Kindergarten students admire a sunflower held by an Oxbow Farmer Educator while snacking on carrots during their fall field trip. Photo credit: 2016 Jess Eskelsen
Science Through the Seasons
by Shea Scribner
Oxbow Farm and Conservation Center
igns of the shifting seasonal cycle are all around us. Children are especially keen to notice and appreciate the changing colors of leaves, frantic activities of squirrels, and blossoms slowly turning to fruits on apple trees, but how often do they really get to explore these wonders of nature at the place most specifically designed for learning—their school? With so many subjects to teach and standards to meet, how can teachers follow their students’ passions and incorporate environmental education into their curricula? With an entire class of kids but only one or two teachers to supervise, is venturing outside the classroom a safe and productive use of precious class time?
Beginning in 2016, with funding from an Environmental Protection Agency grant (EPA grant #01J26201), Oxbow Farm & Conservation Center’s team of Farmer Educators and Frank Wagner Elementary School’s Kindergarten teachers dug into these questions to co-develop and teach monthly environmental education lessons in the classroom, around the schoolyard, and on the farm. Through intentional relationship-building meetings and workshops with the teachers, we worked to better understand the specific needs and opportunities we could address through the new partnership between our nonprofit organization and their public school. We found that by following the natural curiosities kids have about the world outside their classroom window, we could address curricular and behavioral challenges and build programs that both captivated the student’s attention and nurtured their enthusiasm for learning. The early learner-focused lesson plans and activities, best practices, and key lessons learned from the project now populate an online compendium on the Oxbow website. We seek to share our story with other formal and informal educators who are working to address similar challenges, and spark ideas for how to incorporate seasonal, developmentally appropriate, place-based environmental education into their practice.
The “Earth Connections: Science Through the Seasons” compendium takes the form of a beautiful tree, a fitting metaphor for a natural system where all parts contribute to the tree’s wholeness and growth to reach its full potential. The roots and trunk serve as the main base of support for plants, representing the foundation and core of our growing partnership with the school—take a peek into the planning process involved in this project, other organizations we partnered with, academic literature which informed our lessons and methods, and best practices for working with students and fellow educators. The branches growing from the sturdy trunk are specific place-based and Next Generation Science Standard (NGSS)-supportive lesson plans, suggested activities, and short videos recorded by the Oxbow educators, linking learning themes throughout the three seasons of the public-school year: fall, winter, and spring. With the overall goals of connecting lessons to the students’ specific environment and building skills of science investigation and inquiry, each experience was additive and built upon to together tackle the NGSS of K-LS1-1: “Use observations to describe patterns of what plants and animals need to survive.”
Much like our tree changed through the seasons, the students involved in the journey with us sprouted, grew, and transitioned throughout the school year. We invite you to channel the mind of a child as we guide you through the journey of a Frank Wagner Kindergartener experiencing outdoor EE with Oxbow and their teachers.
A volunteer farm naturalist asks kindergarten students about the crops they’re finding on the Kids Farm during a fall fieldtrip. Photo Credit: 2017 Jess Eskelsen
Throughout this season, the remaining produce is plucked from Oxbow’s farm fields and pumpkins begin to turn from shiny orange to fuzzy black goo. As vibrant native trees and shrubs drop their leaves, humans and critters alike stash away the remaining treats of the season and work to prepare their homes for the cold, dark winter ahead. So too, young people across the region pack their backpacks full of snacks and supplies, bundle up in rain gear, and transition from summer beaches and sunlit backyards into the warm halls of their school every fall.
For some kindergarteners at Frank Wagner—a Title 1 school where many did not have the opportunity to attend preschool—the first time they transition into the fall season in the classroom can be understandably scary. The students are navigating a whole new environment, different schedule, and unfamiliar social expectations, all without the support of the primary caregivers whom they’ve relied on for so many seasons prior. Teachers are faced with the exceptional task of setting routines, helping every student feel safe, and helping students understand their role in their new classroom community. We found that many of the challenges of the early school year can be addressed through activities and practices that focus on building trust, sharing personal stories, and setting expectations for the new relationships students will build with teachers and one another.
