Digital Environmental Literacy: Student Generated Data and Inquiry

Digital Environmental Literacy: Student Generated Data and Inquiry

How do we train educators to successfully interface technologies with the outdoor experiences that they provide their students?

by R. Justin Hougham,
Marc Nutter,
Megan Gilbertson,
Quinn Bukouricz
University of Wisconsin – Extension

Technology in education (ed tech) is constantly changing and growing in impact in classrooms across the globe. While ed tech holds great promise for closing achievement gaps in sectors of the education community, it remains yet to be seen how this will truly live up to its potential (“Brain Gains”, 2017, July 22). Ed tech is anticipated to grow to a $120 billion market by 2019, which will largely be spent in software and web services. How might we hope to see this show up in out-of-classroom field experiences?

Unaddressed in these articles and what we explore here are the specific impacts that the conversation of technology in environmental education brings as well as a case study that shares strategies we have found to be effective when an education considers the merging of hardware (inquiry tools), technology application in professional development, and web-based collaboration tools. Important questions for environmental education ask include How does this scale for education for the environment? What considerations need to be taken to ensure that investment works? How would we know if it does? How do we train educators to successfully interface technologies with the outdoor experiences that they provide their students? In an article published here in Clearing in 2012, we explored the instructional framework for merging field based science education with mobile pedagogies in the framework entitled Adventure Learning @ (Hougham, Eitel, and Miller, 2012). In the years since, this model has informed a collection of hardware kits that supports the concepts in AL@ as well as an examination of the questions outline above, these hardware kits are called Digital Observation Technology Skills (DOTS) kits.

In the middle fork of the Salmon River in Idaho you’ll see Steelhead, rushing rapids and hot springs that all tell the story of the landscape. Similarly, along the Wisconsin River, you will see towns, forests and fields that have a link to the industries that have shaped the state over the last 150 years. If you’re in the right spot at the right time, you can find inquisitive young people and bright yellow cases filled with gadgets taking data points and crafting Scientific Stories about the watersheds in their state. Regardless of whether it is a wild river or a small tributary outside a schoolyard- scientific stories wait to be told in these places and technology that is appropriately considered helps unlock and share these experiences.

A naturalist assists youth with a water quality test while on a canoe trip. Photo credit: DOTS participant.

In a world where technology is almighty, wielding digital literacy is practically a requirement in our understanding of just about everything. The students of today are able to navigate through web pages and apps with ease, information at their fingertips like never before. Here, we can find ourselves removed from that information, disconnected from those data sources and collections, stifling our desire to wonder and inquire more. By investing in digital tools that can enhance inquiry of the natural world, educators can bridge this divide of both information and the ability to be a primary data collector. In equipping students with touchscreens and interfaces familiar to youth of today, they are able to partake in not only real world application of scientific observation, but also experimental design and efforts moving toward the future.

Young people in Wisconsin have been contributing to the development of this idea of digital data collection and inquiry, through DOTS. The DOTS program has been developing in Wisconsin since 2014, engaging both youth and adult demographics in digital literacies, and connecting the dots from data collection to inquiry and analysis.   By involving youth in the visualization and comparison of their data collections, they are able to begin to accomplish higher order learning such as developing their own hypotheses and synthesize the meaning of their findings.   DOTS has been developed for students in 4th through 8th grades but has been modified for audiences in 2nd through high school, including adult learners, continuing education, and professional development.

Case studies of this application vary widely in scale, location and content. Currently DOTS kits are used in Idaho and in Wisconsin by youth to examine water quality. A full-scale implementation is underway currently in Wisconsin to connect youth from many different watersheds. Held this past August, the Wisconsin Water Youth Stories Summit brought together students from across the state of Wisconsin who are interested in not only environment and ecosystems, but also water quality and sharing their “water stories”. Supported by an EPA grant, this Summit was a culminating experience for many of the youth, getting to collect and share their findings over their 3 day period at Upham Woods Outdoor Learning Center (Grant Number: EPA-00E02045). This two year grant has trained and equipped educators with DOTS tool with an emphasis on water quality monitoring. Throughout the year, youth from around Wisconsin collect data and share their findings with others in real time on the web. At the Water Stories Summit, each group brought their DOTS kit to explore the environment and compare collected data sets. This experience not only brought together young scientists with a vested interest in the future of water, but also allowed students to share stories of local water quality that affects their own communities around the state.

A student uses a water quality test to find the amount of phosphorus at a Wisconsin River location. Photo credit: DOTS participant.

Many shared stories about urban run-off pollution, such as lawn fertilizers and road salt, E. coli contamination, and they discussed the ways in which humans alter natural waterways. At the end of their experience one student said they learned that, “science is being precise and unbiased about nature and numbers.” Another student said of a different Upham experience, “We went to Blackhawk Island for our project. The tools helped us take photos of what was under the rock. The tools help to see what animals were living there. We came up with a lot of new questions after we did our research and we can’t wait to find out things like, if the temperature affects what animals we will find living under a rock, and what animals live at different depths.” Through these collaborations of student generated data, participants were able to make connections between each other and drive further inquiry questions such as how to improve water use and consumption, and how the water affects all other life.

While the kits themselves are certainly an enhancement to a variety of curriculum, the training that accompanies the deployment is just as important as the tools themselves. Educators that partner on DOTS projects are supported with (1) Equipment, (2) Training and (3) a Web platform for collaboration. It is the interrelationship between the inquiry tools, inquiry methods and inquiry artifacts that provide the support for transformative outdoor science experiences.

A DOTS kit consists of a select set of digital tools to equip youth and educators with everything they need to take a basic data set of an ecosystem and microclimate. Contained in a water-proof, heavy-duty case, the tools selected are chosen for their utility, cost effectiveness, and ease of use. Any suite of tools can be selected for an individual’s classroom purposes, this is first and foremost, a framework to scaffold inquiry and observational skills. DOTS users gain field experience with hand held weather stations, thermal imagers, digital field microscopes, GPS units, and cameras to contribute to local citizen science monitoring (Hougham and Kerlin, 2016). A DOTS program training is facilitated by program staff and has evolved over time to include these six goals. While these are used in DOTS, nearly any technology implementation would benefit from these goals being outlined.

  1. Establish functional and technical familiarity with DOTS Kit hardware
  2. Orientation to DOTS Kit web interface, data uploading, and site visualizations
  3. Examination of mobile, digital pedagogies in historical as well as applied contexts
  4. Advance instructional capacities in application of observation and inquiry facilitation applicable to experiences outside the classroom
  5. Production of digital artifacts that contribute to Scientific Storytelling
  6.   Facilitation of initial curricular design considerations for integrating kits into existing programs

After the training, educators have access to a suite of tools that can be lent out for deeper science connections in outdoor spaces. Further, trained educators can use grab-and-go lessons from the project website to launch the concepts with their students and watch videos produced and hosted on the site that provide further instruction on applications of the tools.

Lastly, a web-based collaboration platform is hosted to support the development of additional inquiry. To continue this mission of enhancing student inquiry and promoting collaboration, data sets can be uploaded to an online public access platform. As users enter their data online, the map displays in real time the coordinates and information of each data point. Viewers can easily navigate a Google map with their and other’s data points for comparison and post-experience observation. This immediate viewership not only falls in line with today’s student’s understanding of a fast-paced, immediately available world, but also allows no stagnation in the learning process as inquiry can continue instantaneously. Through engagement by use of digital tools collecting data in the field, reflection on process and methods through data entry into the web-based model, and through analysis and refinement of hypothesis for further inquiry, students take ownership of their data and have a voice in sharing their discoveries with others. These inquiries have been qualified in the DOTS programming through use of a “scientific story”.

The scientific story helps to build connection between qualitative and quantitative data and their respective ways of understanding. As humans we have told stories for millennia to entertain, educate, and remember. Combining these elements of storytelling with the scientific method of developing hypotheses and data collection, a story is created to share. These stories are generally 3-5 sentences and include photos taken by camera and tools such as the handheld microscope and thermal imager. In taking a closer look with digital tools, a deeper appreciation is gained and honed in on through these scientific stories and it is through these words that we can harness stories in what they do best: share. They can be digitized and easily shared across social media platforms, creating interest in the environment and science in family and community members.

This story written while at Upham woods during the aforementioned Water Stories Summit, and describes the location and inquires the youth had.

