from pre-kindergarten onwards would allow for students to learn some basic anthropology (and life) lessons — tolerance, cultural literacy and science literacy. These lessons are applicable to other classes and they encourage a fuller understanding of what it means to be human — biologically, culturally, linguistically and historically. Logic and problem-solving skills are integrated into anthropology education.
How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
The US could definitely improve how we engage young people in STEM. Three ways that could help with this are through practical and interactive STEM classes, opportunities to see and do STEM learning outside the classroom and through opportunities to work with and be mentored by STEM professionals even if STEM is not a part of a student’s career goals.
Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?
Girls in America are at the bottom of two cultural hierarchies — age and gender. Although advertisers love girls for the revenue they can drive, this does not equal respect in America. Engaging girls in STEM — which are respected, if misunderstood, subjects in American culture — can allow them to increase their own self-worth. This is a step in the right direction for increasing their worth in American culture.
How is the US doing with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
Unfortunately, though, we’re not doing as well as we could in engaging girls in STEM. These subjects are not seen in America as particularly feminine or attractive for girls (the stereotypical “nerd” is an unattractive weak boy who geeks out on at least one STEM subject). As girls move into middle and high school, being attractive is high priority for at least some, if not most, of them. Girls will need to be encouraged to see that excelling in STEM does not also cause an equal reduction in attractiveness on any level.
One way to do this is through mentors. These mentors do not have to fit a narrow definition of beauty. They simply need to be confident women, of all ages, comfortable in their own skin as well as competent in STEM subjects. Confidence and competence are highly attractive qualities that are not often promoted to girls as they should be. They are important life skills, even more important, arguably, than meeting a narrow physical standard of beauty.
Mentors along these lines can be brought into the lives of girls in (at least) these three ways — after school or summer school STEM programs; teachers in STEM subjects; special STEM programming or assemblies.
As an education professional, where do you stand in the debate whether there should be a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) or on STEAM (STEM plus the arts like humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design and new media)? Can you explain why you feel the way you do?
I’m always on the side of more opportunities to engage and teach important lessons and skills, so I’m more in favor of STEAM than STEM. Having said that, though, I also want to say that devolving into “which is better?” arguments is not something I support as an anthropologist.
If anthropology teaches us anything it’s that humans thrive on variety. We create it in our cultures automatically simply because, for as much as we are the same, every human is still different. No one way will ever be “best” for all people, or even for one person, all the time. BOTH STEM and STEAM are important and they should be looked upon as part of a smorgasbord of possibilities instead of rivals in a zero-sum game.
If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?
I will always go back to improving our school system by remembering the reason why we educate Americans in the first place — to teach information and skills that we can use in our personal and professional lives. We need to teach to that end more than to a test or a grade. I’ve outlined above how this could be done across basic subjects, but I’ll give five more specific suggestions here: classroom games; independent projects; independent reading; field trips and group presentations.
War is a card game that can easily be turned into a math calculation game. Students could play this game as a warm-up activity for an arithmetic lesson. Independent projects on a topic related to class content that reinforce how it is used in life, but is also of individual interest to the student, could be assigned every year and in every subject. For similar reasons, independent reading could be assigned every year and in every subject. Field trips tend to be reserved for special treats or for advanced students. However, every student can benefit from seeing how an academic subject is used in life and on the job. The whole class, or small groups within the class, could have a long-term project (a garden, a presentation, a production) through which they learn class content as well as apply it to complete the project.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have many life quotes that inspire me. But, for the topic of this interview, I’ll share this one:
“Those who will not reason, are bigots, those who cannot, are fools, and those who dare not, are slaves.”
George Gordon Byron (a.k.a., Lord Byron)
Our genus and species (Homo sapiens sapiens) means “wise man” in Latin. It is a hallmark of our species to think, reason and to learn. My goal as an anthropologist and an educator is always to promote reason, thought and learning through meaningful education. I would be remiss in both if I did not.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
I’d love to sit down with Elizabeth Warren. She is a politician and an educator with whom I could share and learn a great deal. She has a lovely sense of humor and a warm and intelligent demeanor. Senator Warren might also be interested in including my ideas for the US school system in her presidential platform.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
They should visit my website here:
Links to my social media accounts, plus much more, can be found throughout my site. Everyone is welcome to join the community!
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!
My pleasure. Thank you for including me.