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.

Jim Martin on Inquiry

Jim Martin on Inquiry

Is active learning an effective vehicle to train science inquiry mentors?

Walking along with you is far better than telling you “I’ll show you the way.”

ow should we prepare mentors of teachers who wish to learn how to engage their students in authentic science inquiry, to provide what they will need for the work they will do? Should we get them together and show them what to do? Or, engage them in active learning focused on mentoring, and respond to what emerges? I know from my various experiences in being trained that listening to a speaker, then watching from a distance as the speaker demonstrates an activity, does next to nothing for me. When I arrive to do the work I was trained for, I’m not sure where to start. There, on site, bright smiling face, but a little uncertain just what to do. When my training has me actually doing the work, I arrive on site ready to go; looking forward to doing the work. So, I think I’ll describe mentor training via, mostly, active learning.

What is mentor training via active learning like?

Since classroom teachers will probably find doing a first field trip on their own a bit daunting, we’d start the teacher/environmental educator mentors-in-training doing just that. They’ll do a training, more or less on their own. First, we’d group them in pairs, then have them move through three or four stations representing those that students would move through on their first field trip. Participants’ first job at this training will be to decide how to do the work at each of the stations, say, “Streamside Vegetation.” As they go, these mentors-in-training will share what they know about the station they are visiting, and how they would assist an inexperienced teacher to become comfortable doing that station.

At each station, there would be a poster board, Post-Its, and a felt pen. The board would have the name of the station on it, and the rest of the space for questions and comments. For this training, the questions and comments would relate to the work of mentoring inexperienced teachers as they go to a natural site to do the work at this station for the first time. As they work out the way they think the station would be best done, they will make comments on the Post-Its and place them on the board. As the concept clarifies itself, they might wish to move the Post-Its around to reflect this.

After they organize the Post-Its on the boards as they wish, they will decide on outcomes for that particular station, what the students who visit it will take away from their experiences. Then, they will decide how the station will be introduced to students. Hopefully, they will have clarified the purpose of and function of the station, and they can decide on a rationale, a mission statement of sorts, for that station. A training done this way, not a talking head, telling them about it, but an active way of discovering it for themselves. All of this will go to the board on Post-Its, or, if they are sure of what they’ve done, they would use the felt pen to mark off a heading and space for the Post-Its that go under that heading.

Then, they will organize themselves to do the work of the station, and do it. While working, they would engage in an interactive dialog as they move along; clarifying, suggesting, and making recommendations which emerge from their experiences at that station. When they’re finished, they may wish to modify or add to the Post-Its on the board. After completing this station, they will rotate to the next one, where they will repeat the process. As they go, they will add Post-Its of their own, rearrange them, and add a heading if they think it should be a permanent part of the board. They continue until they’ve completed the work at all stations. (This exercise was first introduced to me by Rebecca Martin, when she used it in a Salmon Watch teacher training. I call it a concept-induction exercise. Some call it an ideation exercise. It’s very effective. I’ve even used it to focus a meeting to plan a performance center in Vancouver, WA, where I live.)

What might mentors-in-training take away from this active learning exercise?

At the end, after all groups have visited all stations, the entire group will do a walk through the stations, pointing out curricular elements embedded in the environment, listing equipment that would be needed or helpful in doing the work, noting safety measures for particular parts of each station, sharing what they’ve learned, discussing the work to understand it better and suggest modifications. As part of this, they will review each updated poster board (which remained on station), and nail down their recommendations, etc. At the end, they will suggest next steps, which might be no change needed, or some further changes.

When this has been done, the mentors should be able to have moved inexperienced teachers to a place where they can, with time, become teachers who confidently move their students, via active learning in a natural environment, toward the knowledge, skills, and understandings they will need to respond to the effects of climate change effectively. The purpose of all these words.

jimphoto3This is a regular feature by CLEARING “master teacher” Jim Martin that explores how environmental educators can help classroom teachers get away from the pressure to teach to the standardized tests, and how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula. See the other installments here, or search Categories for “Jim Martin.”

Jim Martin on Science Inquiry

Jim Martin on Science Inquiry

Can We Learn What Science Inquiry Does For Us? What To Teach; And How?

 

by Jim Martin

n a previous blog, a student, Maria, noticed a salmon fry darting toward a rock covered with periphyton, a thin colony of algae which supports microbes and invertebrates living in it. Her eye lit up as she became aware of it; a wonderful learning moment, the kind which lights up our brain.

How do you learn to recognize when Maria’s eye has noticed something, and made a conceptual connection with it? What experiences ought you have to recognize that moment and use it effectively? Then to follow up? How did we get here in the first place? We’re exploring the use of inquiries outside the classroom to discover how to use active learning effectively. And, while doing that, to discover and use the curricular content embedded in the world outside the classroom. How do we help teachers become comfortable with this?

Does what we teach reside solely in our curricular materials? 