We investigated two different locations as a part of the water study blitz at Upham Woods. The first location was the Fishing shore on the Wisconsin River, and the second location was a stagnant inlet only 100 feet away. We noticed several differences between the two locations. We wanted to know more about the animal life in both locations. What kind of animals live in these habitats that we couldn’t see during the blitz? What would we find if we studied the location where the Fishing Shore and Inlet connect?

This story highlights the questions students wanted to investigate further and spurred their desire to continue comparing locations in the context of animal life. Another story from the Water Stories Summit illustrates a group of high school students making connections between ideas and places.

When doing the data blitz at camp, we tested water for all kinds of factors (pH, Conductivity, Salinity and others). The cool thing we noticed was the differences in PH levels of the water that equaled a 9.49 level that makes water a base. This reminded us of what would happen if water had a unbalanced and non neutral PH level, that was out of control… One example of this is a sulphur pit, like in Yellowstone national park. The pH of this water is as low as 1.2, which is almost equivalent to battery acid.

By encouraging students to develop their own scientific story, they create a deeper connection with that place and nature in general. This connection evolves to a jumping off point for further inquiry and hypothesis development which can be fleshed out into full empirical science studies or harnessed into environmental service projects. Additionally, as data sets can be shared, these students in Wisconsin can use the data collected in Idaho to further their hypotheses and promote scientific collaboration.

A naturalist teaches an Escuela Verde student how to take a water quality reading. Photo credit: DOTS participant.

Throughout the use of this approach research suggests that digital tools should be adopted in environmental education whenever possible (Hougham et al., 2016). To assess participant perspectives, DOTS uses a modified Common Measures instrument (National 4-H Council, 2017) to examine student attitudes towards technology and towards nature. In a 2015 study conducted by the DOTS project research team (Hougham et al., 2016), students where engaged in two iterations of an environmental studies curriculum- one was with traditional analogue toolsets and one was with digital toolsets. In an analysis of pre/post-test evaluation responses (n= 135), students showed statistically significant and positive shifts in attitudes towards technology, the use of technology outdoors, and towards investigating nature. In a review of the data from DOTS users for both profession development and youth workshops (n=71), it was found that 97% of participants of all ages agreed or strongly agreed that they “better understand how science, technology, or engineering can solve problems after using the DOTS tools”, and 89% said they agreed or strongly agreed that they “liked learning about this subject”.

This survey data provides insight on scaffolding and curiosity building techniques. In this way, it was found that lessons on observation were most useful when they began with broad scale observations and students were invited to make more focused observations. This system allows for students to explore a part of the world that they find interesting, making them more invested in a narrative authentic to them. The practice of up close observation is nothing new in environmental education, notably Adventures with a Hand Lens was published in 1962, advancing outdoor science instruction to engage the learner in their own investigations of the world up close. Today, this observation scaffolds easily onto data collection, with students studying parts of the ecosystem that they find interesting with encouragement to find how these seemingly individual pieces coalesce into a larger system.

In moving environmental education into the digital age, educators should look to empower youth with the tools and responsibility to examine their surroundings, and in encouraging youth to take and use technology outside, educators can capitalize on students collecting their own data sets to develop deeper, more meaningful inquiry questions. And when they can begin developing their own questions that they want to answer rather than following a worksheet or handout, the exploration becomes that much more desirable and satiating. Those young people wielding handheld weather stations and thermal imagers on the Salmon River or on the Wisconsin may appear to be kids collecting some information for science project, but don’t be fooled, the next generation of scientists and scientific thinkers is out there, already developing their inquiries into the natural world.

 

 

References

  1. Brain Gains. (2017, July 22). The Economist. Retrieved from https://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21725313-how-science-learning-can-get-best-out-edtech-together-technology-and-teachers-can
  2. Headstrom, R.. (1962). Adventures with a Hand Lens.
  3. Hougham, R. J., Eitel, K. B., & Miller, B. G. (2013). AL@: Combining the strengths of adventure learning and place based education. 2012 CLEARING Compendium (pp 38-41).
  4. Hougham, J. and Kerlin, S. (2017). To Unplug or Plug In. Green Teacher. Available at: https://greenteacher.com/to-unplug-or-plug-in/.
  5. Hougham, R., Nutter, M., Nussbaum, A., Riedl, T. and Burgess, S. (2016). Engaging at-risk populations outdoors, digitally: researching youth attitudes, confidence, and interest in technology and the outdoors. Presented at the 44th Annual International Symposium on Experiential Education Research, Minneapolis, MN.
  6. National 4-H Council. (2017). Common Measures 2.0.
  7. Technology is transforming what happens when a child goes to school. (2017, July 22). The Economist. Retrieved from https://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21725285-reformers-are-using-new-software-personalise-learning-technology-transforming-what-happens

Dr. R. Justin Hougham is faculty at the University of Wisconsin- Extension where he supports the delivery of a wide range of science education topics to K-12 students, volunteers, youth development professionals, graduate students, and in-service teachers. Justin’s scholarship is in the areas of youth development, place-based pedagogies, STEM education, AL, and education for sustainability.

Marc Nutter manages the facility of Upham Woods Outdoor Learning Center located in Wisconsin Dells, WI which serves over 11,000 youth and adults annually. With the research naturalist team at Upham Woods, Marc implements local, state, and federal grants around Wisconsin aimed to get youth connected to their local surroundings with the aid of technology that enhances observation.

Megan Gilbertson is currently a school psychology graduate student at Southern Illinois University – Edwardsville. While working at Upham Woods Outdoor Learning Center, she collaborated on grant funded projects to create and curate online data platforms for educational groups and facilitate programs for both youth and adults on the integration of technology with observation and inquiry in environmental education.

Quinn Bukouricz is a research naturalist involved with technology-integrated programming statewide, funded on grants and program revenues. He is also responsible the creation and care of programmatic equipment which includes the “Digital Observation Technology Skills” kits, and the implementation of grants.

Climate Scientists

Climate Scientists

On a sunny fall day in Oregon students are outdoors learning about the new citizen science observation site in their schoolyard. With a mix of 4th and 5th grade exuberance and the seriousness of adults they are taking on the mission of gathering basic data for a section of their school yard scientific study and research area.   These students are part of the Oregon Season Tracker 4-H classroom program that is regularly getting them outdoors for real world science. As the teacher explains, this is the first of many data gathering sessions as part of their yearlong commitment to the program. This real world data will support researchers to gain a better understanding of climate change across Oregon.

regon Season Tracker (OST) 4-H classrooms are a companion to the Oregon State University Extension Oregon Season Tracker adult citizen science program http://oregonseasontracker.forestry.oregonstate.edu/ . In the adult program, volunteers are gathering and reporting their observations of precipitation and plant seasonal changes in a statewide effort. Started in 2013 and targeting adults, it quickly became evident to everyone involved that the program had clear applications to outdoor hands-on “experiential” science learning for students.

The foundation of the OST program is based on a partnership between OSU Extension and HJ Andrews Experimental Forest located in Blue River, near the midpoint of the Cascade Mountain range https://andrewsforest.oregonstate.edu/ . The Andrews is a leading center for long term research, and a member of the National Science Foundation’s Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) Program. The 16,000 acre research forest in the McKenzie river watershed in the Cascade Mountains was established in 1948, with paired watershed studies and several long-term monitoring programs initiated soon after. Today, it is jointly managed by the US Forest Service and OSU for research into forest and stream ecosystems, and the interactions among ecological dynamics, physical processes, and forest governance.

Part of the success of the Oregon Season Tracker program is that we have also collaborated with national programs, Community Collaborative Rain Hail and Snow Network (CoCoRaHS) https://www.cocorahs.org/ and National Phenology Network (NPN) Nature’s Notebook https://www.usanpn.org/natures_notebook, as well as our local partner. A key role of our national partners is their ability to collect, manage and store the data, making it available both to professional and citizen scientists. This national connection makes sure the data is available long-term and easily accessible locally as well as nationally and beyond. Both of our national partners have easy to use web based visualization tools that allow volunteers and students to easily look at and interpret data.   In the classroom this means not only are students helping ongoing professional research, they can also investigate or research their own science questions using the data of others. Partnering with these national database sites also allows OST to stretch our resources further, spending our time and energy supporting the volunteers and classrooms in our program.

Zero is important data when reading the rain gauge!

Back at the school, it is 8:30 am and a student team is checking and recording the level of precipitation for the last 24 hours. The rain gauge station is set up outside the school entrance and is clearly marked with a sign explaining what the students are doing. Parents and visitors can clearly see they are part of the Oregon Season Tracker 4-H program collecting precipitation and plant phenology data as citizen scientists. The sign calls attention to their efforts and gives the students a sense of pride in what they are doing.

