National Geographic Gilbert M. Grosvenor Educator of the Year Kavita Gupta: Pushing the Boundaries of Science Education

We tip our hat to National Geographic Fellow Kavita Gupta, an extraordinary example of an educator who is harnessing the power of science and education to create inspiring experiences for her students while generating positive change in the world. For two decades, Kavita has worked tirelessly alongside policymakers and other educators to provide greater access and relevance to science education nationwide. Her dream is to provide all students with an education that challenges them to think holistically, contextually and analytically around important issues impacting our planet.

For these and other reasons, the National Geographic Society selected Kavita as the first-ever recipient of the National Geographic Gilbert M. Grosvenor Educator of the Year award. The award is bestowed on individuals who have demonstrated exceptional achievement in education, specifically those who are focused on igniting curiosity, cultural understanding and, ultimately, setting new benchmarks for empowering the next generation of outstanding planetary stewards.

Kavita will receive this prestigious honor on June 12 at the National Geographic Awards at The George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium. The awards presentation is one of the highlights of the annual National Geographic Explorers Festival. The weeklong Festival at the Society’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., is an unparalleled gathering of educators, scientists, explorers and storytellers who come together to share how their discoveries and ideas are creating solutions for a healthier and more sustainable future.

Kavita recently sat down with National Geographic Society Executive Vice President and Chief Education Officer Vicki Phillips to talk about the Educator of the Year award and what fuels her passion for education.

“the Explorers Festival is like a vitamin boost that rejuvenates and energizes me to engage more deeply in my work and continues to be a source of inspiration for me within the classroom and beyond.”

kavita gupta, the first-ever recipient of the national geographic gilbert m. grosvenor educator of the year award

Vicki: What does it mean to you to be selected as the first recipient of the inaugural Gilbert M. Grosvenor Educator of the Year award?

Kavita: It is surreal. It’s also an honor and a testimony to the hard work and support of my students and peers. This award has a special significance in my life, as it represents the ability to live a life I had only dreamed possible. Growing up in India during the 1970s, the pictures in the National Geographic magazine would take me to faraway places and gave wings to my imagination. They were inspiring in so many ways and receiving an award from an organization that was an integral part of my childhood is incredibly special.

 

Vicki: How do you encourage your students to take action toward a planet in balance?

Kavita: When it comes to large and challenging issues — like climate change — it is easy for students to feel small and insignificant. I strive to encourage my students to take action by showing them that no action is too small to have an impact. To this end, I strive to provide opportunities for my students by redesigning lessons, organizing community events and forming partnerships with like-minded organizations.

To bring the topic of climate change to life, I partnered with The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, California, to organize an event called “The Earth: Deconstructed.” During this multidisciplinary event, nearly 500 high school students shared topics related to climate change in the form of music, art, drama, posters and computer applications. What was really exciting for them was the panel that included members from NASA.

At our high school in Cupertino, California, I’ve worked with students to host campaigns that help reduce plastic pollution and our carbon footprint in the local community. For example, we recently hosted the “Upcycling Plastics Campaign,” which involved collaborating with local film plastics recycling companies to reduce plastic pollution. The group of students collected over 50 large trash bags of film plastics.

By seeing the big impact their small actions have, students are empowered to take action toward a planet in balance.

 

Vicki: What is your teaching mission or what is at the core of the impact you’d like to have on your students?

Kavita: My teaching mission is to develop empathetic leaders that are equipped with the skills and attitudes needed to tackle the challenges facing humanity and the world. My students’ bright minds are seeking to be engaged in rich and purposeful learning experiences — in and out of the classroom — to make a positive impact in their community and society. I view teaching in three parts: science, art and drama. By hosting Halloween costume contests in which students dress as chemical elements and fire-breathing demonstrations (ChemIsTry is cool!), I am empowering my students to realize their agency in an increasingly interconnected world. I care for my students as human beings and value their input, emotions and well-being. When I see a hunger for more knowledge, an itch for exploration and, most importantly, an empathy for humanity at large — I know I am fulfilling my job as an educator.

 

Vicki: How do you engage students in learning about climate change and other complex scientific topics so they see the relevance between changes to the planet and their everyday lives?

Kavita: I engage through learning experiences that are meaningful and impactful. One such experience is the Youth Climate Summit, a climate change education event for the youth, by the youth. The event was sponsored by the National Geographic Society and hosted by The Tech Museum of Innovation. During this day-long summit, 500 Bay Area high school students shared their research on climate change, attended engaging breakout sessions and listened to talks by National Geographic Explorers and other celebrated experts in science. In one of the breakout sessions, students heard a firsthand account about the negative impacts of climate change from their peers in Ecuador’s Galápagos Islands and Florida. Hearing about these changes experienced by their peers drove the Florida youth to host a similar event in Miami. This event also spurred the creation of a student-run Environmental Science Club, which has over 50 student members.

Equipped with information and inspiration from these events, each high school student is now more informed about climate change and is committed to taking action. Even though the event only lasted one day, it created a ripple effect with sustained impact.

I should note that I first made connections with educators from the Galápagos Islands and Florida as part of my amazing National Geographic/Lindblad Expeditions Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship. The experience provided a once-in-a-lifetime voyage to the Galápagos Islands as well as relationships I continue to foster.

Vicki: What are you most excited for or looking forward to at Explorers Festival this year?

Kavita: Hearing about all the wonderful work of National Geographic Explorers, grantees and educators during the lightening and panel talks. I am also looking forward to connecting with my National Geographic family! The Explorers Festival is like a vitamin boost that rejuvenates and energizes me to engage more deeply in my work and continues to be a source of inspiration for me within the classroom and beyond.

To learn more about the 2019 National Geographic Explorers Festival, including how to tune in to the livestream, please visit nationalgeographic.org/festival.

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