We do inquiries; do we ever ask what inquiries do for us? One thing that student-directed inquiries do is to use the way our brain learns best, which should be driving our deliveries. When we begin a new learning, it will more than likely possess latent connections to previous conceptual learnings stored in associative memory in our brain. If we can organize a student’s environment so that this might happen, then we have set up an environment where conceptual learning will occur. Our brain is an autonomous learning machine when it encounters something interesting in the world about. We set this in motion when we organize a student’s environment so that a question will more than likely emerge from it. When this becomes part of the foundation our teaching is based upon, conceptual learnings become a normal product of our classrooms.

Some students, like Maria, will rather quickly note a connection between what they observe at the moment, and what they already know. These students, engaging what Lev Vygotsky described as a zone of proximal development, will provide, by what they say and do, the pieces of the puzzle for those who have not yet attained the new concept; not yet seen the connection between what they observe, and what they already know. Yet, whose brains already hold all of the relevant pieces. This capacity to see and make connections is something I’ve observed that all students will develop as long as they are in an environment where active learning is routinely engaged. Since self-directed inquiries stimulate our brain to engage in critical thinking and conceptual learnings, that is precisely what inquiries do for us. Build autonomous, thinking brains.

Does conceptual learning only occur when students engage curricular materials in our classrooms?

How do we get there, the place where autonomous, thinking brains develop? You have to know the things students will encounter as they learn, then direct them to those pieces which have the capacity to engage human interest. In the previous blog, we discussed the idea of a teacher in-service workshop in which teachers, environmental educators, and a regional environmental education center might be used to help classroom teachers become comfortable with science inquiry in a natural environment. In this pilot workshop, we posited starting with a science inquiry training in which teachers would engage concrete entities in a natural area. Those who I have worked with in workshops like this have always experienced the way that simply engaging teachers in particulars of the place they are in stimulates questions which are easily turned into effective inquiries.

Noticing something which catches your interest has a way of stimulating you to want to know more about it. Everything could end right there, and you might continue on your way. If, as you move along, you encounter another of the thing which caught your interest, you will notice it, and may even raise a question about it. This is the way your brain works when it is engaged in conceptual learning. We need to learn to use it routinely in our teaching. It leads to long-term conceptual understandings. Not items to recall on a test, but conceptual information which seems just common sense.

If you were a participant in the in-service workshop I mentioned above, and you encountered something interesting which raised a question in your mind, there would be teacher-mentors and environmental educators there to help you locate resources, etc., but not to tell you what to think and do to answer it. Your brain, not theirs, is the one that’s learning. (Likewise in our own classrooms; the students, not we, need to do the learning!) Then, there would be a follow-up on questions and/or insights entrained by the science inquiry process. (My own students would review and research more information than I could teach via a conventional deliveries.) The important thing is that much of what you find and process in your brain will remain as conceptual associative memory, available on demand. Even when, in your classroom in May, you ask students to recall what they learned when they did such and such an inquiry in October. It does work.

Maria went on to learn about the salmon fry and periphyton colonies she met while she was on site at the stream. Most of what she learned came from her observations in the real world, researching information about them on the web, and reading in the texts in her classroom. More learning than a teacher can deliver by teaching the whole class one piece at a time. The trick is to organize the work so that each student or group contributes a nice piece of the overall learning. Sharing brings it all together. Enough teachers, and schools, have successfully adopted active learning deliveries that we ought to be encouraging it in our schools, our districts, and our state departments of education.

Many classroom teachers don’t have a strong background in the science they teach. We, the classroom teachers, need to develop a systemic way to build a strong content background in the concepts that we teach. Formidable hurdle, but it can be done. Since I first started tracking it in the early 1970s, about half of U.S. teachers have had little or no college-level preparation for the content they teach. We’re assigned to teach it anyway because there’s no one else to do it; we’re coaches who need a full-time salary, our principal assigns us to teach it, etc. How would our tech sector do if they applied the same staffing model? For now, we are the ones who have to take up the slack. We need to work together to build our capacity to effectively engage our students in the excitement and comprehension of science in the real world. We may not solve the problem, but I know from experience that we can make a dent in it. We’ll take that up as we go along.

jimphoto3This is a regular feature by CLEARING “master teacher” Jim Martin that explores how environmental educators can help classroom teachers get away from the pressure to teach to the standardized tests, and how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula. See the other installments here, or search Categories for “Jim Martin.”

Environmental Education: The Science of Learning and Doing

Environmental Education: The Science of Learning and Doing

papertowelsEnvironmental Education: The Science of Learning and Doing

by Cecelia Bosma
Trinity Lutheran School
Litchfield, Arizona

 

 

W3e live on a planet with limited resources that are often consumed without caution. Finding ways to engage students in pro-environmental behaviors that conserve these limited resources rather than take them for granted is a priority for environmental educators. The human population also needs to work on understanding the benefits and risks we take with our daily behavior. Conserving the use of paper towels at home and in public is one easy pro-environmental behavior that will have a positive impact on the environment. Paper towels do not just use up trees, they also require large amount of water for production and they end up in landfills which generates pollution as they slowly decompose. However there are numerous alternatives to using paper towels at home and at school. These alternatives are efficient effective and financially thrifty. Often times conservation practices are rejected because they are time consuming and or costly. Alternatives to paper towels are neither. The financial benefit is an incentive for people that don’t relate to the environmental impact of using paper towels.

