Q&A with Shannon Olson: Inspiring Thinkers and Doers

Through her role as a science teacher at UCC Acosta Middle School, Shannon Olson has engaged her students in being a meaningful part of CALL’s WaterMarks project in Milwaukee. Shannon talks to us here about the path that lead to to becoming a middle school science teacher and the inspiration she draws from the young people she works with.

What was your journey to becoming a science teacher?

I grew up in a very poor community, so although I knew college was my ticket out of poverty, finding a way to pay for it was incomprehensible.  As a little girl, I wanted to be a teacher as I was enamored with knowing more and being able to share my knowledge with others, but I didn’t come to it as a career until later in life.

To be honest, science was NOT my first love.  It was a joke amongst my friends when they learned that at 37 years of age, I was pursuing an education degree to teach science.  It truly was my worst subject in school.  But, being a mom of two young boys, I watched their curiosities in nature and couldn’t help but be drawn in by their honest explorations of the world around them and the need to answer their boundless questions.  This brought me back to wanting to pursue being a teacher and this time to be the teacher I hadn’t had in my life. 

Your primary area of interest is environmental science. Tell us how you got there, and what keeps you engaged and motivated to keep pursuing it?

I lived on a farm and knew basics about life and nature, but there was so much more that I could have and should have known but was never taught.  I attribute this to our focus on survival; putting food on the table and utilize the resources around us to have food. As an adult, I began to recognize that many of my colleagues, friends, and family had unfounded fears of the natural world and misconceptions acquired through popular media or anecdotal stories not backed up by experience.  These same people also believed that one person couldn’t make much of a difference.   

 This drives me to show students that it’s not true- each individual does make a difference. Most of my students face poverty on many different levels each day of their lives.  Fortunately for them, most of their families see education as their way out of their financial situation and encourage their kids to do well.  Like my experience growing up, because their daily focus is often survival, they don’t understand or have time to explore the natural world around them. I do what I can to instill knowledge and hope they acquire a passion to make a difference in the world they live in and share that with everyone they know.


What difference do you hope to make in through teaching? How does being involved with WaterMarks create opportunities to do this?

The ability to instill knowledge is an immense responsibility and to empower students to believe in themselves, to THINK about their actions and their ability to change the world, one action, one person, one vote at a time...that’s the power of teaching.  

Students were able to learn more about the neighborhood we live and work in through our community walks last school year.  They want to keep these going to teach others in the community about the history of our neighborhood.  They took their learning about water in my classroom and through the WaterMarks conversations home with them and spoke with their families about the role of water in their lives and they learned things they NEVER knew about their parents, grandparents and families.  Students were inspired to share their new knowledge with others and thirst to understand more about the role of water in our community.  WaterMarks provided the catalyst of community conversations around water.


What do you see as the biggest challenge facing your students and their local environment?

The entire problem of garbage and pollution is overwhelming. They also find it frustrating to see garbage in the streets, in their neighborhoods and not having support from parents because some neighborhoods are less safe than others.  They want to do the work, but if they don’t have the support of their family due to safety concerns, it creates frustration.  They also question, “if it’s the right thing to do, then why can’t we just do it?”

How do you see the arts and sciences working together to make sustainable changes for our planet?

Communication is key to the success of sustainable change and this is how I see the role of art.  Art is a form of communication that tears down the barriers of language, different political views, religious beliefs and any other differences we may have.  Images tell stories, share emotions, convey significance and bring people together for a common cause to bring changes on our planet.   While I visited Russia this summer as a teacher, I did not know the language well and many did not know mine, but we were able to share understanding that we want the same thing.  A world where we can live well, healthy, happy and without destroying the environment.  I sat on the banks of the Amur River between Russia and China watching as pollution floated downstream.  I listened to live musical group sing about the horrors of war and the destruction of lands, homes and people.  The emotion, no matter the language, is conveyed [through art], showing clearly that we want the same things.


Who inspires you? Why?

My students inspire me every day.  Each day we learn something new, I see new ideas about our world grow within my students.  New questions are formulated and asked and redirected…I’m not the expert, but I can direct and maybe inspire.


Are you an optimist or pessimist about the future?

I am definitely an optimist.  My glass is always half full as I’m always refilling it with my student inspired energy.  I know they may not always follow through and do the right thing when it comes to environmental issues, but I know they will stop and think about it, and I know that’s because of what we do in my classroom.


What book has had the most influence on your thought?

Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods reinforced my belief that kids just do not get enough exposure to the natural world and it is incredibly detrimental to their development physically, socially and emotionally.  He inspired me to make field trips a part of the educational experience for my students, including an annual end of the year camping trip.


How do you see students as influencers for environmental change?

Since the beginning of my time in teaching, students and their families will run into me and remind me about something they learned from me.  Parents tell me their student is still enforcing recycling or some change in their home, thanks to my class. 

My first class of students will graduate high school in the spring of 2019.   I hope they will go out into the world and think deeply about environmental issues, take a stand for the environment and share their knowledge with others, that they will pursue opportunities to serve their community wherever they are and inspire others to take up the call to make a difference in the world. My biggest hope for the future is to have my students make change happen through action, voice and vote.  


Shannon Olson is a transplanted farm girl from west central Wisconsin who arrived in Milwaukee at 18 with no idea of where life would take her, but a belief that she could make a difference. Through many different careers, from banking in the corporate world, to stay at home mom and school bus driver, to nontraditional student at Alverno College pursuing a degree in education, her ambition has been to be a to be a role model for never giving up on a dream. Shannon is now living our her life’s calling as a classroom teacher seeking to inspire thinkers and doers.  

Shannon’s students at UCC Acosta Middle School have been essential players in CALL’s WaterMarks project. The first WaterMarker in Milwaukee was installed at the school in October.