by Alison Heimowitz
Every fall students in Sharon Angal’s third-grade classroom at Quatama Elementary, a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) school in the Hillsboro School District, wait patiently for the arrival of the “salmon lady.” “She’s here, she’s here!” is heard echoing down the hallway. Older students who have already experienced raising salmon in the classroom stop to say “hi.” Entering the classroom, sixty sparkling eyes are eager to meet the salmon eggs that will be reared in an aquarium. The students will care for the eggs until they grow into fry and are released. Water temperature will be monitored and recorded and any dead fish removed by a different student every day for approximately five weeks. As the fish grow, students actively engage in a series of classroom and field-based experiences including the creation of a large mural that celebrates the salmon’s life cycle and a field trip to Tillamook State Forest Center to observe wild spawning salmon. Release of the salmon fry into the Tualatin River, an event celebrated by students and their families at Tualatin Community Park, is a unit highlight. During the winter and spring, students put on their gloves, rain jackets and waterproof boots to restore salmon habitat in a section of Rock Creek at Orchard Park.
A unique partnership makes this project possible. Three years ago staff from Quatama, the Oregon Zoo and the Portland Metro STEM Partnership (PMSP) teamed up to bring science to life and foster environmental literacy through relevant STEAM-related educational opportunities for Quatama students. Each partner plays an important role in project success. Quatama teachers develop/co-develop and implement activities and project units articulated from grades kindergarten through sixth that are aligned to science content standards. Zoo staff provides “salmon care” technical support to teachers, assists with curriculum development, and connects teachers to other community resources. PMSP staff provides professional development to support alignment to science content standards and use of STEM education best practices as well as utilization of student STEM identity measures. Other community partners also play a critical role. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife supplies the tanks, pumps, coolers and salmon eggs; Clean Water Services and the Oregon Forest Resources Institute provides bus transportation to field trip destinations.
The partnership launched two and a half years ago and targeted third grade students and teachers with support from a Metro “Nature in Neighborhoods” grant; it now reaches every Quatama student. Two years ago, in anticipation of Oregon’s adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), Quatama, Zoo, and PMSP staff created a two-day professional development workshop designed to weave the salmon story through eac
h grade while addressing relevant standards in the life science strand of NGSS. This workshop, funded by a Gray Family Foundation grant, gave teachers a better understanding of how to incorporate the new NGSS standards into their classroom curriculum and helped them begin development of the articulated K-6 curriculum. The life science units created during the workshop have continued to evolve over time. Having designated people from the Zoo and PMSP to work with each year has kept the development of new and refinement of old classroom and field experiences fresh, relevant and exciting for both teachers and students. It also has given teachers a chance to truly integrate curricular units with all components of STEM and the arts. Has the partnership made a difference in student learning? A short video (Bringing Conservation Education into Schools) developed by the Oregon Zoo Foundation provides anecdotal evidence of this project’s influence on student learning. Measurement by PMSP shows a continued growth in Student Academic Identity and Motivational Resilience (STEM Identity) (Figure 1).
Success of this partnership is based on a number of factors. First, Quatama leadership had the foresight and resources to hire a half-time TOSA (teacher on special assignment) to provide support to teachers as they carry out the school’s vision of equity to all students. Second, the basis for collaboration is one of co-creating rather than coordinating. TOSA, Zoo and Quatama staff meet together to create NGSS-aligned lessons and field experiences that are cohesive, relative, and provide meaningful learnin
g opportunities for students. A partner representative does not come in, teach, and then leave. Instead, the teacher is in charge of lessons; the partners are a resource. Teacher commitment to the process also makes a difference. Changing teaching practice is difficult and the first year is definitely hard. However, each year gets easier.
This collaboration also has proven to be a trifecta win for each of the partners. Quatama teachers have been able to learn from STEM experts how to create real world learning opportunities that inspire and motivate students to be active learners. For the Zoo, training the next generation of scientists and responsible citizens is vital to the Oregon Zoo’s mission “
to inspire the community to respect animals and take action on behalf of the natural world.” By partnering with Quatama, the Zoo has the opportunity to leverage its staff proficiency and deep ties within the community to provide an intensive learning opportunity. PMSP benefits by working with a school and partners dedicated to the long-term process of professional development and curriculum development/implementation.
The key to a project like this is to identify school and community partners who are looking to make long-term coordinated change to benefit students. If you would like to learn more about this partnership, feel free to contact Kristen Harrison with the Portland Metro STEM Partnership at Kristen.firstname.lastname@example.org, Alison Heimowitz with the Oregon Zoo at Alison.Heimowitz@oregonzoo.org, or Sharon Angal with Quatama Elementary School at email@example.com.
All photos courtesy of Alison Heimowitz.