Students use a program approved manual rain gauge that is standardized nationally. They become comfortable reading the gauge marked out in hundreds of an inch and how to conform to set data protocols. They learn not to round measurements for accuracy, to read using the bottom of the meniscus, and how to deal with an overflow event. All skills that have math applications for what they are doing. Depending on the grade of the students these skills are new or a refresher of what they already know, but important none the less.

Students learned the rain gauge skills at the beginning of the year in outdoor relay races using Super Soakers to simulate rainfall in their gauge. Teams vie to see who can get the most “rainfall” into their gauge. The casual observer might mistake this activity for recess, but they are having fun learning the needed math skills. By learning to read the manual gauge to .01 of an inch they are following the protocols set out by our national partner CoCoRaHS.

The daily precipitation observations are establishing a piece of the scientific process. As part of the team approach, the observations readings are verified before dumping out the day’s accumulation. Students begin to get a feel for what an inch of precipitation looks like, both as it falls from the sky and what it looks like in the gauge. The data collected is then passed on to another student team that hovers over the classroom computer, entering it in the national CoCoRaHS website. Data entered by 9:00 am is shared on an interactive map, for any visitor to the website to view.

The data submitted to the CoCoRaHS website is accessed and used by meteorologists, hydrologists, water managers, and researchers. It is also captured daily by the PRISM Climate Group, one of our local OSU partners. PRISM gathers climate observations from a wide range of monitoring networks (including CoCoRaHS), to develop short and long term weather models that are in turn used by still more groups and agencies reporting on and studying weather and climate.   This is an important thing for all our adult and student observers to realize: their data is real, it is important, and it gets used.

So for those students that are worried that their data will just get lost in the mountains of reports submitted every day, I’d like to share this experience. This past year, I worked with a teacher that received an urgent email from the National Weather Service within a short time after the Monday morning rainfall report was entered in the database. The Weather Service continuously monitors for extreme weather, and were checking on the accuracy of the morning report of over 2 inches of rain. Quick sleuthing found the students had made an error in submitting their data. Instead of making a multiday report for the weekend they had made a single day report. This was an eye opening experience for the students, not only to realize their data is being used but also that scientists are depending on them to be accurate.

Monitoring a rain gauge is an easy lesson to expand or extend into other topics. Students can be challenged to look for weather patterns by comparing their own station with others across your county, state, and even the nation. Alternatively, by graphing daily data or comparing the rainfall data against topographic maps. These types of observations can challenge students to see patterns and make connections. This leads to investigating essential questions such as: how do these weather and climate patterns play out across the state and how does this effect what and who lives in these locations?

Observing fruiting on a common snowberry shrub.

OST students are also tracking plant phenology or growth phases over the year. They will be reporting on leaf out, flowering, fruiting, and leaf drop. By pairing these plant change observations with the precipitation readings, researchers have a powerful tool in the study of climate and the role it plays in plant responses. The OST program has identified eight priority native plant species that we encourage using if possible. These priority plants 1) mirror plants studied at the Andrews Forest, 2) have a large footprint across the state, and 3) are easy to identify. By targeting this small group of priority plants, we add density to the data collected making it more useful for our research partners. Our research partners at the Andrew’s Forest have many long-term studies looking at phenology and climate. They not only look at plant phenology but intensively study the ecosystem connections with watersheds, insects and birds. OST phenology data collected by students and volunteers allow the researchers to apply their findings and connections on a larger statewide scale.

Back at school, we now shadow a High School class. Students in an Urban Farm manage and work in a small farm on the school grounds, growing market vegetables and managing a small flock of egg laying hens. As part of their Urban Farm, they have planted a native pollinator buffer strip surrounding their large market garden. In this pollinator garden, they have planted vine maple, snowberry and Pacific ninebark, several of the OST priority plants, which they are observing weekly. They started their strip by studying the needs of the plants looking at soils, sunlight, and water needs. They then matched appropriate plants with their site, found a source and planted their buffer strip. Adding native plants to their buffer helps to attract and sustain the native pollinators in their garden. These students carry a field journal out to the garden and collect phenology data weekly as one of the garden jobs.

Just like precipitation data, observing and reporting on plant phenology has a set of protocols that need to be followed to standardize the data, and ensure accuracy. OST and Nature’s Notebook (our national partner with the National Phenology Network) are looking for the timing of some distinct phenophases or plant lifecycle stages. The students concentrate on looking for leaf bud break, emerging leaves, flowers and buds, fruiting or seeds, and leaf drop. Nature’s Notebook has defined criteria for reporting each one of these stages.

We have found students as young as 3rd graders can be accurate and serious phenology scientists with a progression of training and understanding. It all starts with being a good observer, one of those important science skills. We have found one of the best tools to teach observation is to consistently use a field journal (e.g., field notebook, science journal, nature journal) when working outdoors. A field journal is a tool that helps to focus students and keep them on track, and to differentiate their outdoor learning time from free time or recess. A simple composition book works well, is inexpensive, and is sturdy enough to last through the seasons.

Start with a consistent expectation of what a field journal entry will include and help students to set this up before they go out in the field. Page prompts will help younger students focus on the task. At a minimum, all field journal entries should include the date, time, weather, and location. Depending on the focus of the day, have students include sketches, labels, and notes on colors. Have students include at least one “I wonder” question they would like to investigate and learn more about. Use the field journals as a tool to help students focus in on the plant they are observing for OST, but also encourage them to observe everything around them. This broader look is what leads students to make those ecological connections that just may spark their interest in science and lead to a lifelong study.

Phenology photo cards help with recording data.

As students get comfortable using a field journal we introduce phenology. Phenology is the study of nature’s seasonal changes, and a scientist who studies phenology is looking at the timing of those seasonal changes and the relationship to climate. Although OST focuses on plant phenology, the observational skills can apply to wildlife and insects, for example reproduction and migration. Phenology is an easy observable phenomena that can lead your science study and help meet Next Generation Science Standards http://www.nextgenscience.org/resources/phenomena .

We use a fun activity to introduce phenology and help students focus on what is happening outdoors in the natural world. Start by having students brainstorm in their field journal a list of all the things they can remember occurring outside during their birthday month. They can use plant cues, animal migrations, weather and light. For example,, “the earliest bud break has already happened, daffodils are blooming, the daylight hours become equal to the night hours, and the early bird migrants have arrived” (March). Once they have their list, pair them up with someone who does not already know their birthday. Then have them trade clues to see if they can guess each other’s birthday month. For younger students you may decide to help them with a class brainstorm and write the different nature clues on the board under headings for each month.

Once the student have a good understanding of the concept of phenology we go outside to start observing. OST has developed some handy plant phase field cards that have pictures and definitions for students to refer to and compare as we learn the phenophases in the field. Nature’s Notebook has printable data sheets that students can take out in the field to record their data. We have found that by copying these data sheets at the reduced size of 87%, they fit into the composition book field journal and can be glued in to create a long term record of data at the site.

Using technology to create an informational video.

Technology also plays a key role when doing citizen science with your students. Both Nature’s Notebook and CoCoRaHS have developed easy to use free apps. The versions work with both Apple and Android devices, so you could use them on phones and tablets as well as entering data online with classroom computers. We take it one-step further and use the tablets to document the student learning. Each student team works on creating an informational video of the project over the school year. We give them the option of creating a video to train other students or make a video to communicate their work back to our partner researchers at the Andrews Forest. This video becomes an assessment tool for teachers and is something that the students enjoy. We limit the videos to no more than a three minutes, which means they need to plan it out well. They spend some of the slower winter months creating a storyboard, writing scripts, filming and editing. A 5th grade teacher at Muddy Creek School said, “The iPads engaged my most distractible students. Also, everyone was vested in this project because of the fun the iPads bring to the table. Basically, iPads were a great motivation to learn the science.” For Apple products, you can download a free version of iMovie for creating and editing your final product. There are also free editing apps that can be used on Android devices. Here is one of our early attempts using a movie trailer format https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1KdNPZp-1Fs

In exchange, “Researcher Mark” (Schulze) from the Andrews Forest is in a video we created for the students. Walking through the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest we visit one of the many phenology plots at the forest. Mark explains how the phenology plots are scattered across a gradient of elevations at the Andrews. This allows them to look at plant responses to weather and climate as well as delving much deeper, making connections to insects, birds, soils, drought and much, much more. Mark explains that he is gathering data on some of the very same species as the students, and looking for the same phenophases. He takes them on tour of one of the many meteorological stations at the Andrews to see the many different climate instrumentation and variables that they are studying. In the end, Mark shares how valuable their citizen science data is to the future study of climate.