Two students sit together behind large rhubarb leaves, playing a game of hide-and-seek (and finding hidden frogs and insects living in the field) during their spring fieldtrip. Photo Credit: Jess Eskelsen
Oxbow Educators visited the classrooms in the fall and collaborated with the students to construct a “CommuniTree” contract. Together, we used the structures of an apple tree to guide discussion of what sweet “fruits” both students and teachers hope to reap from their experience at school and on the farm, which “beehaviors” will help those fruits mature, and what obstacles to learning might be acting as big “rocks” in the soil, keeping the class’ roots from growing strong. We then began exploring the concept that learning can happen both in the classroom and outdoors through the Inside-Outside sorting activity. Students were given opportunities to express their own understandings of food and nature through prompted drawings, which we used as a baseline for assessing student growth throughout the school year. The Kindergarteners also came out to Oxbow for a Fall Farm Adventure, an introduction to how food grows and the many plants and animals that call a farm home, stoking their curiosity and excitement about the ongoing Farmer visits throughout the year. The fall season also included an introduction to the concept of “habitat,” a recurring and kindergarten-friendly theme that connected student learning about plant and animal needs throughout the rest of the year.
For most of us on the west side of the Cascades, winter is cold, dark, and most of all, WET. Farm fields throughout the Snoqualmie River Valley rest quietly under risk of flood while puddles grow into lakes in school parking lots. Rain has shaped the landscape for thousands of years and water continues to connect rural farmland with urban neighborhoods. Dormant plants focus on underground root growth, and many animals must also conserve energy by hibernating or digging deep into warm piles of decomposing fall leaves to survive frosty temperatures.
An Oxbow Farmer Educator helps students find and sample tomatoes growing in a high tunnel during their fall fieldtrip, catching the tail end of the growing season on the Oxbow Kids’ Farm. Photo credit: 2016 Jess Eskelsen
Building on the relationships forged through the fall, winter was a time to begin channeling student’s excitement toward specific learning targets, helping them dig deeper into their wonderments and explore the systems connecting us to one another, and the greater planet we’re all a part of. With now-established routines and a classroom culture helping kids adhere to behavior expectations, students were ready to build on the basics and learn how to ask specific questions, make and share their observations, and consider new concepts. The weather during the winter months kept most of our lessons in the classroom, but certainly didn’t keep the kids from hands-on learning opportunities and ongoing nature connections!
Since things are a bit too muddy at Oxbow in the winter, we brought the farm into the classroom in the form of real live wiggling worms, giving students a chance to gently interact with the creatures as they sorted through the contents of their habitat during the Soil Sorting Activity. Students also identified what components serve as food and shelter for the decomposers to come up with a definition of what “soil is” and then used their observations to design and build a small composting chamber for the classroom. The teachers took this introductory lesson and built on it throughout the winter to address other parts of their curricula and learning targets: helping their students develop fine motor skills by cutting pictures out of seed catalogues and newspaper ads, then sorting the foods into those which worms can eat and those they cannot, and finally gluing their colorful collages onto posters and practicing writing the names of the foods in both English and Spanish. Further exploring habitats and plant and animal needs, we followed student curiosity into the schoolyard to investigate if the schoolyard is a healthy habitat for squirrels and learned how Squirrels and Trees help meet each other’s needs.
The Snoqualmie River flowing past Oxbow joins with the Skykomish River right near Frank Wagner to form the Snohomish River, a perfect natural connection to frame an investigation! As winter transitioned into (a still wet) spring, a Watersheds lesson helped to reinforce the link between farm and school, giving students a chance to work with maps of the actual landscape to trace the route of a raindrop as it would flow down from mountaintops and through interconnected rivers, and illustrate many human and natural features that use and depend on this water.
A kindergarten student carefully draws in her science notebook, documenting a specific apple tree she observed in the orchard. Photo credit: 2017 Jess Eskelsen
Early-season native pollinators like blue orchard mason bees are a Farmer Educator’s best friend. Not only do these cute little insects help flowers turn to fruits and seeds, but they do so in a kid-friendly manner, hatching from hardy cocoons into adults friendly enough to hold without fear of a sting! With the warmer weather, students were able to spend more time outdoors exploring nature around the schoolyard and came back out to Oxbow to see how the big pumpkins they harvested back in the fall get their start as tiny seeds in the cozy greenhouse. With spring’s official arrival, the time had come for all that fall fertilizing and deep-winter pondering to transition into a growing, independent entity—be it a seedling or an excited student!