IMG_1947Last fall, I designed a project to engage my eighth grade science class in a meaningful scientific inquiry project that assisted in deepening students’ understanding of the importance of conservation action through environmental education. The project action focused on eliminating paper towels in school bathrooms. There are many environmental benefits to reducing the amount of paper towels manufactured. One benefit is the reduction of trash in landfills because generally bathroom paper towels cannot be recycled. Another benefit is the reduction of chemicals leaching back into our soil from decomposing paper towels. This in turn saves trees from being processed into paper towels. Environmental benefits are also found in the amount of water consumed in the manufacturing of paper towels, and the reduced amount of fuel burned transporting paper towels.

Getting started on an inquiry project that is focused on building environmental knowledge through conservation action on the school campus can be a challenge. I have been working middle school students on various inquiry projects to build environmental knowledge for several years. Each time I start a project I am learning right along with my students. This project was no exception. Sharing ideas about inquiry and lessons that motivate students to learn and build knowledge is how we as teachers can help each other build stronger lesson plans that benefit our students and communities.

Project Inspiration

Educating adolescents about the impact they have on their environment is necessary for nurturing lifelong environmental stewardship (Nancy & Kristi, 2006). In the last twenty years, environmental education has been gaining a stronger foothold in classrooms across America (Stevenson, Peterson, Bondell, Mertig, & Moore, 2013). The purpose of environmental education is to teach students how to make responsible decisions, using critical thinking in order to take action to maintain or improve our environment (Short, 2010). Educators should encourage even small steps toward environmental conservation, as they are building blocks to lifetime environmental conservation action (Short, 2010). Accordingly, the primary goal of environmental education is to instill knowledge that leads to pro-environmental actions and behaviors for individuals, groups and society (Heimlich, 2010). I have found that engaging the learners in hands on actionable learning has a positive effect on the outcome of environmental education.

The burgeoning population of planet Earth has brought about observable changes in the environment both in populated and unpopulated regions of the world (Short, 2010). Scientists have observed these drastic changes in the form of melting ice caps, ozone depletion, deforestation and global warming, all of which can be attributed to human actions (Tidball & Krasny, 2010). Therefore, it is society’s responsibility to take action to improve the current environmental status that threatens the very existence of humans (Stevenson et al., 2013).
Additionally, it is important to incorporate positive actions into environmental education (Tidball & Krasny, 2010). Instead of focusing on what is wrong with our environment. Students are motivated by positive changes that help our environment such as recycling. Inquiry style learning is one way to incorporate positive action. Increasing environmental knowledge is a crucial part of environmental education (Grodzińska-Jurczak, Bartosiewicz, Twardowska, & Ballantyne, 2003). This project incorporated the inquiry process into the environmental education program. The students construct their learning by observing, asking questions and problem solving (Crawford, 2000). The inquiry process is a way for students to do science like a real scientist. Educating school children about environmental concerns now will promote action in the future (Evans et al., 1996).

The Project
A class of twelve eighth grade students took part in the paper towel conservation inquiry project. The project began with students watching the video that inspired me “How to use a paper towel” (Smith, 2012). Upon completion of the video, students were asked what they thought of the video and if they thought there were other ways that we could conserve paper towels in the bathrooms on our campus. Following the video students took a trip to the boys’ and girls’ bathrooms nearest to our classroom. Science class is at the end of the day, and students observed the piles of used paper towels in the garbage and on the ground.

They were challenged to develop a plan for measuring the volume of paper towels that were used daily for a week. Students worked in pairs to identify a plan which was presented the next day in class. Students then voted on the plan they thought would work the best and took steps to put it into action. One students brought in a scale from home and others created a data sheet for recording the measurements taken daily of the weight of paper towels used in each bathroom.

PaperTowelChart1

Table 1 Paper towel weight chart created by students

PaperTowelChart2

Table 2 Financial comparison of paper towels versus hand dryers created by students

The students tracked the amount, in pounds, of paper towels used in the 3 sets of boys’ and girls’ bathrooms for 5 days. This data was calculated and graphed to demonstrate the amount of paper towels that our school is disposing into the landfill each day. A total of 288 pounds of paper towels are thrown in the trash each week from the collective school bathrooms (figure 1). Students contacted the person on staff who handles the ordering of paper towels to determine that the school spends about $350.00 on paper towels each month. This information was tabulated into the final graph that compared the expense of paper towels versus the expense hand dryers (figure 2). The graph shown in figure 1 and 2 were developed by students; while it could be perfected it is meant to demonstrate the capabilities of middle school students. Upon completing the charts students noticed that the older students used considerably more paper towels than younger students did.

