Bringing Home the Data:
The Jane Goodall Environmental Middle School
by Mike Weddle
The Jane Goodall Environmental Middle School (JGEMS) is a public charter school located within Waldo Middle School in Salem, Oregon. The ten-year old school has an enrollment of 90 students in grades six to eight. JGEMS students have classes in all subject areas that are part of a regular middle school curriculum, but the overriding focus for all curriculum areas is the environment.
Teachers are always looking for engaging and meaningful projects for their students. At the same time, government or non-government conservation organizations are seemingly always shorthanded when it comes to conducting all the research projects they would like to do. At the Jane Goodall Environmental Middle School (JGEMS) in Salem, Oregon we have been able to use student scientists to conduct these research projects, providing both the assistance needed by the organizations and the engaging and meaningful projects that students need. We have found that projects done in collaboration with non- school organizations provide an incentive and a relevance to research work that may be missing from research done in school. Additionally, collaborating with outside organizations can provide expertise, equipment and even funds that may not normally be available to the classroom teacher.
Students at JGEMS have been doing these field-based research projects for ten years and have established a reputation for thorough and careful research. Each year the number of requests for projects increases, giving the students more choices for projects and more opportunities to make connections and apply their skills and knowledge to engaging and meaningful “real life” projects. We do this as a year-long project, building our conservation biology curriculum around the various project topics. This is a great way to tie content to process.
In an era when schools are increasingly concerned with state and national test scores, taking precious classroom time to get students outside might seem wasteful. Yet, a number of studies support the idea that giving students experiences outside the classroom can benefit students whether it is measured in test scores, improved attendance or better classroom behavior. “Closing the Achievement Gap,” a report published by the State Environmental Education Roundtable in 2002, worked with 150 schools in 16 states for ten years examining the link between student achievement and environmental-based programs. The study found improvement in every core subject area, not just the sciences.
The Jane Goodall Environmental Middle School was featured in the “Closing the Achievement Gap” report because it uses the environment as a context for learning. JGEMS students take over seventy field trips a year for restoration and research projects. Yet, for all the time they are not in the classroom, they have managed to achieve the highest state test scores of all middle schools in the Salem/Keizer School District in every subject area tested. Teachers at the school attribute these high scores to the clear focus on conservation and science provided in the JGEMS program.
Exploring the community
When we first started doing collaborative field-based research projects, we had to search out community partners. Now, after ten years, community partners come to us. By providing useful and reliable data for our community partners, we have established a reputation as a school with focused, knowledgeable and well-behaved young scientists. This reputation cancels out any negative impressions that potential partners may have about working with middle-school students.
But it wasn’t always like that. Ten years ago we actively sought organizations that would be willing to provide engaging and meaningful projects for students. Whenever teachers were attending conferences or meetings, they were always prospecting for potential projects. One teacher happened to be at a campsite next to a vacationing Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife hatchery manager. While talking around the campfire, they came up with what turned out to be one of our most exciting collaborative projects, a stream survey of Gnat Creek.
Sometimes students would have a project in mind and then we would search for the appropriate organization that had an interest in or jurisdiction over the potential site. One group, for example, wanted to improve the riparian zone in a stream that flowed through two city parks. We contacted both the City of Salem Parks Department and two local neighborhood associations to work with them on the project. In 1998, while attending a conference in West Virginia, I met two staff from the Oregon Coast National Wildlife Refuge. During that conference we established a partnership that has resulted in at least a dozen research projects on subjects ranging from amphibian surveys to tidal movement of large-woody debris as well as yearly restoration projects for students,,parents, and staff at the refuge.
Our experience is that most government and non-government organizations have been mandated to take part in some sort of community outreach or education projects. Once we establish ourselves as dependable and knowledgeable, organizations seem eager to work with us.
One of the principal goals of these project-based field experiences is to establish the link between the students’ research and the community affected by the issues studied in their project. Students have to be able to answer the question, “So what? Who cares?” They learn this through their interaction with the community partners, their background research and the experiences they have in the field. Ultimately they become spokespersons for their issue, presenting the results of their study first to the panel of experts including representatives from their partner organization, and often at conferences and meetings in the broader community.
Getting students out
During the ten years that JGEMS has been conducting such intensive field-based projects, the teachers have developed a system that works well for our school. Because field experiences are so critical to our mission, the school’s structure has been modified to allow flexibility in the student day. On average, students in JGEMS participate in about 20 field trips per year. Eighth grade students will do more because of the data gathering they will have to do for their research projects.
For field experiences that involve an entire class such as camping trips, restoration projects or trail maintenance at Silver Falls State Park (another of our partners) we always use school busses. For small group research trips for our 8th grade research projects, we either rent a van or use a teacher’s car. Often it is less expensive to rent a van than to pay mileage for the use of a teacher’s car.