Springtime is a season full of vigorous growth and the kindergarteners were practically bursting to share with us all they’d been learning about through the winter. The students were ready to dynamically explore and understand the many connections between their lives, the farmers, and the plants and animals they saw popping up from the warming soils. Lessons in the springtime harnessed this energy by playing active games during multiple field trips to the farm and further investigating the nature around the schoolyard, all with a focus on connecting students more intimately with their sense of place.
Through an early spring field trip focused on Animals in the Water, students participated in a macroinvertebrate study, closely examining the “little bugs” that rely on cool, toxin-free water in the oxbow lake, and played games embodying the flow of nutrients through the freshwater food web these bugs are an integral part of. Their Spring Farm Adventure field trip and Orchard Stations had a focus on lifecycles and natural processes they could observe firsthand: how the buds on the orchard trees would soon (with a little help from the farmers, sunny and wet weather, and pollinators) become summer’s sweet fruits, and how the growing season for most food crops in this region is really just beginning as their school year comes to an end. As an end-line assessment of the student’s change in environmental understanding, we asked the students to again “draw a picture of nature” and were impressed to see the concepts of life cycles, interdependence of organisms, habitat needs, and where food comes from recalled and illustrated so eagerly by the students.
Behind every future environmental steward there is a spark of wonder which must be fanned to a flame, often with the support of dedicated educators and an array of tried and tested strategies. The Foundation of the tree includes a selection of Best Practices, which are continually growing. These ideas and strategies are intended to prepare students for outdoor science learning and provide teachers with the tools and skills to feel confident teaching in the outdoors.
Of course, none of the curricular branches would be strong without the solid structure of the trunk and roots. Building strong relationships with the teachers, school district, and other nonprofit partners throughout the project was integral to understanding the specific needs of the kindergarten classes and how informal educators can best support their in-class learning. We look forward to continuing to work with the students through this spring and beyond as we help build a school garden on their campus, giving students of every grade more opportunities to discover the magic of growing plants, harvesting food, and caring for worms and native wildlife. Our Earth Connections compendium will continue to be populated with additional resources and we hope to hear from educators like you about how you’ve used the materials, your recommendations for improvement, or ideas for expansion!
We are thrilled to share the fruits of this partnership with fellow educators and hope you find inspiration to continue exploring and learning from nature, both inside the classroom and around the schoolyard, maybe even taking a field trip to a local farm or community garden! You can learn more about Oxbow Farm & Conservation Center at www.oxbow.org.
About the author:
Shea Scribner is an Environmental Education Specialist and Summer Camp Director at Oxbow Farm & Conservation Center in Carnation, WA.
Photo by Jim Martin
Why Environmental Educators Shouldn’t
Give Up Hope
by Jacob Rodenburg
I’m trying hard not to get discouraged. Being an environmental educator in today’s world feels like you are asked to stop a rushing river armed only with a teaspoon.
There are so many issues to be worried about—from climate change to habitat destruction, from oceans of plastic to endangered species, from the loss of biodiversity to melting glaciers. And the list goes on. The field itself has become ever more siloed and compartmentalized over time, leaving schools, parents, and outdoor programs with little unified guidance. How do we teach kids—in a hopeful and empowering way—about today’s formidable challenges? And how do we translate this increase in knowledge about environmental issues into action?
Children today are given few opportunities to be outside. In a school system rife with worry about liability, it is simply easier to stay indoors. Insurance rates are cheaper if kids are contained, accounted for, and “safe” inside.
Yet the safety argument needs to be turned on its head: It is unsafe NOT to take children outside, not to provide them with rich immersion time in the living world. Leaving kids indoors cuts them off from the knowledge and understanding of what it means to be a living being that shares a world with other living beings. Children have a right to experience the joy of discovering the richness, complexity, and diversity of life.
Children’s disconnect from their surroundings and their environment does not stem from a lack of desire. As an outdoor educator, I have spent many happy hours with school children tramping through wetlands, lifting up rotten logs, and canoeing through still waters hearing comments like “Wow! This is cool!” To fulfill children’s need to connect, the field must develop a coordinated and developmentally appropriate approach—one that is rooted in what kids are ready to learn at each age.