Students brainstormed alternative ideas to using paper towels. They researched hand dryers, cotton towel dispensers and looked at the practicality of using personal towels. After researching each option, they used the data they collected on alternatives to paper towels to create a presentation to share with fellow students, parents and the church board who has a strong influence on decision making changes. The conclusion of the study resulted in the student recommending the installation of new efficient hand dryers that dry hands in 12 seconds or less. As the students pointed out in their presentation the machines are also designed to kill germs in the air and on the skin (Gagnon, 2007).

paper towel pres.The presentation was videotaped and posted on the school website. Posting the video required getting permission from all of the parents. This was worthwhile effort because the students were then able to share what they had learned accomplished and produced with their own community of friends and neighbors. This made it possible to spread the idea of replacing paper towels with hand dryers to the larger community outside of our school.

The final piece of this project was to present a written proposal to the Board of Directors for consideration. Students were given the task and some guidelines and they had to collaborate and compromise to develop a well written proposal that included their research and data results. The objective of the assignment was to persuade the board to approve the installation of hand dryers in the bathroom. The proposal was completed and presented, and is now being considered for implementation.

Action and Reflection

The benefit of inquiry learning is that it provides a method for gaining deeper knowledge about a subject, in this case environmental education, and it also builds students skills in problem solving and analysis. This project provided students the opportunity to conduct science like a scientist. They observed and questioned. Then they looked for alternatives, conducted research, devised an action plan and carried out an investigation. The final part of the project included compiling their findings and presenting to decision makers. Encouraging and guiding students to learn about their environment and then to take action is taken to authentic level when it involves real and actionable projects. It is my hope that the board finds merit in the study and takes the necessary steps to change to electric hand dryers. This action will mitigate the burden, the use of paper towels, puts on our environment.

I know that this project was beneficial in bolstering students’ knowledge of environmental issues. Throughout the project students took ownership of each step and worked diligently to complete the work. The following are several comments from students at the end of the project.

“I liked being able to go outside for science.”

“I hope that hand dryers are installed in the bathrooms”

“I worked really hard on this project because it might be good for our school”

This paper towel action-centered conservation project works to build students conservation and knowledge that works to promote continued conservation action (Stevenson et al., 2013). Schools are looking for ways to keep the material fresh and relevant for the students incorporating inquiry science works towards that goal. We have a planet with limited resources, and an economic system that often ignores that fact. As time goes by the need for action is even more crucial for the survival of all of us. Paper towel reduction is one idea that students can be engaged in environmental education. We have to find ways for students to not only learn about importance of caring for our environment but that knowledge must lead to continued environmental action for the objective to be met.

As a teacher, focusing on improving techniques to guide inquiry learning, leads to discovering ways to make projects authentic and real. Utilizing inquiry in environmental education provides students an enriching learning environment. This is my story of a journey to use inquiry as a catalyst for environmental change. Embrace your story.

Bibliography
Crawford, B. A. (2000). Embracing the essence of inquiry: new roles for science teachers. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 37(9), 916-937. doi: 10.1002/1098-2736(200011)37:93.0.CO;2-2
Evans, S. M., Gill, M. E., & Marchant, J. (1996). Schoolchildren as educators: The indirect influence of environmental education in schools on parents’ attitudes towards the environment. Journal of Biological Education, 30(4), 243-248. doi:10.1080/00219266.1996.9655512
Gagnon, D. (2007). Paper Trail. American School & University, 80(1), 30.
Grodzińska-Jurczak, M., Bartosiewicz, A., Twardowska, A., & Ballantyne, R. (2003). Evaluating the impact of a school waste education programme upon students’ parents’ and teachers’ environmental knowledge, attitudes and behaviour. International Research in Geographical and Environmental Education, 12(2), 106-122. doi:10.1080/10382040308667521
Heimlich, J. E. (2010). Environmental education evaluation: reinterpreting education as a strategy for meeting mission. Evaluation and Program Planning, 33, 180-185. doi: 10.1016/j.evalprogplan.2009.07.009
Short, P. C. (2010). Responsible environmental action: its role and status in environmental education and environmental quality. Journal of Environmental Education, 41(1), 7-21. doi: 10.1080/00958960903206781
Smith, J. (2012, March). How to use a paper towel. Retrieved from: https://www.ted.com/talks/joe_smith_how_to_use_a_paper_towel
Stevenson, K. T., Peterson, M. N., Bondell, H. D., Mertig, A. G., & Moore, S. E. (2013). Environmental, institutional, and demographic predictors of environmental literacy among middle school children. PLoS ONE, 8(3), 1-11. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0059519
Tidball, K. G., & Krasny, M. E. (2010). Urban environmental education from a social-ecological perspective: conceptual framework for civic ecology education. Cities and the Environment(1). Retrieved From: http://digitalcommons.lmu.edu/cate/vol3/iss1/11/
Wells, N. M., & Lekies, K. S. (2006). Nature and the life course: Pathways from childhood nature experiences to adult environmentalism. Children Youth and Environments, 16(1), 1-24.

On Teaching Science

On Teaching Science

identifying-samplesWhat’s the Difference…

…between a single performer and an energetic band? Can students teach themselves?

by Jim Martin
CLEARING Master Teacher

I-bluen an earlier set of blogs, we followed a middle school class whose science teacher had started them on a project to study a creek that flows at the edge of the school ground. The last time we saw them, groups were analyzing and interpreting the data and observations they collected on their first major field trip to the creek, and preparing a report to the class. The blog focused in on the group doing macros, macroinvertebrate insect larvae, worms, etc., who live on the streambed; aquatic invertebrates large enough to distinguish with the unaided (except for glasses) eye.