Most JGEMS field experiences are during school. However, parents and students are told before they apply to the school that for JGEMS students, the school day does not always end at 2:30. For JGEMS students, school might end at 3:30 or 5:30 or 6:00 the next day, depending on the needs of the field experience. Occasionally trips take place on weekends. For the 8th grade expedition, the students are gone for ten days. It all depends on the needs of the project and the partnering organizations.
At the beginning of each school year, we have parents sign a permission slip for all one-day field trips for the year. We list the likely sites for the trips on the form and the possible methods of transportation and then file these signed forms. Staff pull the ones they need for each trip just in case there is a medical emergency and parent permission for treatment is needed. For extended camping trips and our expedition to Costa Rica, additional permission forms and waivers are required.
Parents are given a schedule of field trips scheduled for fall and spring each year. Occasionally, this list is altered, but for the most part the teachers are able to stay on schedule. Parents appreciate it very much when field trips return on time. Whenever we do full class field trips by bus, we allow for sufficient travel time so the students always arrive back at the school on time. For 8th grade research trips, where there is often some uncertainty about how long the data gathering will take, we give parents a window of time and then call each student’s parents when we know our return time.
For JGEMS, field experiences are such a core component of our instructional model that appropriate behavior in the field is critical. We establish early in the students’ 6th grade year that field experiences are a critical part of what we do and that good behavior is essential for safe and productive field experiences. The first field trip is on the third day of school in September. This trip begins the process of training the students for work in the field. Teachers make sure that students understand that the work in the field is not a play-day, but an important part of their classes. By the time the students are in the eighth grade, they have participated in dozens of field experiences. For them, the 8th grade field-based research project is the culmination of their JGEMS experience. They know the behavior expectations and that the work they will do in the field will be valuable not only for their education, but also for the school and the partnering organization.
Content components and instructional approach
In September, we start with an introduction to scientific research. We begin by teaching or reviewing the scientific method with the students. We teach the difference between experimental, descriptive and historical research. A good resource for this is Looking for Data in all the Right Places: A Guidebook for Conducting Original Research with Young Investigators by Alane J. Starko.
JGEMS teachers compile a list of possible research projects and sites over the summer. Once the possible research projects have been collected, they are presented to the students. We establish research groups and have each group choose a project. Students generally choose a research topic for one of three reasons: 1) they like the topic; 2) they like the location of the research site; or 3) they want to do what their friends are doing. Once the groups choose their topics, we arrange for the groups to meet their collaborating partners in the field at the research project site to talk about the best way to set up the research design. By collaborating at the very beginning of the project, the students can design their research project in a way that will be most useful to the partnering organization and at the same time be realistic for them.
When eighth grade students first meet with the staff from their collaborating organization, they have been prepped ahead of time. They have started a review of the literature for their specific field-based project. Whenever possible, they learn to use the tools and acquire the knowledge they will need prior to their first meeting at their site. If, for example, they are working with the Audubon Society doing a bird census at a local wetland, they have already learned, in the classroom, the species of birds they are likely to encounter.
The motto for JGEMS in the 8th grade is, “Bring home the data.” We stress to the students that when they start collecting data in the field, they need to be thorough and accurate in collecting their data. We teach the importance of sample size and controlling variables – both important concepts in any research design. We have the students return to the site as many times as finances allow and the project demands. We have had projects that demanded monthly visits throughout the year and others that needed one visit in the fall and one in the spring.
Students need to design data sheets that work efficiently in the field and can easily be transferred to Excel spreadsheets back in the classroom. It is critical to transfer the data as soon as possible so students can remember the experience and the data.
As the students are collecting their data, they should also be working on their formal research paper. For us, this starts with a review of the literature and an introduction. We provide several models for the students so they can see how this works. Students can search the web, the local university library or resources from their partnering organization. They need to know the background of their issue and what other scientists have learned about their issue in previous studies. The introduction should end with an explanation of their research project – what they are doing and why.
The methods section of the paper is pretty straightforward. The results section will include their analysis of the data. It should include well-labeled graphs to help in the interpretation of the data. Students might also use geographic information system (GIS) software to further analyze their results. GIS data sets are available from most of the organizations you are likely to partner with.
The discussion will be just that, a discussion of the results. Did the results meet their expectations? What surprises did they find? What problems did they discover as they were collecting their data? The conclusion will include the final thoughts from the students about the topic for the partnering organization. It should also include recommendations for further research. For many organizations, long-term studies are incredibly helpful. JGEMS students, for example, have been collecting data on red-legged frog egg clusters for seven years, and the data from the seven years shows a remarkable change that would not have been seen if we had stopped after one year.
The ultimate goal of any project is to share the research results with the partnering organization. We do this by:
• Presenting the students’ formal research papers to the partnering organization.
• Preparing a scientific poster display to give to the organization.