Building Age-appropriate Environmental Education
Children learn about the natural world in vastly different ways as they grow up. Environmentalists are keen to teach children about global warming, pollution, species depletion, and a whole range of admittedly important issues, but they forget that younger children aren’t cognitively, perhaps even psychically, ready for this.
Young children are, however, always ready to love the natural world. Connecting with nature is about establishing a relationship and building intimacy. What is the story of the land near where a child lives? How did that oak get that large hole in it? Who lives under this decomposing log? If we think about tending to and nurturing relationships, then we’ll remember to take kids to the same places over and over again. We’ll help them find their magic places, their stories of that place and, more importantly, their place within that place. We will teach them the power and possibility of restoring nature in their school yards, their backyards, and in nearby parks.
Kids connect best to places through stories and faces. A teacher once shared a story with me about a mystery bird that had built a nest in a parking lot. After doing a bit of research, the children found out that this bird was called a killdeer. They watched the bird as she did her broken wing trick (to lead predators away from the nest). Over the days, they watched her scoop out her nest and sit upon it. They cordoned off an area with yellow emergency tape to protect her from cars. They watched her raise her young. This was their killdeer, and they would have done anything to protect her. The students became involved in her unfolding story, and the killdeer suddenly had a face. In a way, she revealed herself to them.
Another teaching tip: young children love micro environments. A friend of mine told me about a time when he took his children, 4 and 5 years old, up to an incredible view of a valley. He asked, “Isn’t this beautiful?” and watched in amazement as his kids hunkered down and stared at the ants scurrying at their feet instead.
Finally, young children adore discovery. It is the art of an educator to know what to say and what to refrain from saying. If I had a job description, it would be simply this: to help reveal wonder and cultivate awe. I take my students to a place called Salamander Alley and say, “I wonder what’s under that log?” If they find a salamander, there is a palpable feeling of joy in the discovery. Had I said, “Let’s go find some salamanders. They’re probably under this log,” the effect would have been completely different. When a child finds something, I let them own that discovery. I honor and celebrate it. The power of this kind of learning can never be undervalued.
Neil Everenden writes that we do not end at our finger tips. Instead, we radiate out into the landscape. We are inextricably bound up in the processes of life. With every breath in and out we are part of the natural systems that surround us. Our role today is to guide our children, in ways that resonate with their interests and development, to realize this connection.
Where to Go From Here
We can create nature-rich communities where kids feel a deep and abiding love for the living systems that we all are immersed in. Eventually, children will learn even to go beyond sustaining and to engage in acts of regeneration. That is where true hope resides.
Here’s hoping we can all coordinate our efforts throughout every age and stage of a child’s development. We need to work collaboratively with schools, parents, community groups, faith groups, governments, and non-governmental agencies to help future generations love, learn about, care for, protect, and enhance the environment. Indeed the future of the planet depends upon it.
Jacob Rodenburg is Executive Director of Camp Kawartha and The Camp Kawartha Outdoor Education Centre, located in Ontario, Canada. He is a contributing author in the Worldwatch Institute’s EarthEd: Rethinking Education on a Changing Planet.
Educating as if Survival Matters
Nancy M Trautmann Michael P Gilmore
BioScience, Volume 68, Issue 5, 1 May 2018, Pages 324–326, https://doi.org/10.1093/biosci/biy026
22 March 2018
ver the past 40 years, environmental educators throughout the world have been aiming to motivate and empower students to work toward a sustainable future, but we are far from having achieved this goal. Urgency is evident in the warning issued by more than 15,000 scientists from 184 countries: “to prevent widespread misery and catastrophic biodiversity loss, humanity must practice a more environmentally sustainable alternative to business as usual… Soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory, and time is running out. We must recognize, in our day-to-day lives and in our governing institutions, that Earth with all its life is our only home” (Ripple et al. 2017).
