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The capeless crusader

MES in the Community, Tasnim Aziz

A Penn alumna empowers the next generation through science

“While I was student teaching, my students told me ‘Ms. Aziz, you’re a different person when you interact with plants.’ They inspired me to come to the Master of Environmental Studies (MES) at Penn,” shares Tasnim Aziz (MES ’16), a high school teacher at the Science Leadership Academy at Beeber (SLA@Beeber) in West Philadelphia.

Tasnim teaches a variety of courses at SLA@Beeber, including biochemistry, anatomy and physiology, botany and environmental science. “In addition to having a good relationship with the students, teachers who have a strong background in their field of study have better success teaching the content,” Tasnim reflects, “which is why I wanted to get a master’s degree and dedicate myself to this work.”

After her first year as a full-time student in the MES program, Tasnim was hired at SLA@Beeber. Though working while taking classes and completing a capstone was challenging, she found the experience to be rewarding. “The MES director Dr. Yvette Bordeaux and the environmental biology concentration advisor Dr. Sally Willig were so wonderful and understanding. They never made me feel pressured about my position. They helped me feel safe, and because of that, I persisted.”

Today, Tasnim focuses on giving students agency over their work. Her botany class is building a composting system for the school, and her environmental science students grow fresh vegetables in an indoor tower garden. Tasnim explains, “I am a superhero nerd. I want these kids to discover what their super powers are and how to use them to better our community.”

For the compost project, the students interested in engineering built the frame, the creative writers wrote the script, future filmmakers created an ad and the artists made posters to educate their peers. “In my classroom, the students decide how to design a project. What makes my work meaningful are the behavioral changes I see in these kids. I hear them talk about our transportation system and water quality to each other.”

mes community

Identity and self-reflection are also big pieces of Tasnim’s philosophy as a teacher. She shares, “Students have told me they’ve never had a South Asian or a Muslim teacher before me. People of color and women are not often represented in this field. As a teacher, I am very conscious about what scientists we study. I want kids to see themselves and see that they use science in everything they do. I have a feeling my students are going to be the revolutionaries of the next era.”

Earning a Master of Environmental Studies helped Tasnim become an expert in the subjects she teaches and hone her craft. “I am very grateful that I chose MES. My professors explored how the environment impacts us and how we impact it. I was inspired to teach that way to my students.”