Shanshan Tian's story
Updated: Nov 30, 2021
2019 Runner Up for Natural Curiosity's Suzuki Award for Excellence in Pre-Service Environmental Education
Shanshan is a teacher candidate in the Outdoor and Experiential Education track at and the President of the Education Student Society at Queen’s University. She is an adventurer, an entrepreneur, a yoga instructor, an escape room enthusiast and a MEC Outdoor Nation Ambassador.
She grew up in China near the gulf of the Yellow Sea and came to Canada with her father when she was 10 years old. As a young adult, she studied Social Determinants of Health and Health Promotion and was struck by the reactive nature of our health care system and wanted to seek alternative ways in building healthy communities. Shanshan stumbled upon the healing powers of the outdoors after she spontaneously quit her job, packed a tent and started travelling as a hitchhiker. She got hooked on exploring new places and learning from the land and the people. Shanshan feels most connected on the trails and in the mountains and sees the outdoors as the greatest classroom that can bring people of all ages, backgrounds, abilities and experiences together. The land has so much to teach us and the expertise lives in the experience.
Shanshan is interested in exploring the intersection of environmental, outdoor and experiential education, and health promotion. In her outdoor education practicum, she worked with youth with addictions and mental health issues in an alternative therapeutic outdoor school. She wants to dedicate her work to bringing meaningful and innovative educational experiences in and out of the classroom. Currently, she is passionate about teaching the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals through escape room games to help youth see themselves as game changers. “What if we harnessed the power of outdoor and environmental education to change the way we see and interact with the world? Imagine what’s possible.”
Education is our most effective tool to change the world. John Dewey once stated, “the conception of education as a social process and function has no definite meaning until we define the kind of society we have in mind.” The kind of world we live in depends how we educate our youth. Environmental education is thus a change agent for a more sustainable world, a way to mobilize generations of youth to live mindfully in balance and in unison with all the living things that surround us.
Being immersed in the outdoors after quitting a full time job might have been the single most important event that changed my mental health and my career pathway. Having never winter camped before, I decided to hitchhike Iceland and solo camp around the island. I belonged outside and that the outdoors gave me new purpose. Every day, I found myself engaged in conversations sparked by questions of why and how with strangers around me. I was learning so much just by exploring. I fell in loving with learning from the land and its people.
As a teacher candidate in the Outdoor and Experiential Education track at Queen’s University, I’m privileged to have access to resources, opportunities and inspiration to explore. I attended the Council of Outdoor Educators of Ontario and the Horwood Outdoor Education conferences and workshops. I attended workshops on indigenous perspectives and way of knowing such as drum making, drumming gatherings, hunting and gathering, and tracking. Through previous experience and knowledge gained from working with FNMI youth leaders at the Ontario Educational Leadership Centre, I often attempted to bring in the 7 Grandfather Teachings into my outdoor facilitation.
Fascinated about using the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals to create authentic learning experiences and meaningful teachable moments for youth, I built a travelling escape room on the Global Goals for my alternative practicum. I visited 70 classrooms across 9 school boards and 22 schools in Southern Ontario and reached over 1500 students in 15 days. I learned that hands on activities, creative problem solving and teamwork bring the learning alive in and around the classroom.
In my outdoor education practicum, I worked with youth with addictions at Pine River Institution, a Care and/or Treatment, Custody, and Correctional (CTCC) school. A component of the program requires students to live six weeks in the woods as a way to detox, ground and learn more about their mental health struggles. Academic learning is led by student inquiry and interests, modified to meet each student’s unique needs. I worked alongside educators and observed the healing power of the outdoors. Outdoor and environmental education are tools for reflection, allowing our youth to learn and practice mindfulness in an ever changing and highly demanding world.
In my primary division practicum, I was placed in a kindergarten classroom. My Associate Teacher’s approach to learning in kindergarten showed me the value and potential of inquiry-based learning. Digging muddy trenches after spring showers, going on nature walks with reading buddies, saving worms from big puddles, and time spent outside everyday inspired questions about beavers, farming and decomposers. My students learned about empathy, stewardship and critical thinking skills. And I was able to take outdoor education concepts and models and apply them to our smallest learners.
This year in my personal life I have made many changes to live more consciously. To divert plastic waste from landfills, I’m attempting to live everyday zero-waste by refusing, reusing and recycling. To cut down on my carbon footprint, I switched to a plant-based diet and eating seasonal local produce. Conversations sparked by curiosity have allowed me to share this with friends near and far and inspired small changes that can make a big difference. To inspire others to get outside, I partnered with Mountain Equipment Coop as an ambassador with hopes that youth that identify as people of colour and first generation Canadians can also see themselves as outdoors people and stewards of our planet. If change starts with us, I’m committed to always live to inspire others.
With each and every new experience, I’m more convinced that environmental education is less about teaching, and more about leadership and facilitation. Our planet more than ever before, asks us to educate youth to be more aware, to care and to participate as active citizens. As educators we are given the opportunity to set up provocations, challenge perspectives, and create learning experiences. I hope this fellowship will add to my toolbox as an environmental educator.