• Inviting representatives from the organization to a presentation at our school or have the students present at the organization offices. Students use PowerPoint for the presentation. They prepare speeches explaining their work and they should be prepared for questions from the staff. We want students to be able to “defend” their results.
• Posting their research on the web, using either the school website or the website of the partnering organization.
Ultimately, the most important assessment is from the partner organization. If they are happy with the work the students do, the report they receive and the presentation by the students, they will ask for more the next year.
Students in our district are assessed on “work samples” that demonstrate their skills in certain curriculum areas. We use these research projects to satisfy those requirements for multiple areas: science inquiry, speaking, technology and writing.
Finally, whenever we see former students, we ask them what was the most important thing they learned in JGEMS. Overwhelmingly, “speaking skills” is the most common response. Students in JGEMS begin giving high-stakes speeches in the 6th grade and by the time they get before the panel of experts to defend their 8th grade research project, they are relaxed, confident and skilled.
Whether this research project is done in a month, a semester or a year, providing students with an opportunity to apply their skills and knowledge to engaging and meaningful real-life projects is a great way to not only make science exciting, but also to establish links with the broader community. The effort and resources you need for this, admittedly, are extensive, but the rewards in student achievement and respect from the community make it all worthwhile.
Because field-experiences are such an integral part of our curriculum, we allocate funds for a sizable number of field trips each year when we construct our general fund budget. As a public charter school, we are allocated the same amount per student as any other public middle school in Oregon. Our “charter” is with the Salem-Keizer School District. They handle our personnel, facilities and the other costs that are normally incurred by all public schools. The District allows us to formulate our own budget for any money that remains from the general fund. A large percentage of this balance, what we call our operating budget, goes to fund field experiences. The entire JGEMS staff and the JGEMS School Board establish the operating budget.
Additionally, we are always pursuing grants. Because we have established the value of this approach to science education, grants seem to be fairly easy to obtain. When we receive a grant, we make sure to keep the funding organization informed about the progress of the project(s) they have funded. We always invite members of the funding organization to view the students’ final presentations and submit the students’ project reports to them. We want them to know how the students used their money. We also have a strong Parent Club that organizes fund-raising events. Our two most successful are the fall Work-a-Thon, where kids get pledges to do restoration work, and our Wine and Cheese Tasting Event in the spring.
The only trip that parents pay a portion of the expenses is our Costa Rica 8th grade expedition. Even on that trip, if there is a financial hardship, we provide scholarships for students.
Partners and projects
Here is a partial list of the partners we have worked with during the past ten years along with project titles.
• U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Oregon Coast National Wildlife Refuge: Amphibian surveys, camera trapping, invasive species control, large-woody debris study
• U.S. Forest Service: Burn severity in thinned and unthinned forests
• Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife: Salmon stream habitat study, turtle habitat study
• Oregon Zoo: Stereotypic behavior in polar bears, activity budgets for new exhibits
• City of Salem Public Works Department: Riparian restoration, water quality, fish habitat
• Conservation and Research Center, National Zoo: Amphibian survey, plant association, lichenology
• Le Centre de Recherches sur les Ecosystèmes d’Altitude, Chamonix, France: Phenology study
All research groups submit a formal research paper to their partner organization. This information is then used to broaden the knowledge base of the organization, to publicize community interactions or to build community support. Additionally, students prepare their formal project summaries that are presented to parents, younger students in the school, district administrators and staff from the partnering organizations.
Other products specific to individual studies include:
Sand Intrusion at Cannon Beach Tidepools
One group of students worked to determine the extent of sand encroachment in the Cannon Beach tide pool area for the Haystack Rock Awareness Project. They observed a significant change in sand encroachment during the year. This information will prove invaluable to the Friends of Haystack Rock by providing baseline data for their long-term study.
Invasive Species Study at Neskowin National Wildlife Refuge
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service asked a group to study the extent of infiltration of invasive species in Neskowin National Wildlife Refuge. The students identified the area with the greatest infiltration of English ivy, organized a community ivy pull and with the help of over 100 volunteers, pulled all the ivy in November 2006.
Stereotypic Behavior in Polar Bears at the Oregon Zoo
At the request of Dr. David Shepherdson, this group studied stereotypic behavior in the three polar bears at the Oregon Zoo. They followed the procedures for recording the target behaviors established by Dr. Shepherdson in his earlier study on polar bears.
Stream Survey of Gnat Creek
This project was done at the request of the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife. Staff at the Gnat Creek Fish Hatchery noticed a rise in stream temperature over the past three years and they wanted to determine the cause. Students collected data on shade cover, large woody debris, water temperature and streambed pebble size. They identified the lack of adequate streamside buffer after logging as the probable cause of the temperature rise.
Using five Trailmaster infrared camera traps, this group has been trying to record on film the larger animals at Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center. The center wants this information to help them educate visitors about the animals in this wilderness area. Opal Creek staff advised the students on camera placement for particular animals.