In this tumultuous era of ecocatastrophes, we need every child to grow up caring deeply about how to live sustainably on our planet. We need some to become leaders and all to become environmentally minded citizens and informed voters. Going beyond buying greener products and aiming for energy efficiency, we must find ways to balance human well-being, economic prosperity, and environmental quality. These three overlapping goals form the “triple bottom line,” aiming to protect the natural environment while ensuring economic vitality and the health of human communities. This is the basis for sustainable development, defined by the United Nations as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (WCED 1987). Strong economies of course are vital, but they cannot endure at the expense of vibrant human societies and a healthy environment.
Within the formal K–12 setting, a primary hurdle in teaching for sustainability is the need to meaningfully address environmental issues within the constraints of established courses and curricular mandates. In the United States, for example, the Next Generation Science Standards designate science learning outcomes for grades K–12 (NGSS 2013). These standards misrepresent sustainability challenges by portraying them as affecting all humans equally, overlooking the substantial environmental justice issues evident within the United States and throughout the world. Another oversight is that these standards portray environmental issues as solvable through the application of science and technology, neglecting the potential roles of other sources of knowledge (Feinstein and Kirchgasler 2015).
One might argue that K–12 students are too young to tackle looming environmental issues. However, they are proving up to the challenge, such as through project-based learning in which they explore issues and pose potential solutions. This may involve designing and conducting scientific investigations, with the possibility of participating in citizen science. Case-study research into teen involvement in community-based citizen science both in and out of school settings revealed that the participants developed various degrees of environmental science agency. Reaching beyond understanding of environmental science and inquiry practices, this term’s definition also includes confidence in one’s ability to take positive stewardship actions (Ballard et al. 2017). The study concluded that the development of environmental science agency depended on involving teens in projects that included these three factors: investigating complex social–ecological systems with human dimensions, ensuring rigorous data collection, and disseminating scientific findings to authentic external audiences. Educators interested in undertaking such endeavors can make use of free resources, including an ever-growing compendium of lesson plans for use with citizen-science projects (SciStarter 2018) and a downloadable curriculum that leads students through the processes of designing and conducting their own investigations, especially those inspired by outdoor observations and participation in citizen science (Fee 2015).
We need to provide opportunities for students to investigate environmental issues, collect and analyze data, and understand the role of science in making informed decisions. But sustainability challenges will not be resolved through scientific approaches alone. Students also need opportunities to connect deeply with people from drastically different cultures and think deeply about their own lifestyles, goals, and assumptions. As faculty members of the Educator Academy in the Amazon Rainforest, we have had the privilege of accompanying groups of US teachers through 10-day expeditions in the Peruvian Amazon. Last summer, we asked Sebastián Ríos Ochoa, leader of a small indigenous group living deep in the rainforest, for his view of sustainability. Sebastián responded that he and his community are one with the forest—it is their mother, providing life and wholeness. Reflecting on the changes occurring at an accelerating rate even in remote rainforest communities, Sebastián went on to state that his greatest wish is for his descendants to forever have the opportunity to continue living at one with their natural surroundings (Sebastián Ríos Ochoa, Maijuna Community Leader, Sucusari, Peru, personal communication, 18 July 2017). After decades of struggle during which their rainforest resources were devastated by outside loggers and hunters (Gilmore 2010), this indigenous group has regained control over their ancestral lands and the power to enact community-based conservation practices. Their efforts provide compelling examples of how people (no matter how few in number and how marginalized) can effect positive change.
In collaboration with leaders of Sebastián’s remote Peruvian community and a nongovernmental organization with a long history of working in the area, US educators are creating educational resources designed to instill this same sense of responsibility in children growing up without such direct connections to nature. Rather than developing a sense of entitlement to ecologically unsustainable ways of life, we need children to build close relationships with the natural world, empathy for people with different ways of life, and a sense of responsibility to build a better tomorrow. Although the Amazon rainforest is a common topic in K–12 and undergraduate curricula, typically it is addressed through textbook readings. Instead, we are working to engage students in grappling with complex real-world issues related to resource use, human rights, and conservation needs. This is accomplished through exploration of questions such as the following: (a) How do indigenous cultures view, interact with, and perceive their role in the natural world, and what can we learn from them? (b) How do our lives influence the sustainability of the rainforest and the livelihoods of the people who live there? (c) Why is the Amazon important to us, no matter where we live? (d) How does this relate to the triple-bottom-line goal of balancing social well-being, economic prosperity, and environmental protection?