They eventually organized themselves into three groups, one to cover the process of collecting the macros, one to describe how they identified and counted them, and a third to find out how to use their macro findings to estimate the health of the creek. Sounds like they’re on a learning curve, moving from Acquisition to Proficiency. They would need some feedback, both from withn the group and from their teacher. She gave each group one more task, to find out what they could about effective student work groups.

The macro group prepared the presentation they would make to the class. Each of their groups prepared their part, then they gave their presentations within the group, and used this experience to tweak them into a final, effective presentation. Their presentation included the interpretation they made based on their collected data that the creek’s current health was Fair, tending toward Good.

They used the rest of their prep time to begin a search for information on effective student work groups. During their web search, they were surprised there was so little there about middle school work groups, since they are finding their work invigorating, and feel they are learning a lot. Some of the sites they visited were confusing, some targeted high schools, but most described college work groups. Among those things related to effective work groups they found and were interested in were those which described the work, maintenance, and blocking roles individuals play within work groups, and those which described how groups can make their work visible while they’re processing by using whiteboards, posters, etc. They saw how these aids would help clarify concepts as they were learning. They decided to report on these two findings, roles group members play and making the work visible so that it is easier to discuss and process.

Of the two group characteristics they decided to report on, the idea that individuals play roles in a group, and these roles affect the work of the group were the most interesting to them, and a bit of a revelation. They were especially intrigued by one of the Blocking roles, which interfere with a group’s capacity to complete its work. The one they found most interesting was the Avoidance Behaver role. Each of them had engaged this role when they were madly fighting for the D-net while first collecting macros. (By joisting to control the D-net and collecting tray, they were avoiding the work in the way in which they behaved. They had employed Avoidance Behaviors; each of them, as they joisted, was an Avoidance Behaver.) They still laughed at the fun they had been having, but also felt the odd juxtaposition of this role with the Work and Maintenance roles they also played to move the work along, clarify the processes they used and identifications they made, keeping communication lines open, and sending out consensus queries about what they thought they were finding out.

They were encouraged that most of the roles they assumed were positive ones which lead to a successful project. As they talked, they also came to consensus that this was a finding of their work as important as their findings indicating that the health of the stream was Fair, tending toward Good. A revelation for them, and would become one for their teacher.

This group has made good progress on their new learning curves, macroinvertebrates and group roles. One curve is facilitating their conceptual understanding of macros; the other curve is empowering them to understand the dynamics of an effective work group. They entered these learning curves because (1) their teacher set them up in the first place, and (2) the Acquisition phase included finding out about macros. And, perhaps inadvertently, their, and their teacher’s discovery of the importance of developing effective work groups. Because the students were first finding macros, then learning about them, they started their work seeking information and patterns which would help them know who was living on the bottom of the creek. They didn’t consciously couch their investigation in these terms, but this is what they were experiencing.

The experience of seeing if they could actually capture macros, and the fun involved in collecting and seeing them stimulated the limbic’s Seeking system in their brains, which added dopamine to the neural soup that facilitates human efforts to make work interesting. These feelings and felt interests, in turn, drove them to the books and the web to follow up on the needs to know generated by their inquiries. Under their own power. First, the excitement of learning how best to capture macros, then residual interest carried them to the manuals to begin to identify who was there. ‘Finding Out’ is a powerful student (and human) motivator, one we stamp out as students move through the grades we teach. Perhaps because many of us don’t understand the content we teach well enough to allow our students to have their own thoughts about it. (Parenthetical comment on the 50%)

We could learn to use this motivator to engage conceptual learnings in ways that involve and invest our students in their learnings, and empower them as persons. There is a big difference between memorizing for a test and trying to find out the same information. The difference between a single performer and an energetic band. One way that difference expresses itself is in our standing in global scales of learning, where we are consistently near the bottom, rarely in the upper half. Our current model of school is memorizing for tests. How well does that work? We need to rediscover this active, group-centered, collaborative way of being human, and exploit it in our classrooms and outdoor sites. Telling students what is before them doesn’t stimulate long-term conceptual memory; helping them find out does. I’d like to say, “Freeing them to find out,” but for many teachers those words, especially the first one, might be intimidating to hear.

Building effective work groups takes time and patience. Fortunately, it goes quicker if the process takes place while the groups are pursuing an inquiry. Engaging in this kind of work develops needs for just the sort of group processes which make inquiries successful. While she may not have consciously planned it, dividing the class into groups, each with its own part of the creek to study, set the stage with students who were ready to learn about effective work groups. They weren’t consciously aware that they were ready, but their needs to do the work did the job for them.