Prey Profile of Barn Owls
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service asked for a prey profile for barn owls nesting on the Nestucca Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Staff wanted to know the percent of diet that was introduced species. Students dissected owl pellets collected under and around the nest at various times during the year. Introduced and native species were both identified.
Barbed Wire Fences and Wildlife Movement
The barbed wire fencing research project was done at the request of one of the JGEMS teachers who owns property northeast of Klamath Falls, Oregon. He was concerned that the barbed-wire fence around his property may be a dangerous obstacle to deer, elk and antelope as they travel through his property in search of food. The students used infrared camera traps to record the number of deer that crossed the fence line before and after the fence section was taken down.
Phenology, Alpine Ecosystems and Climate Change
Working with the U.S. Forest Service, the Alpine Ecosystems Research Center in Chamonix, France, and the USA National Phenology Network, students are gathering baseline data on leaf-fall and bud- break on selected high altitude species in the Cascades. The Alpine Ecosystems Research Center has been conducting similar research in several European alpine countries for several years and they are eager to expand their data to include North America.
Western Pond Turtle Habitat at Luckiamute State Natural Area
Located just south of Independence, Luckiamute is a recently designated state natural area that also happens to have valuable western pond turtle habitat. Working with Oregon Wildlife Institute’s Dave Vesely, the students observed turtles and collected habitat data such as ground cover percentage, canopy closure, average grass height, shrub cover percentage, and slope percentage. Their data will be incorporated into the management plan for the natural area.
Sustainability of program
JGEMS is in rather a unique position. The field-based projects that we do now were actually begun when I was still teaching for Waldo Middle School. In 1999 the Salem-Keizer School Board suggested that we start a magnet school at Waldo focusing on environmental science and technology. At the time Waldo was under-populated and the hope was that a magnet school would attract students from other neighborhoods to the school facility. So, JGEMS opened in 2000 as the Jane Goodall Environmental Magnet School. After three very successful years, we made the choice to apply for charter school status, hoping that this designation would provide more long-term security to JGEMS. The state and the district approved the application and we became the Jane Goodall Environmental Middle School.
The concept of field-based student research is such a part of the JGEMS culture that it actually forms the basis for our mission statement. One cannot imagine JGEMS without these projects. This is made clear to all the students, their parents, school administrators, district administrators and, most importantly, parents who are applying to get their students into the school. These projects define us. By becoming a magnet and then a charter school, we had a great degree of independence when setting up our class schedule. We plan our schedule in such a way that allows for the least disturbance when students miss class for field experiences. Since all the teachers are part of JGEMS (except band, orchestra and Spanish) students are never penalized in one class for being on a field trip for another class.
All the teachers are heavily invested in the school and its mission. Often one teacher drives this kind of program and when that teacher leaves, the program ends. That has not been the case with JGEMS. The school is ten years old and in that time three teachers have retired and been replaced. The recruiting for new teachers and the interview process focuses on the field-based project emphasis in the school. We have hired teachers that can help sustain the school and its mission.
In more than ten years of doing field-based research projects with students, I have learned a few valuable lessons. Hopefully, by listing them here, you will be able to learn more quickly and less painfully than I did.
1. Carefully select partnerships that can work. Can the students get the job done? Will it be interesting? Can they collect a large enough sample size to make the results meaningful? Will staff from the collaborating organization be able to visit your classroom? Work with your students in the field? Attend a final presentation?
2. Can the study be continued in future years? There is great value in ongoing studies that become a school tradition. Each year the project acquires a greater value.
3. Make the trips fun. Usually the students will be giving up something to take part in this field experience – missing classes, giving up a weekend day, or working late in the afternoon.
4. Feed the kids. My experience is that middle school students need to eat every two hours. Sitting around the table over ice cream is a great time to reflect on the day’s data collection.
5. Fill out all the proper forms. All schools and districts have required forms for field trips. Our administration has always been supportive of our fieldwork – except for those times when we have failed to turn in the proper forms at the right time.
6. Don’t surprise your administration. Be sure to let your administrators know ahead of time about your collaborations and fieldwork. Let them become part of the planning, even if it is only token participation. The last thing you want is for them to read about your exploits in the paper – exploits they know nothing about.
7. Scout the site ahead of time. A field experience can go bad in a hurry if the kids, once they arrive at their site, are not able to carry out the project they have spent weeks planning. Granted, that is part of the reality of doing field research, but with middle and high school students, you really want them to have a good experience, not to mention the cost of taking the field trip. You want a good experience for them.
8. Don’t be deterred by bad weather. There is so much that has to be set up ahead of time for a field trip, you do not want to postpone because of rain or other inclement conditions. Invest in good rain gear or other weather appropriate attire. A little weather will make the experience more memorable for your students – and for you.