Investigating the Amazon’s impacts on global weather patterns, water cycling, carbon sequestration, and biodiversity leads students to see that the triple bottom line transcends cultures and speaks to our global need for a sustainable future for humans and the environment throughout the world. Tracing the origin of popular products such as cocoa and palm oil, they investigate ways to participate in conservation initiatives aiming for ecological sustainability both at home and in the Amazon.
Another way to address global issues is to have students calculate the ecological footprint attributable to their lifestyles, leading into consideration of humankind vastly overshooting Earth’s ability to regenerate the resources and services on which our lives depend. In 2017, August 2 was determined to be the date on which humanity had overshot Earth’s regenerative capacity for the year because of unsustainable levels of fishing, deforestation, and carbon dioxide emissions (Earth Overshoot Day 2017). The fact that this occurs earlier each year is a stark reminder of our ever-diminishing ability to sustain current lifestyles. And as is continually illustrated in news of climate disasters, human societies with small ecological footprints can be tragically vulnerable to such calamities (e.g., Kristof 2018).
Engaged in such activities, students in affluent settings may end up deriving solutions that shake the very tenet of the neoliberal capitalistic societies in which they live. To what extent should students be encouraged to challenge the injustices and entitlements on which world economies currently are based, such as by seeking ways to transform the incentive structures under which business and government decisions currently are made? Should they be asked to envision ways of overturning the unsustainable ways in which modern societies deplete resources, emit carbon dioxide, and destroy the habitats needed to support diverse forms of life on Earth?
Anyone who gives serious consideration to the environmental degradation and social-injustice issues in today’s world faces the risk of sinking into depression at the thought of a hopeless future. What can we possibly accomplish that will not simply be too little, too late? Reflecting on this inherent tension, Jon Foley (2016) stated, “If you’re awake and alive in the twenty-first century, with even an ounce of empathy, your heart and mind are going to be torn asunder. I’m sorry about that, but it’s unavoidable — unless you simply shut down and turn your back on the world. For me, the only solution is found in the space between awe and anguish, and between joy and despair. There, in the tension between two worlds, lies the place we just might find ourselves and our life’s work.”
Education for sustainability must build on this creative tension, capturing students’ attention while inspiring them to become forces for positive change.
Collaboration with the Maijuna is made possible through work of the OnePlanet nonprofit organization (https://www.oneplanet-ngo.org) and Amazon Rainforest Workshops (http://amazonworkshops.com).
Nancy Trautmann was supported through a fellowship with the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich, Germany, to develop curricular resources that highlight the Maijuna to inspire U.S. youth to care about conservation issues at home and abroad.
Ballard HL, Dixon CGH, Harris EM. 2017.
Youth-focused citizen science: Examining the role of environmental science learning and agency for conservation. Biological Conservation 208: 65–75.
Earth Overshoot Day. 2017. Earth Overshoot Day 2017 fell on August 2. Earth Overshoot Day. (1 December 2017; www.overshootday.org)
FeeJM. 2015. BirdSleuth: Investigating Evidence. Cornell Lab of Ornithology . (15 January 2018; http://www.birdsleuth.org/investigation/)
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Sustainability in science education? How the Next Generation Science Standards approach sustainability, and why it matters. Science Education 99: 121–144.
Foley J.2016. The space between two worlds. Macroscope . (28 October 2016; https://themacroscope.org/the-space-between-two-worlds-bc75ecc8af57)
Gilmore MP. 2010. The Maijuna: Past, present, and future . 226–233 in Gilmore MP, Vriesendorp C,Alverson WS, del CampoÁ, von MayR, WongCL, OchoaSR, eds. Perú: Maijuna. The Field Museum.
KristofN.2018. Swallowed by the sea. New York Times. (23 January 2018 ; www.nytimes.com/2018/01/19/opinion/sunday/climate-change-bangladesh.html)
[NGSS] Next Generation Science Standards. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States. NGSS. (10 October 2017; www.nextgenscience.org)
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[WCED] World Commission on Environment and Development. 1987. Our Common Future . Oxford University Press.
© The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Institute of Biological Sciences.
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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.
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
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.
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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.