(I’m interested in Jaak Panksepp’s work at Washington State University on the brain’s limbic system’s Seeking System. It’s important to learning for understanding because this is one of the few instances in which engaging the relatively primitive Limbic System leads to effective activity in the cortex, where critical thinking happens. When educators speak of the brain and learning in the same sentence, eyes in just about any audience tend to either roll or glaze over. Even though the brain is our organ of learning, teachers and administrators tend to think of learning and publishers’ products as the only bundle that matters. No room for neuronal bundles. Connecting. In effective ways. Evolved bottom up, and may work best that way.)

First, by sending students to find out, the emotions of the Seeking system move them to the cortex and critical thinking. Then we organize the learners’ environment so the information they (their cortices) need to know is readily available. And we can watch as our students learn for understanding. My experience was this: First engage students in their inquiries, then see how much of the reading I would have assigned or lectured on that they get into on their own. My observations on learners over the years told me that any movement away from total inertia on the part of the student indicates a determined effort to learn even if it’s a small move, say 10% of the way to mastery. Perusing the research on the brain eventually clarified that particular parts of the brain, when they were working, elicited the learning behaviors I observed, and clarified students’ involvement and investment in the learning, and empowerment as persons, and prepared them to form effective work groups.

So, the teacher and her class were learning that one thing which will enhance student performance is to learn how to get group members to interact. You can facilitate this by ensuring that students’ work calls for the communication skills it takes to develop consensual decisions about complex topics. The teacher whose students we just followed did this by asking each group to research information about effective student work groups. They do the work, she gleans the information. Win-win. A further step would be deciding how to include minority opinions in final reports. Simple to do; you just announce that you allow it. In my experience, this helps students achieve ownership of their learnings. A surprise for me was that sometimes students presenting a minority report saw something other groups presented from a new perspective, that of observer, not of learner. Whether that altered their interpretation of findings wasn’t as important as the fact that they were developing the capacity to hear another view and think about it. And validate the right to hold it. And, holders of the majority opinion often did review their thoughts.

The macro group is moving through its own learning curve. Does their progress look like a learning curve? Where did they start? Where are they now? How does the learning curve differ for an individual student vs. an effective work group? I picture this difference as one between a single, good performer, and an energetic band; the interactions between group members, while they’re working, can make a routine school activity become an exciting experience, a performance to be remembered. If you’re a teacher, listen to that last word.

jimphoto3This is a regular feature by CLEARING “master teacher” Jim Martin that explores how environmental educators can help classroom teachers get away from the pressure to teach to the standardized tests, and how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula. See the other installments here, or search Categories for “Jim Martin.”

Teaching Science Inquiry

Teaching Science Inquiry

Can I become a science inquiry facilitator? . . . If I’ve never been one?

by Jim Martin

What do I need to be competent in, comfortable with, being a facilitator instead of a top-down teacher? I think a first thing is the recognition that people can learn on their own; that they don’t need to hear me say every single thing that I want them to know. To be free to allow that, facilitators have to be comfortable with their understandings of the content they are delivering. And, they need to be comfortable developing effective work groups. Actually, I can think of a bazillion things, but these three are, so I currently believe, essential to making the transition.

If the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and New Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are going to become more than simply another swing of the pendulum that arcs through the schools with predictive regularity, then teachers need to rally to support and develop those pieces of these initiatives which are directly targeted at the deficiencies in our teaching. Deficiencies which have landed us in a mediocre position in the educational statistics describing achievement on the globe. We’re the only ones who can do it.

Both the CCSS and NGSS initiatives profess to be based on a constructivist, active learning model of teaching and learning. This, to me, is wonderful news. Our brain is admirably organized to learn by actively constructing conceptual schemata, conceptual learnings. It does this best by asking questions of the real world. This means that teachers aren’t , of necessity, people who put learning into other people’s brains; rather, they are people who can organize their teaching environments to draw out the learning potential which resides in their students’ brains. They facilitate those brains to enter a conceptual space, engage and discuss what is there, and find out as much as they can about it. Like the little robotic vacuum cleaners, when, once their switch is turned on, clean up all the dust and litter in the room. All by themselves, with no one directing them. Once you turn on a brain, it doesn’t turn off. Unless it loses its freedom to work.

I’ve observed this dichotomy of teaching practices as long as I have taught, and been a student. Didactic, teacher-centered practices, and constructivist, student-centered practices: Is it a matter of personality, or of comfort with the content and methods being used to teach it? That makes a teacher prefer one or another? I’ve had (and observed) teachers who told me what to learn and how to learn it, then tested me on the results. Twice, in high school, I had teachers who threw out an idea, then sat back as I tried to find out more about it. I remember what I learned by finding out 60 years later. And the excitement of the learning. I carry no specific memories of learnings from the rest, except for things which personally interested me, like diagramming sentences. Which, odd it may seem, I loved to do.

The didactic teacher I had from fifth through eighth grades was the kind who told me what to learn and how to learn it all the way to the last days of eighth grade. Then, she started us on the way to pre-algebra by saying, “You don’t have to learn this. Just see if you can follow the argument.” Then, she wrote on the board the first algebraic expression I’d ever seen, a + 2 = 6. I looked at that for awhile and thought, “Wow! You can use letters to stand for anything! You could learn about anything with that!” A mind, at last free to explore.