So, what does the Andrews research community hope to get out of collaborating with OST citizen scientists? With the wealth of information they are amassing, they are also interested in seeing if the trends and patterns they are documenting on the Andrews hold true across the varied landscape of Oregon. There is no stream of funding that could finance this kind of massive scientific study except through tapping into the interest and help of volunteer citizen scientist including teachers and classrooms across Oregon. In this circular process of interactions between researchers and volunteers we hope to extend the conversations about climate science, and document the landscape level changes for the future.

It is easy to see how the students benefit, both by applying “real science” outdoors on a regular basis, and their career exploration as scientists. Teacher’s surveys report taking their students outdoors to work on science an additional 8 – 12 times per year because of this program. One Middle School science teacher says, “A great opportunity to get students collecting ‘real’ or authentic data. Given that the work is from a national source it also helped students take ownership of their project and feel its importance.” Students also learn and practice many of the NGSS standards and science practices working on and experiencing real world problems, not just reading about it in a text book.

Climate change is a real and sometimes overwhelming problem for many students, leaving them with a sense of helplessness. What impresses me the most with the students in the program is that they come away with a mindset of how they can have a positive impact in the field of climate science. When asked what they liked best about this program student surveys stressed that positive connection, “Helping scientists felt good.” “That I can make a difference.” “By helping researcher Mark, it was not just for fun it was real.” A good step in building the ecological thinkers and problem solvers we need for our future.

Jody Einerson is the OSU Extension 4-H Benton County and Oregon Season Tracker statewide coordinator.

 

E.E.’s Philosopher King

E.E.’s Philosopher King

Photo courtesy of Mike Brown.

Not One More Cute Project for the Kids:

Neal Maine’s Educational Vision

 

by Gregory A. Smith
Lewis & Clark College, Professor Emeritus

PART ONE

eal Maine, now in his late-70s is an iconic figure for many environmental educators in the state of Oregon. Early in his teaching career in Seaside, he decided to shelve the textbooks in his biology classroom and base his teaching practice on the premise that “If we couldn’t do it, we weren’t doing it.” He then focused on getting his students outside onto the beach and into the estuaries of the northern Oregon coast as well as onto their city streets and into public meetings, believing that the way to stimulate deep engagement on the part of his students required personalizing what they were learning by designing educational experiences characterized by immersion, involvement, and meaningfulness.

Central to Neal’s approach is a belief that functional communities provide the authentic curriculum that should occupy the attention of educators and their students. The job of the teacher is to create experiences that provide young people with the opportunity to access the processes that make a community work. Also central is Neal’s belief that students are among a community’s most valuable intellectual resources. As he observes, “Where else in the community can you get 20 or more people in the same room that can do calculus?” Instead of teachers seeing their task as getting students ready to do something in the future, they ought to be engaging them in work and experience that is valuable to the community right now.

I first met Neal in the mid-1990s on a visit organized by my Lewis & Clark College colleague, science educator Kip Ault.   Over the previous few years, Kip had worked with Neal in a variety of capacities and they had become friends. Well aware of my interest in environmental and ecological education, Kip figured I needed to get to know more about what Neal was up to.

The thing I remember most about that first meeting was Neal’s commitment to inducting children into the processes that citizens able to support a democracy need to know. He asserted that just as supportive strategies are put into place to teach kids how to play baseball (t-balls, pitching machines, smaller diamonds, fewer innings), similar supports and experiences ought to be used to teach young people how to be citizens. With regard to baseball, children learn how to play the sport not by reading about it but by getting on a baseball field and pitching, throwing, catching running, and making sure players on the opposing team are called out. The same kind of learning in context should happen in their community. To that end, he had overseen the development of memoranda of agreement with the city and county to tap children’s energy and expertise for community projects.

What I learned from Neal profoundly shaped my thinking about place- and community-based education and the impact that treating children as the citizens they are right now rather than in the future could have on both educational practice but also their civic practice as grownups. Neal claims that the most important thing children can offer to public dialogue is the fact that they aren’t adults; their thinking has not yet been fenced in by convention and conformity, and they have the capacity to offer fresh insights, creative solutions, and energy to the life of their community. Given my concerns about the link between schools and sustainability, I felt as though I had hit the jackpot.

Photo courtesy of Mike Brown.

Other people concerned about similar issues felt the same way after meeting Neal. When Paul Nachtigal, a widely respected expert in rural education from Colorado and the president of the Annenberg Rural Challenge, a national effort in the late 1990s aimed at helping schools and communities get better together, heard of Neal’s work, he quickly enlisted him as a board member of what was then a fledgling organization. I recently stumbled upon the business card Neal gave me when we first met, and it focused on this institutional association. I didn’t know anything about the Rural Challenge at the time, but I subsequently became a board member of the Rural School and Community Trust, the organization it morphed into after the initial funding from the Annenberg Foundation came to an end in the early 2000s. Both the Rural Challenge and then the Trust were advocates for place-based education and provided important support for early adopters of this approach, an approach influenced in important ways by the work Neal had been imagining and then enacting from Cannon Beach, Oregon to Long Beach, Washington.

In the summer of 2013, Neal invited me to spend another day with him at the coast to acquaint me with some of the projects that represented the essence of his work as an educator. As he mentioned at the time, he didn’t know how much longer he’d be around, and he wanted to make sure that some of his ideas outlasted him. He hoped that deepening my own knowledge about things he’d done and helped start would increase the likelihood that this might happen. To that end, I recorded our conversation as we traveled from site to site thinking that it might eventually make its way into an article. A mutual acquaintance of Neal’s and mine, Sylvia Parker (formerly a Rural Challenge steward and now an education professor at the University of Wyoming), helped get the five-hour recording transcribed, and I finally got around to rereading, coding, and analyzing what was shared that day in the spring and summer of 2018. Larry Beutler at Clearing Magazine expressed a willingness to publish what I was able to distill, and I set myself the task of trying to capture some of the central principles that undergirded Neal’s work in the hope that other Pacific Northwest educators might continue experimenting with some of the practices that have inspired me and many others both here and elsewhere for years.

In addition to his work as a biology teacher and football coach at Seaside High School, Neal spent more than a decade supporting teachers interested in adopting his out-of-classroom approaches after being requested to do so by the superintendent of the local school district. His impact on students—often those he described as being too creative to plow through the regular curriculum—had not gone unnoticed. They sought out his classes because “they had heard rumors that you got to do something there” and wanted to be part of the action. What they got to do had really meaning and purpose. While on the surface their work could be seen as little more than a “cute project,” what was actually happening went far deeper. They were being shown that their voices mattered and that their community could be made better if they spoke up and got involved. The following collection of place- and community-based learning experiences are emblematic of the educational vision Neal nurtured in the district.

 

A Compendium of Educational Experiments

Little Pompey Wetlands. Little Pompey Wetlands is located just a few blocks from the town center of Cannon Beach, a resort community nine miles south of Seaside. Somewhat more than two decades ago the city was interested in developing a nature trail for residents and tourists in the vicinity of the wastewater treatment facility and had hired a consultant to assist in this project. Aware of this effort, Neal approached the city manager about whether students might be able to participate in some aspect of this work as a means of honoring the memorandum of agreement that called on city and county agencies to make use of students whenever possible.   The city manager was interested; Neal then found a teacher willing to rework her spring curriculum so that many of its goals could be met through the project. They presented their plan to the board, gained permission to proceed, and then with the students decided to create a sign about the wetlands and its species that could be shared with visitors.

This project required not only gaining knowledge about wetlands ecology in general and the variety of plants and animals found in the area (including birds such as red-winged blackbirds, shovelers, eagles, and fox sparrows, and during the winter, an occasional coyote or Roosevelt elk) but also the tasks of writing the text for the sign, naming the wetlands, overseeing the spending of $2000 allocated for the sign’s production and development, shaping and assessing the work of the artist hired to realize their vision, and selecting a sign maker to produce it. In most conventional classrooms, this process would have stopped with knowledge acquisition and most often a test or perhaps individual or group reports. In this instance, students not only had to collectively determine the most critical information to display; they also needed to act as a citizen committee responsible for the wise use of public dollars and as the employer of adults who had contracted with them to fulfill specific services. A project like this treats students as the citizens they already are and gives them the opportunity to practice decision-making skills generally reserved for adults, a task few people, regardless of age, have been prepared for in school.

