Kavita Gupta is a chemistry teacher, but her curriculum extends far beyond the periodic table. She’s committed to preparing her students to be the next generation of planetary stewards, using chemistry as a lens through which to learn about the environment. According to Kavita, “teaching is part science, part art, and in part theater.”
In a classroom that is no stranger to chemistry puns and jaw-dropping demos complete with fire (watch the photo essay below to see for yourself!), Kavita finds creative ways to engage her students in the topics they are learning, and gets them to ask their own questions about the world around them. Extending her philosophy beyond her own class, in 2018 she supported students in launching of the Youth Climate Summit, where students from different schools come together to discuss climate change. She has also helped significantly in developing National Geographic’s GeoChallenge competition, where students brainstorm solutions to real-world environmental issues.
This year, in recognition of her contributions, National Geographic presented Kavita with the inaugural Gilbert M. Grosvenor Educator of the Year award. Named in honor of National Geographic Society chairman emeritus Gilbert M. Grosvenor and his long-standing support of education, the award honors Kavita for her innovative efforts to inform and inspire students to strive towards a planet in balance. In addition to being the 2019 Gilbert M. Grosvenor Educator of the Year, Kavita Gupta is a 2018 Education Fellow and 2017 Grosvenor Teacher Fellow which supported her travel to the Galapagos Islands with the support of the National Geographic Society and Lindblad Expeditions.
Photographer Philip Montgomery visited Kavita’s school in Cupertino, California to capture her chemistry class in action, while National Geographic Society Producer Megan King sat down with Kavita to talk more about her role as an educator.
Did you know that you always wanted to be a teacher?
Yes, I always wanted to be a teacher from the age of three years old. I would gather neighborhood kids and play teacher: I’d set them down, give them tests, and grade them. But my path changed somewhere in between, where I actually was working a lab to be a researcher, and my major was biochemistry. But I found it a little isolating. I wanted to interact more with people, and I was looking at different careers. I always liked to teach, and that kind of compelled me to explore teaching as a real viable option for my career.
How do you see yourself empowering your students?
Holding them accountable for their learning, letting them take charge while giving them tools and support in an environment that is conducive to that learning, is helpful for students.
An example was when we were doing plastics. We were learning plastics through the lens of organic chemistry. How are these polypeptide molecules linked to each other? That led to students asking, “What happens if plastic is so durable? What happens to it? How do we recycle?” And one thing led to another and pretty soon, a group of the students wanted to create this campaign around plastic recycling. They went out in the community, collected thin plastics, and then they connected to a company that converts these thin plastics into hydrocarbons that can then be repurposed into cosmetics. And not only that, these students then got to go and visit this company. So when they saw the techniques that they use in the classroom being used in real life to actually make human lives better, they were just mesmerized by it. That is empowerment because they think, now they can be part of the solution as well, based upon their learning.
So, empowerment comes with authentic engagement, activities that support that engagement, and some kind of extension activities where they can really take their classroom learning outside of the classroom
Is there anything else that you think would be good for us to know?
What I would really like to say is, there is so much focus on preparing tomorrow’s workforce and preparing students with the skills that they need, and those are very important. But equally important is to keep [the students’] hearts whole, to develop good human beings. Human beings that are optimistic about their future, themselves, and the future of the planet.
And we each need to go little beyond our roles. We see each other always in a role, you know? My interviewer, my geographer, my teacher, my janitor…but who are we as human beings?
Behind it all, we are all humans and we each have a story to tell. So hopefully we can teach our children to take time to sit down with someone and listen to their story. Because in these stories is the learning for life.
Thinking about your students or about the planet, when you think about the brightest future, what do you think of?
The brightest future is when each one of us understands our role in keeping this changing planet sustainable for humanity, and when we each start thinking that as humanity, we have more in common than different.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.