For that brief moment, my stern, demanding teacher had become a facilitator. All by herself. That was 1952. Had her stern and demanding exterior reflected a lack of comfort with the content she was teaching and the methods used to deliver it; or, was her exterior reflecting the personality within? I can’t answer that question, but the obvious interest and enthusiasm she brought to the introduction to equations suggest she may not have actually been a stern and demanding person. It seems almost, from hindsight, relief to be free to teach as she thought she ought that I observed those very few days at the end of eighth grade. Today, more teachers have experienced being facilitators, but many have not. What would you need to become one? How can you find out?

At this point, I should leave you to find out; but, I’ll barge ahead with my own ideas, just as any didactic teacher would. Hoping all along that you’ll adopt a constructivist approach to the subject. That said, let’s start with my offering of three things a person who is a facilitator must have encountered and successfully engaged.

The first is probably the most difficult for a teacher to entertain – recognizing that people can learn on their own. When I first experienced this, I was in my first year teaching below college, in a 7th grade self-contained classroom. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had begun employing a constructivist teaching paradigm. It was hard, exciting work, yet I always felt the anxiety-producing peer pressure from colleagues whose view of school was students sitting in rows doing quiet seat work. Luckily, I had a very supportive principal, who encouraged what I was doing. And I applied what I had so far learned from raising my own children, that they do best when they are following up on choices they have made, which I had offered them, and which were within the limits I knew were workable.

So, what did I learn about using constructivist vehicles for delivering 7th grade curricula? About whether and how students can learn on their own? One, that this worked. At least, for me. They had two and a half hours each morning for language arts. During that tiem, they scheduled and worked on open-ended (but contained) writing and reading assignments. We also used speech and drama to engage active learning. (I didn’t know that’s what it is called; I simply knew it worked.) For instance, while working in groups to write and deliver one-act plays to elementary classes, they also learned the current language arts curriculum I had to deliver. Students became involved and invested in their work, and I noticed they also seemed empowered as persons. These were outcomes of the work; I wanted to know how this involvement and investment in their educations came to be. And that started my lengthy, often-interrupted journey into the human brain. A long stretch for me, with my background in intertidal marine invertebrate communities!

How would a constructivist science-inquiry delivery look in an actual classroom in two very different activities? The first is a microscope activity, where students observe for the stages of mitosis in plant cells. The second is a field activity, where students observe the effects of streamside vegetation on the temperature and dissolved oxygen content of the water adjacent to it.

When you employ a constructivist paradigm to organize the delivery of your curriculum, the students’ job is to construct the concepts you hope they’ll acquire by examining the pieces of the concept they are acquiring. Instead of you telling them the concept, they learn its essential parts by engaging them, and then use these parts to tell themselves the concept. A different way to teach; but effective. The first few attempts call for courage and confidence on the part of the teacher. And, in time, the patience to take the time to allow the learning to happen.

How does this play out? In the mitosis activity, you might start by projecting a slide of plant tissue containing cells whose chromosomes have been stained; the usual root cells most of us have observed. You have students pair up to do two things: Locate as many chromosomal configurations as they can and draw them. Or, if you know your students well, ask them to find out if there is any underlying order in the mish-mash of chromosomal configurations they see. This done, they are to organize their drawings in the order they think they occur during the progress of cell division. If you’re truly brave, you might ask them to find and draw other cellular evidence to support your placements. That done, they can present their findings, then go to the books and internet to find what other scientists have found about cell division. They will learn as much, or more, than you would have taught them. And moved further on the road to becoming life-long learners; explorers of the world they live in.

In the streamside activity, you ask each group to take a reach along the stream, then find out the effect of the vegetation on temperature and dissolved oxygen in the water along that reach. Nearly all students can do this. You can provide gentle hints about overhanging vegetation if necessary. The hard part of this work for you is locating a stream which has enough overhanging vegetation for the number of groups in your class. When they’ve collected the data, they find out what they can about temperature and dissolved oxygen, and relate that to what they observed. Next, they prepare presentations about their work, what their data tell them, and what next steps would be if they have discussed them in their groups. (Note that these are things the students and teacher do. To know what they think, we need to go into the brain.)

Eventually, with a constructivist approach to conceptual learnings, coupled with a didactic approach to things like safely lighting a bunsen burner or using a dissolved oxygen probe, I became convinced that this consistently led to solid learning. So, I slowly began to learn about the brain we carry with us, and the ways that it learns. What I found reinforced what I observed; validated it as a teaching paradigm based on real evidence. I had observed evidence over the years that students seeking answers to their own questions involved and invested them in their work; but that was just me, making observations and inferences. As I learned more about how the brain processes input from the world outside the body, I discovered that what I observed was real. Students get better and better at this. Probably quicker than you do. This relates to students as autonomous learners. Autonomous because they are pointing their needs to know, and following up on them.