Naming the wetlands introduced a whole new realm of adult activity when students and their teacher learned they couldn’t simply give a name to a wetlands but had to go through a complex legal process. Investigating other wetlands in Oregon, they could find none that had been named after a child. An earlier unit had acquainted them with Sacajawea and the Lewis & Clark Corps of Discovery; they decided to honor her infant son Little Pompey by naming the wetlands after him. Their commitment to a name they had chosen themselves propelled them through the legal requirements of the state and introduced them to processes often required to accomplish meaningful work in a community.

Democracies depend on the capacity of citizens to engage in civic life in these ways. Not uncommonly, the knowledge required to do so is limited to people whose parents understand the rules of public participation since these skills and insights are not made available to the general population in any systematic way. By giving school children the chance to acquire such knowledge and skill, educators like Neal Maine are inviting a broader group of people into the decision-making process and cultivating in them the ways of thinking, speaking, and acting needed to accomplish tasks they believe to be important.   More than simple participation in marches and demonstrations, as important as these activities might be, “this is what democracy looks like.”

Friends of Haystack Rock. Central to Neal’s educational approach is its emphasis on the value of finding ways to situate learning experiences outside the school in the community or region, and in some instances creating new institutional structures to accomplish this end. Fittingly, the next part of our tour took us to a bluff overlooking the beach beside Haystack Rock, Cannon Beach’s geological claim to fame. Scores of people were clustered in small groups on the sand, looking through viewing scopes, examining displays on tables, listening to presentations. Neal explained that what I was seeing was the work of staff and volunteers at the Friends of Haystack Rock, an organization that has a cooperative agreement with the city to provide interpretive services to locals and tourists interested in learning more about the natural features of the area. Special attention is directed to the lowest tides of the year during the spring and summer when the marine gardens surrounding Haystack Rock are more accessible.

In existence now for more than 30 years, Friends of Haystack Rock grew out of Sea Week, a project Neal had started in the 1980s. During Sea Week, regular classes were suspended and students from throughout the school district would make presentations to the public about projects they had completed related to their home environment with the aim of preserving and protecting it.   Sea Week as it was implemented then no longer exists, but the Friends of Haystack Rock essentially provides the same kind of educational experiences but over a more extensive period of time with the support of volunteers, many of whom are young adults. Its volunteers also become the teachers of the community’s children about marine resources, offering programs both in classrooms and then on the beach. Although the school district ended up not supporting this effort over the long-term, its advantages were apparent to city leaders and an ongoing collection of volunteers who have sustained it now for three decades. Given the fickle and short-lived nature of many educational reforms, organizations like the Friends of Haystack Rock offer a way to perpetuate educational experiences aimed at enhancing the public’s knowledge about their region.

Coastal Studies and Technology Center. For ten years, the Coastal Studies and Technology Center, located at Seaside High School, offered another way to strengthen the relationship between the school and community. Under the leadership of science and technology teacher Mike Brown, students were able to get course credit for engaging in research projects requested by either the city or even federal agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency. The Center provided the workspace and intellectual support that allowed students to contact resource people at the police department, the local hospital, or other governmental offices. One group of students, for example, investigated the economic impact of the Seaside youth riots that occurred over three Labor Days in a row in the early 1960s. I accompanied another group of Upward Bound students working through the Center one summer day in the early 2000s as they mapped the location of woody debris in the Neawanna estuary. Using GIS equipment, they tagged and identified the location of the debris, data that were later recorded on maps of the area that would be used to preserve and enhance salmon habitat.

The Center functioned as a non-profit entity within the context of the school. Its success in pursuing grant dollars and its independence from traditional decision-making structures in the district, however, led to the imposition of constraints that eventually resulted in a narrowing of its focus to technology education. Still, for several years it demonstrated the way that an organization that treats young people as researchers and actors rather than passive recipients of knowledge passed down by others can create engaging learning experiences and do so in ways that benefit others.

Earth Odyssey. Neal was also instrumental in encouraging two fourth grade teachers at the elementary school in Gearhart, a small town just north of Seaside, to collaborate on the creation of a curriculum grounded in the history and natural phenomena of the north Oregon coast. Modeled on a summer camp program called Sunship Earth, the teachers ended up naming their year-long educational adventure, Earth Odyssey. The day of my tour, we met over lunch with Jan Weiting, who had taught in this program for three years. The work of Jan and her partner Larry Nelson exemplify ways that Neal’s vision can be incorporated into the classroom over the course of an entire year. Students’ work in the fall, for example, started with a study of entomology. They moved on from there to the archeology of the North Coast and the Indians who have lived in the area for over 10,000 years, Lewis and Clark’s experience of spending the winter at Fort Clatsop a dozen miles north of the school, and then on to the mountain men and the Oregon Trail. Nearly all of the traditional subjects could be taught through these broad topics tied into the district-prescribed curriculum for fourth graders. Over and beyond this curriculum, students planted trees that are now a small forest outside their portable classroom, painted a mural on one of the building’s walls, and dug and planted a pond. After school Jan and Larry would take smaller groups of interested students on additional field trips to investigate things like sea kelp or to lend a hand with conservation projects, learning activities that brought them recognition as conversation educators of the year by the US Department of Agriculture.

An especially significant activity involved the annual publishing of the Coastal Geographic, a collection of student writing based on interviews with local characters like a famous clam digger. As Neal observed, “The interviews of the people were just so personal and written in such a way that only a kid could talk about, the ordinariness of a person as opposed to the world record they just set.” Although only published for three years, the Coastal Geographic served as a model for the Neawanna Journal, a project that was adopted by a high school teacher who worked with students who were potential dropouts. The students interviewed people who had been born on the Neawanna River in the 1900s, took photos, and wrote up their stories. Their efforts won them an award from the library delivered at a public reception. Neal remarked that “The kids had so much ownership, it was just fabulous.” He added, however, “What sense does this make to have to be so bad at school that you get to produce something that the people who are really good [at school] wouldn’t have a chance at?”

Other Neal-inspired learning experiences. During his years as a teacher support staff in the Seaside School District, Neal found many ways to provide similar instructional opportunities to a broad range of students. One year a group of seventh-grade teachers approached Neal about helping them get funding to take students from their health classes to Portland to see the “plastic lady” at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry and learn more about bodily systems. Neal persuaded them to pursue a less expensive and potentially more productive idea—a health fair the students would put on for senior citizens in which student groups would be responsible for running booths focused on physical systems like digestion or circulation or respiration. Willing to try out this idea, teachers enlisted the support of staff at the hospital to instruct students and provide equipment like respirators and blood pressure machines they could legally use with people who visited their booths. A day was then set aside for the fair, advertising went out to the public, and arrangements were made to hold the event at the senior citizens center. The fair ended up being well attended by community elders interested in helping the kids. When Neal heard one of the older teachers saying “It’s the first time I’ve ever really enjoyed seeing kids fight,” he asked about what she was talking about. She said. “They were fighting over whose turn it was to do the test next.”

Another year, a seventh-grade social studies teacher got in touch with Neal about a project he had in mind that was not much different from the trip to see the “plastic lady.” Neal explored ways that he might do something that required more involvement, and together they proposed to the Seaside City Council that students audit the decades-old city charter, something the mayor didn’t even know existed. Drawing on the six career themes that were then central to the Oregon’s educational reform—industry and engineering, natural resources, human resources, health services, arts and community, and business and management—the teacher had each of his six classes take on one theme and compare what was written in the charter to what the city was currently doing. The students early on realized they’d need support to do credible work, so they designed a resource list of people they then invited to their classes.   They went on site visits and synthesized what they were learning into a presentation.

At the end of the term, the mayor called the city council to order in the middle school gymnasium. With 137 people in attendance, it ended up being one of the largest city council meetings in the history of Seaside. As Neal remembered, “The kids started going to the microphone and presenting their audit results. Some of them were pretty harsh.” The school district, in particular, came in for some major criticism for its failure to spend the required one percent of money allocated for building projects on public art. The students noted that not one dime had been spent on art during a recent $7 million remodeling effort, something that shocked them after documenting the art works that had been incorporated in other local city and state building projects.

On earlier visits with Neal I’d learned about similar projects taken on by teachers and students from elementary school to high school that gave children and youth the opportunity to do school work that showed them what it means to be an involved citizen. Fourth graders one year visited a number of the parks in Clatsop County and then made recommendations about new playground equipment during one of the public meetings of the parks commission. Middle school science students did a species survey at an old mill site the city hoped to turn into a public park with federal urban renewal funding. High school pre-calculus students used trigonometry to determine the dimensions of all of the buildings on the tsunami plain so that emergency planners could use new software to determine the impact of smaller and larger tidal waves. Another group of fourth graders surveyed their families and neighbors about whether they changed the batteries in their smoke detectors when daylight savings time comes to an end in the fall. The possibilities for investigations like these are nearly endless; all it takes is the willingness of teachers to be alert to them and for community organizations to value and then make use of the intellectual resource provided by public school students.

Asking/answering questions of the world

Beyond inducting children and youth into the processes by which a community governs and cares for itself, I learned about two other elements of Neal’s educational vision on our tour that are worth discussing. The first of these is tied to his belief that the curriculum should in part arise from questions that children raise about their world. Early on in his career as a science teacher, Neal decided that restricting instruction to textbook experiments people already knew the answer to is a recipe for disengagement and boredom. What is critical instead is acquainting students with the value of raising questions that can be answered through the systematic gathering and analysis of data. For elementary school students, he designed a process to convey this understanding.

Students were asked to predict where a rubber-tipped dart shot from a toy gun taped to and stabilized on a tripod would land on a classroom wall. The first stage was to draw a circle that you knew the dart would hit. Some students chose to include the entire wall, absolutely guaranteeing success; others were more precise. Then they conducted the experiment. The next step was to refine their prediction, something that required discussion and decision making. Eventually they found that the gun fired pretty consistently and would hit a point within a three-inch circle. As Neal observed, “What they found was testing is so valuable, getting data, because it makes your answer so much better. So simple. But for fifth grade, it was perfect. It was fun and it was interesting. They’d never gotten to shoot a dart gun in their classroom before.”

With this understanding in hand, Neal would encourage students to then ask questions of things like their watershed and design experiments or procedures aimed at answering them. For example, one day a student said that when he was out hiking with his family, his grandpa said that moss always grows on the north side of the trees. He wondered whether this was right or not. The teacher and class ran with the question and designed a project that involved taking acetate sheets, cutting them the length of the circumference of a tree, pinning them in place after checking and marking the four cardinal directions, and then recording with different colors the location of lichen, moss, and any other growth on the tree. All of this teacher’s classes ended up doing the experiment in a forest close to the school, so there were hundreds of acetate sheets. Once they had all been collected, the sheets were then laid with those on the north side lined up, allowing the students to determine how much moss or lichen grew on different sides of trees in at least this one forested area. What they discovered ended up being published in the Seaside newspaper.

Other questions led students to design experiments aimed at determining what kind of material was falling from trees in the forest. They strung up 10 feet by 10 feet tarps from trees, put a rock in the middle, and then left the tarps alone for 48 hours. They came back and swept everything that had accumulated into the middle and took what they collected back to the classroom. They then examined what was there through a stereoscopic microscope. Neal still gets excited about what they discovered: “That one was mind boggling because the number of insect larvae was shocking. It was amazing that there’s tons of stuff falling out the trees that you don’t see.” The students also wondered about what it is about the soil in a forest that allows it to produce so much vegetative matter. The teacher invited soil scientists into the classroom who taught the students about the constituents of soil, itself. The scientists were followed by a master gardener who helped the kids gather the appropriate materials and make their own soil that was then placed in raised beds. They planted seeds, and the experiment was under way. “The idea was they’d learn the scientific method as a result of trying to get, pry, answers from the landscape.”

Expanding the boundaries of home

Beyond inducting students into the processes that govern their own community, Neal believed that students’ school experiences should ideally lead to a recognition of their home community’s relationship to other towns and cities in their region. As a former football coach, he had been concerned about the way that most interscholastic contact focuses on “beating the crap out of Astoria and all that kind of business.” He wanted students from different communities to recognize the value of learning from and working with one another, as well. On the day I spent with him, he told me of three projects that sought to achieve this end.

Towards the end of the morning, much of our conversation took place at an elementary school on the outskirts of Seaside on a hill up above the tsunami plain. This location was ideal for the educational experiences described above because of the proximity of the forest but also the proximity of Coho Creek, a salmon-bearing stream partly located on school district property that feeds into fresh water marshes and then the salt water marshes where salmon undergo the transition that allows them to become fish capable of living in the ocean. Neal and teachers at the school quickly saw the learning possibilities of this site, turning it into a watershed education center for students from other schools. After learning the ins and outs of the salmon life cycle, Seaside students became watershed guides for fifth-grade students from Knappa and Astoria, towns to the north. For Neal, this kind of opportunity made it possible for students to have experiences that helped them recognize their kinship with peers in other schools in the same region.

The inspiration for the second project was a 1974 issue of Life Magazine that featured photos aimed at telling a story about what happened in the United States over the course of a single day. Neal figured that something similar could be done for the “Columbia Pacific region” stretching from Seaside and Jewell and Warrenton in Oregon up to Ilwaco and Long Beach in Washington. After getting the Daily Astorian to agree to print and publish it, staff from the paper led a workshop that was attended by 74-75 students from the region. The plan was to send these students out for 24 hours on the day of May 4, 1999 to document photographically what they saw happening in their community.   The hope was that they would begin to communicate with one another as citizens of a common region. With their cameras in hand, students found that people gave them acceptance and access as they captured their fellow citizens milking goats, making taffy, cutting trees, docking a fishing boat. Few of the students had ever spent a day in their own community just observing and speaking with people they didn’t know. After this experience, one girl said that “she gave up her old eyes” and had come to realize that she lived in a kind of paradise.   The project turned out to be “monumental” according to Neal, being written up in The Oregonian, the state’s largest paper. It was also selected for a Library of Congress journalism program with which the Daily Astorian was involved.

A project with a similar aim was called “Crossing Boundaries.” It involved students from five middle schools throughout the region who were asked to develop a transect across the entire Columbia River based upon the collection of bottom samples. To do this work, students had to learn how to run a boat in a straight line using GPS equipment across a few miles of river. Mastering this skill this took a couple of days. Then, with a boat captain standing behind them, some of the students kept the boat on course while their compatriots dropped scientific gear into the water and gathered data. The report based on their findings, “New Designs: Youth Voices Building Communities,” touched on important land use planning issues for the region and became the foundation for subsequent investigations, like strategies for protecting beach areas inhabited by sanderlings, a kind of small sandpiper.   What is striking about these projects is their creativity, the depth of learning they elicited, and the meaning they possessed for both student participants and the people throughout their region.

 

CLICK HERE FOR PART TWO

Greg Smith is an emeritus professor who taught for 23 years in the Graduate School of Education and Counseling at Lewis & Clark College.  He’s keeping busy in his retirement serving on the board of the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative in Michigan and the educational advisory committee of the Teton Science Schools in Wyoming; at home, he’s co-chairing a local committee that is seeking to develop curriculum regarding the Portland-Multnomah County Climate Action Plan.  He is the author or editor of six books including Place- and Community-Based Education in Schools with David Sobel.

E.E.’s Philosopher King (Pt 2)

E.E.’s Philosopher King (Pt 2)

Photo courtesy of Mike Brown.

Not One More Cute Project for the Kids:

Neal Maine’s Educational Vision

 

by Gregory A. Smith
Lewis & Clark College, Professor Emeritus

 

PART TWO
(see Part One here)

Sustaining Neal’s Place-Based Vision of Education: Lessons Learned

Despite the power and attractiveness of these educational practices, few of them remain in evidence after the close to 20 years since Neal retired and started devoting his time to land conservation and nature photography, one of the reasons he sought me out to document central elements of his work in Seaside and the north coast. He is thus well aware of the difficulty of institutionalizing teaching approaches that run contrary to the direction embraced by most contemporary schools. Part of the reason behind this outcome might be related to the way this dilemma is framed in dualistic terms. Rather than seeing the implementation of Neal’s vision as an either-or proposition, a more productive strategy might be to adopt a both-and perspective and then find ways that more of the kinds of things that Neal encouraged could become part of the mainstream educational agenda, not replacing what is now familiar and widely accepted but balancing this with an approach capable of generating higher levels of student engagement, ownership, and meaning. To that end, here are six lessons I take from what I’ve learned from Neal over the years:

  1. Give as much priority to student questions as to required standards.
  2. Value excited learners as much as competent test takers.
  3. Make as much time for community and outside-of-classroom explorations as the mastery of textbook knowledge.
  4. Create organizational structures that encourage creativity as much as accountability.
  5. Encourage teachers to partner with students as co-learners as much as they serve as their instructors.
  6. Develop teachers as alert to unexpected learning opportunities as they are to curricular requirements.