The other two things a facilitator must engage, comfort with understandings of content, and comfort with developing effective work groups, are our responsibilities. Here is how I approached them. First, I recognized that they are, indeed, our responsibilities. Just as it was my responsibility to take college and graduate courses to fill the gaps in my understandings when I taught in college. Goes with the job. We’re teaching professionals, and that places the onus on us to do what is necessary to become comfortable with the content we teach. The only way to do that is to learn the content. We can take courses in it, work out an internship with someone who does the work, or teach ourselves. It’s an unfortunate fact of American education that we’ll be asked more than once in our careers to teach content we’re either marginally prepared to teach, or know next to nothing about. It will take all of us, working together, to resolve that.

When I finally decided to teach in K-12 schools, I knew nothing about teaching reading. I’d taken literature courses in college, but could only recall that we read, then discussed, then wrote papers. Not much help. I’d noticed in the few teacher education courses I’d taken that the most informative were the special education courses, so I enrolled in a course in corrective reading. It was taught by Colin Dunkeld, and delivered within a constructivist paradigm. (This was in the early 1970s!) I became comfortable enough to make my own decisions about teaching language arts. The corrective reading course was very hard and time-consuming work, but had a great payoff – confidence in content and comfort in delivery. That, and my life-long love of words helped me build a useful / effective / profitable / worthwhile7th grade language arts curriculum.

When you decided to do the mitosis and streamside vegetation activities, you marshallled together your understandings about those topics. You’d observed slides of dividing onion root-tip cells in a genetics course you took in college, and felt familiar enough with the process and observations that you would probably only have to review and practice to come up to speed in the mitosis activity. You’d also taken two botany courses because you’ve always loved plants, so felt you could understand the vegetation part of the overhanging vegetation activity. Temperature and dissolved oxygen in streams is new to you, so you decide to ask around about finding help. You contact the school district science specialist who recommends a field trip program which focuses on the riparian (streams and their banks) which includes water temperature and dissolved oxygen in its offerings. As a real bonus, the program includes measuring the effect of streamside vegetation on temperature and dissolved oxygen near the stream bank, and a field trip for you and your students. Offerings like the one described are fairly common! You do have to ask.

If your circumstances are different for your preparation to teach these two activities, how would you approach them? Leave your thoughts as a comment for others who will, you can be sure, be interested. Or, leave a question for me to answer!

Aside from knowing and teaching the learner inside each student who enters your door, your becoming comfortable with content and its delivery is something you cannot bypass. Its effect on your students is profound. Think of yourself as being assigned to perform as a heart surgeon, even though you’d never done it. Would you be satisfied knowing that, while you did have experience in knee surgery, you had none in heart surgery? Like surgeons, we directly affect the quality of our students’ lives, and must be certain we are delivering the best education possible. We can’t do that if we’re uncertain about our content understandings and delivery methodologies. Knowing is our responsibility.

If you know the learner who lives within your students, and are comfortable with the content you teach, then you’re ready to become comfortable developing and using what I call Effective Work Groups. These are small groups of students who know how to work together to accomplish tasks, and who can coalesce into larger groups to carry out projects. Humans are social beings, and can learn to work together effectively. Let’s look at the two examples of constructivist approaches to learning as they would appear from within an effective work group, or team. First, make the groups, then have each group discuss the work and decide how to organize it. After each session, they will discuss how it went, decide on any modifications, and then continue. When the work is completed, and it’s time to move on to more curriculum, they in their groups, then as a class, nail down what they know about effective work groups. (Be sure to call them that, and that they know this is a goal. Toward the end of the year, have them develop a description of effective work groups.)

Now, here is what one group has decided to do. Mitosis: Identify chromosomes; find different examples of chromosomes; each person will use a microscope because they all need to develop this skill; sort chromosomes out; declare the steps in mitosis; research what other scientists have found out about chromosomes; develop and critique their report; report to the class; assess their work. Communication is important here; one of the keys to becoming effective. You have them assess the role of communication in the effectiveness of their work after they have found and identified chromosomes, sorted them into a process, and have prepared their report to the class. They decide they’ll each observe their own slide, and will show others what they find and what they think it means. They assign tasks when they present. Streamside vegetation: They divide into temperature and dissolved oxygen teams; each team learns how to do the observation, then teaches the other group; then they divide the reach. After they arrive on site, they decide to assign a group of Mappers to map the vegetation. The group works on communication when they discuss data’s meaning, and divide jobs when they look up other scientists’ work on web and in books. You ask them to assess their roles in their group, and the outcome of their working together.

Active learning within a constructivist paradigm is effective, even at the college level. Many teachers engage it, but far from enough. It takes confidence in your students’ capacity for autonomous learning, and confidence in your capacity to do and facilitate this kind of work. And patience; lots of it. If you don’t believe students of almost any age can engage this paradigm, find a class of young students which uses it and observe them at work. When they are born, children possess wonderful potential. The environments they develop in determine, to a large extent, whether they will generate the capacity to achieve their potential. If their environment believes they cannot, more than likely they won’t. If their environment recognizes the learner within, they more than likely will. And feel this is normal.

jimphoto3This is a regular feature by CLEARING “master teacher” Jim Martin that explores how environmental educators can help classroom teachers get away from the pressure to teach to the standardized tests,and how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula. See the other installments here, or search Categories for “Jim Martin.”