Give as much priority to student questions as to required standards. Human beings are intellectually primed to investigate questions whose answers are not immediately apparent. Think of the appeal of mystery novels, movies, or television programs, our attraction to riddles, the appeal of crossword puzzles. Although these formats involve no ownership on the part of readers, listeners, or players, they still are capable of eliciting attention and time commitment. Even more powerful are the questions we come up with ourselves. Part of the power of the educational approach Neal encouraged teachers to develop lay in the way he tapped into this human desire. Here’s one more story from the tour as an example of the possible. The students who had been involved in the Pompey Wetlands project at one point got ahold of a tape recorder and oscilloscope and began recording one another’s laughter. They had been studying the sounds and images (on the oscilloscope) of whale songs. They wondered whether their individual laughter would have some of the same recognizable visual features on the oscilloscope as what they had observed with whales. They found that they did and after a time could associate different visual patterns with the laughter of specific students in the classroom. Imagine their fascination at having made this discovery. Such fascination is the stuff of serious learning.

Value excited learners as much as competent test takers. Making time for student questions Is one way to excite learning. Another is to provide the opportunity to do things as well as hear about them or meet people as well as read about them. Part of that doing can be as simple as taking a walk in the woods or planting a garden. Part of it could involve designing an experiment to see whether moss really does only grow on the north side of trees. Part of it could involve participating in a group that sees what’s on the river bottom across a transect of the Columbia River. The possibilities of the doing and the investigating are nearly limitless. Such learning opportunities take advantage of human curiosity and the pleasure our species takes in gaining new skills and competencies. I can imagine some of the stories that children who had learned to keep a boat on straight course across the Columbia must have told their parents when they got home that evening—or what students who participated as photographers in the Day in the Life project shared. Not all learning experiences in school will be as memorable or as exciting as these, but some of them should be and not only on an infrequent basis. Things should be happening in school that fire students’ imaginations and intellects, things that instill in them a desire to learn more. Mastery of information for tests of one sort or another is one the requirements of life in modern societies, and it is a mastery we desire from the experts we turn to when in need of medical, legal, or mechanical services. The demand for such testing is not going to go away. But what ignites deep learning is an emotional connection with different topics, the personalization of learning that Neal sought to spread throughout the Seaside School District, something much more likely to happen by getting kids into the thick of things and engaging them in projects that demand their involvement.

Make as much time for community and outside-of-classroom explorations as the mastery of textbook knowledge. The knowledge found within textbooks is not without value; it is, after all, one of the central tasks of education to transmit culture to the young. At issue is whether this culture is being linked to the lives of children and youth in ways that communicate its significance and meaning. In the past, the authority (and fear) invested in teachers, ministers, and older relatives was enough to ensure the attention of many children to these issues. This is no longer the case in part thanks to the media, to mass culture, and to the weakening of traditional institutions like the family, school, and church. Place-based educators argue that one way to address this issue involves situating learning within the context of students’ own lived experience and the experience of people in their community. When this learning also engages them in the investigation of important local issues and provides them with the opportunity to share their findings with other peers and adults, so much the better. One of the strongest motivators for human participation is the chance to engage in activities that are purposeful and valued by others. Experiences like the health fair described earlier can both encourage involvement and strengthen students’ mastery of the knowledge and skills their teachers are attempting to convey to them. More students, furthermore, seem likely to produce higher quality work when they grasp its social significance and know it will be viewed and examined by community members as well as their teacher.

Create organizational structures that encourage creativity as much as accountability. One of the consequences of the standards and accountability movement since the 1980s has been the tendency on the part of many educators to teach to the test and for their administrators to assess their competence on the basis of students’ scores. School administrators have also become more likely to require teachers to justify the activities they bring into the classroom on the basis of specific curricular aims or benchmarks. Given the degree to which schools, for decades, have failed to adequately prepare non-White and lower income students, accountability structures are clearly needed, but the way they are currently being used has resulted in a narrowing of the curriculum and a reduction in teachers’ ability to respond to learning opportunities presented by either students or community members. Place- and community-based education requires the capacity to improvise and make use of instructional possibilities that present themselves during the school year; these possibilities can’t always be anticipated. Embracing them demands the willingness of teachers to follow interesting leads while at the same time looking for ways that curricular requirements can be addressed by doing so. When schools impose both constraints and reward structures that inhibit this kind of flexibility, fewer teachers become willing to experiment in the way teachers who worked with Neal were able to. School districts can go a long way to encouraging creativity by inviting innovative teachers like Neal to share their expertise with others, either as teachers on special assignment or as members of within-district teams responsible for professional development. Addressing policies that affect daily schedules, the school calendar, and transportation requests can also do much to make learning in the community both possible and accessible.

            Encourage teachers to partner with students as co-learners as much as they serve as their instructors. It is not surprising that teachers feel uncomfortable about venturing into unfamiliar intellectual terrain with their students, something that gaining knowledge about what may be a new or minimally examined place and community will necessarily require. The same thing is true of pursuing questions that aren’t going to be answered by the textbook but demand data gathering and analysis. Teaching in this way involves a certain relinquishment of control and the willingness to trust students to be engaged participants in a process of collective learning. This doesn’t mean that a teacher only becomes a “guide on the side” completely following students’ lead and offering assistance only when needed. The teacher instead becomes a “model learner,” the person in the room with more expertise in knowing how to frame questions, seek out information, assess its credibility, locate appropriate experts, create experiments, organize data and analyze findings, and prepare presentations. There will still be a need for mini-lessons about specific content tied into students’ investigations, but the primary task of a teacher with many place-based units will be—like a graduate school advisor—to demonstrate what it means to be an independent learner committed to uncovering the truth inherent in different situations—just as some of the students attempted to discover whether moss always grows on the north side of trees when they began asking questions of the watershed. Moving into a role like this will be disconcerting for many teachers, but the rewards can be worth their initial discomfort as they find themselves no longer teaching the same thing every year but joining their students in a process of intellectual discovery and knowledge creation.

            Develop teachers as alert to unexpected learning opportunities as they are to curricular requirements. Enacting the previous five suggestions involves cultivating teachers who feel competent enough about their capacity as educators–drawing upon an analogy from the kitchen–to invent new and healthful dishes from ingredients at hand as they do following recipes. Recipes are certainly useful, but the test of an experienced cook is found in what they can create from scratch. Toward the end of our day together, Neal told a story about a storm-felled Sitka spruce in a park just across the street from a local middle school. Neal and a teacher there recognized the learning potentiality of this fallen giant and were able to forestall city employees for a couple of weeks as students conducted a tree necropsy. Especially valuable was the possibility of seeing at ground level the biological activity that goes on at the crown of a mature tree. In many instances, this learning resource would have been seen as no more than a mess to be cleaned up rather than an opportunity for an in-depth and unique scientific investigation. Novice and even experienced teachers need to be exposed to stories like this one that invite them to consider possibilities they may have never or rarely encountered during the course of their own education. Neal recognized that teaching in this way might be more of an art form than something that cab be easily taught but still offered the following guidance: “Don’t sleep on the way to school. Have your brain engaged. Always be looking for opportunities to make it come to life, especially if it’s community based. That really makes it work!”

 

Paying It Forward

My day-long journey through a partial history of Neal Maine’s work in Seaside deepened my understanding of his vision of the possible and at the same time his frustration with how difficult it has been to get many of his good ideas to stick. Early in our conversation he spoke of the way our society’s conventional vision of schooling constrains the education he believes needs to happen if young people are to grow into responsible citizens able to bring fresh and potentially more appropriate ideas to the challenges of living in the 21st century. Rather than asking students to be the passive recipients of information passed on to them by others in an effort to prepare them for adulthood and citizenship, educators need to give children the chance to participate now as data gatherers, knowledge producers, and community participants. As Neal put it, “You ought to exploit someone who is uncontaminated with having the same old answer. . . . How much could you exploit them, so to speak, in a positive, productive, humane, and sincere way? The irony of it is that the effort to exploit that capacity becomes the most powerful preparation possible for a later point in your life cycle which is what we should call adulthood.” This, not the creation of “one more cute project for the kids,” was Neal’s aim when he attempted to stimulate educational innovation in districts along the Northern Oregon and Southern Washington coast and influenced the thinking of rural educators across the United States as a board member of the Annenberg Rural Challenge.

He found that institutionalizing changes like the ones he enacted is not easy. A similar lesson was learned through the Rural Challenge, as well. As a board member of the Rural School and Community Trust I had a chance to be in touch with a number of the schools or districts that had received grants from the earlier Rural Challenge. Without the added resources and the network of support provided by that well-funded effort, it was difficult for teachers and administrators to sustain the work they had accomplished during that five-year period.

Regardless of these difficulties, ideas set in motion during that time are continuing to evolve. One of Neal’s Oregon colleagues, Jon Yoder, played a significant role in shaping the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative in Michigan that has sought to make environmental stewards out of the state’s children and youth for over a decade. Much of the work done there bears the stamp of Neal’s efforts, affecting over 115,000 students since the program began in 2007 (https://greatlakesstewardship.org/). Across the United States, a survey of place- and community-based educators completed in 2016 surfaced over 150 schools that are retooling their curriculum and instruction in ways that advance the aims Neal pursued in the Pacific Northwest (https://awesome-table.com/-KlsuLBGU0pYWpjFH1uh/view). Many other schools were also surfaced through a project sponsored by the Getting Smart website that has created a blog where teachers have been able to post their own stories about place-based education (http://www.gettingsmart.com/categories/series/place-based-education/). Finally, well-established institutions like Eastern Michigan University (https://www.emich.edu/coe/news/2016/2016-05-10-a-new-wave-of-urban-education.php) and the Teton Science Schools in Wyoming (https://education-reimagined.org/pioneers/teton-science-schools/) are creating teacher education and professional development programs aimed at preparing teachers able to embrace and then deliver learning experiences likely to lead to the forms of participation, citizenship, and community change Neal hoped to engender.

Whether schools on their own will be able to support and sustain innovations like these remains an open question, but the persistence of these ideas and the possibilities they are stimulating seem hopeful. Believing as I do that cultures change more through the telling of stories than bureaucratic manipulation, I encourage readers to have conversations about the work of Neal Maine and his educational vision. Going even further, for those of you who are teachers, try some of these possibilities out in your own schools and communities and see what happens. Then share your experiences with others—both the things that work and those that don’t. Learn from one another. As a tribute to Neal and the future, let’s see how long we can keep these ideas alive and how far we might be able to spread them.

Greg Smith is an emeritus professor who taught for 23 years in the Graduate School of Education and Counseling at Lewis & Clark College.  He’s keeping busy in his retirement serving on the board of the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative in Michigan and the educational advisory committee of the Teton Science Schools in Wyoming; at home, he’s co-chairing a local committee that is seeking to develop curriculum regarding the Portland-Multnomah County Climate Action Plan.  He is the author or editor of six books including Place- and Community-Based Education in Schools with David Sobel.

Marine/Aquatic Education: Nudibranch Population Dynamics

Marine/Aquatic Education: Nudibranch Population Dynamics

The search for sea slugs

Linking non-divers to the excitement of ocean discovery

by Elise Pletcher
Citizen Science and Volunteer Coordinator
The Marine Science and Technology Center
Highline College

The Dendronotus iris, a species of nudibranch recently found in one of the MaST Aquarium tanks.

he Nudibranch Team is a citizen science volunteer program at the Marine Science and Technology Center of Highline College. Volunteers work with Aquarium Staff to record populations of nudibranchs (colorful sea slugs). The MaST Center’s 3,000-gallon aquarium is operated on a “flow-through” model where 250 gallons of unfiltered Puget Sound water is pumped every minute through the tanks. This water brings with it several kinds of plankton, which are hard to identify and collect in the open waters of the Puget Sound, but within our tanks can be identified at the species level. Even once they are past their planktonic larval stage, many of the nudibranchs found in our aquarium are less than 1 cm in length!

This system offers the unique opportunity to record abundance of several nudibranch species throughout the year. Citizen scientists on our nudibranch team are trained to identify upwards of twenty nudibranch species, and use flashlights to track them down in our tanks. Why nudibranchs you may ask? They make an excellent species to study because each species is very distinct morphologically. Nudibranchs are the subject of a lot of macrophotography here in the Puget Sound; their bright colors and patterns make them a photogenic group of animals. Many of the animals in our aquarium are collected, but the nudibranchs come in naturally. When we see a nudibranch, it is exciting, because we get to discover them in the tanks! The thrill of not knowing what you are going to see is also a key part of what makes diving so exciting. The Nudibranch Team provides this thrill to non-divers.

The MaST’s Nudibranch Team hosts a diverse crowd with a wide range of abilities. Some are divers who already have a passion for filming nudibranchs, while others are just learning about these sea slugs for the first time. Our team is made up of mother-child duos, music teachers, retirees, and recent college graduates, all with one thing in common: their obsession with these peculiar sea slugs. You don’t need a SCUBA certification to get involved, just an interest in peering into a tank with a flashlight for an hour or two a week. Volunteers start with a 1.5 hour training in which they learn all about nudibranchs and how to identify them, including morphological traits. After the training, they’re given an identification guide, a data collection sheet, and set loose. Of all the MaST’s volunteer programs the Nudibranch Team demands the least amount of training time, it’s what helps make it so efficient.

The program originally started in 2013 when former Education Coordinator Eugene Disney and Manager Rus Higley started noticing certain nudibranchs were in the tanks in greater numbers depending on the time of year. They decided to round up a couple of volunteers to help count nudibranchs. Fast forward five years, and we are starting to see some interesting trends in nudibranch abundance emerge. Certain species are peaking in abundance at certain times of the year.

Of our most common species, each has a distinguished peak in annual abundance. Some tend to have high abundance throughout the year, but dip in the summer. While others peak in the summer months. This is interesting because nudibranchs are indicators of ocean health. If we see a huge spike in populations, something in ecosystem is likely influencing this spike. Since they occur naturally in our aquarium, we can use their abundance as a proxy for nudibranch abundance in the water at Redondo Beach. With the MaST’s four complete years’ of nudibranch population data, we have a strong baseline for tracking population changes. Nudibranch population changes can provide insight into the population health of their food sources: hydroids, sponges, and bryozoans.

We have shared this unique citizen science program at the Western Society of Naturalists Conference in 2017, Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference 2018, and the Northwest Aquatic and Marine Educators Conference this summer! Are you attending the Northwest Aquatic and Marine Educators Conference this summer? Check out our poster Tracking Temporal and Seasonal Changes in Nudibranch Populations from a Small Aquarium presented by the wonderful Vanessa Hunt, an Associate Professor at Central Washington University.

In the next few months, we hope to design a better classification system based on volunteer experience and expertise. This includes updating our identification keys to address species color variation. The ultimate goal for this program is to publish the data, and make it available for public use by others who wish to study invertebrate population trends in the South Puget Sound.

While the MaST is excited to have some quantitative data behind our sea slug populations, the best part of the team is still sharing in the excitement of discovering a new nudibranch –just recently, we found a Dendronotus iris, a beautifully branched nudibranch, mostly white and flecked with orange and purplish-brown. Staff and volunteers flocked to the aquarium to get a closer look at this nudibranch. It has been over a year and a half since the last time this species was spotted in one of our tanks!

The Marine Science and Technology Center is the marine laboratory of Highline College. Committed to increasing ocean literacy through community interaction, personal relations and exploration; the MaST strives to accomplish this through volunteer programs, formal college classes, and k-12 school programs.

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Author: Elise Pletcher is the Citizen Science and Volunteer Coordinator at the MaST Center in Des Moines WA, where she works alongside volunteers on the Jelly, Nudibranch, Marine Mammal, and Discovery Day volunteer teams.

Sowing the Seeds of Community and Place-based Learning

Sowing the Seeds of Community and Place-based Learning

Slough(small)Sowing the Seeds of Place and Community-based Learning

by Becs Boyd

APlace and Community Based approach can be transformative for students and teachers, schools and communities. Making this approach work means taking a fresh look at the school community, the wider community and the environment, and working out how they can best support each other. Change takes time, and success, naturally, relies on a healthy physical and social learning environment, with good relationships between educators, administrators and students. Many schools will already be connecting students with their local place and helping them discover how to make their own Place in the world a positive one.

Here are some pointers drawn from the experiences of real schools, students and teachers to help plant the seeds of Place in new school communities. (more…)