50+ Simple EE Activities Across the K-12 Curriculum
Back to the Earth
Display food items such as a boiled egg, apple, peanut butter, bread, jelly, strip of bacon, etc. Pictures can be used. Ask students to identify the food items you have on display. As the students respond, ask them to tell what their favorite food is. From answers they give, let them trace two or three through their many forms back to the soil. Example:
As a follow-up, provide each student with drawing paper and crayons. Ask them to draw a series of pictures showing each step of the cycle of a product from its soil origin to the consumer. Post representative products on bulletin board.
Read Snail Spell by Joanne Ryder. Have the students fantasize “shrinking” to the size of an insect and write a descriptive paragraph, of their experience.
Flannel Beach Life
Cut out pictures of intertidal animals from calendars or a cheap field guide. Laminate pictures and use stick-on velcro to turn them into flannel board creatures. (You can also purchase a set of flannel patterns from the Seattle Aquarium). Use the flannel board to introduce the intertidal animals. If possible, have students act out the movements of each, for example, pretend to be anemones and wave arms as tentacles during high tide, cover up tight at low tide.
Have students bring in an egg carton and empty halved egg shells from six eggs. Pierce the bottom of the egg shells and fill them with composted soil. Place the egg shells in the egg carton to keep upright. Plant various types of seeds in the egg shells. Make sure to label each student’s egg carton with their names and the types of seeds they planted. Extend the learning by creating experiments dealing with the effects of natural environmental variations such as light and water as well as “artificial” variations including the application of household hazardous wastes found in the classroom (check out areas around your sink for these products). — TGP
If there is a marina area, take the class on a tour of it. Arrange a tour of a fishing boat, and have the skipper explain all the different equipment and the variety of jobs aboard the craft.
Many cultures depend heavily on food from the sea for their sustenance. Have students survey family members and friends about the types of seafood they like to eat. This can be graphed on the chalkboard as well. Follow up survey with a visit to a local fish market or grocery to look at varieties of fish and shell fish up close.
Getting Down to Basics
List all the items below on the chalkboard. Then ask students, one at a time, to erase something that could harm the environment.
Beds, foam cups, what, war, polio shots, oil, atom bomb, pine trees, friends, sneakers, car, hairspray, vegetables, television, plastics, hamburgers, gold, food coloring, love, lawnmower, oxygen, zippers, flowers, aspirin, rockets, ice cream, water, candy bar, computers, grass, chemical fertilizers, jets, school, mosquitoes, boom boxes.
Add to this list. Have students explain their reasoning. — KT
Whale Milk Math
A newborn blue whale gains 200 lbs per day (9 lbs. per hour) by drinking up to 50 gallons of milk each day. In one day, a blue whale calf would drink the amount of milk in 800 school-sized milk cartons! Have students rinse and save milk cartons each day. Count the new ones daily and add the total to the previous day’s total until you reach 800.
How Many Legs?
Post pictures of an octopus, a seastar, a crab, and a gull. Review as a class the number of legs each animal has, and discuss the ways each animal’s legs help it to survive. Next challenge students with addition problems, such as: How many legs would there be if we had added the legs of the octopus and the gull? The seastar and the crab?
Geometric Shapes in Nature
Geometric shapes can be found in twigs, rocks, leaves, insects, and feathers. Look for cubes, cylinders, pyramids, cones, ovals, spheres, spirals, etc. have students put specimens in like piles. Variation: Human-made shapes. Triangles, squares, dcircles, rectangles, etc., can be found at school in sidewalks, buildings, clothing.
What Do You See?
Students view several pictures of beach/ocean wildlife, then choose one to study. After examining closely, each student writes a description of his/her animal. Later, teacher reads written description and class guesses which animal picture it was based on.
You and your students can listen to, discuss, learn the lyrics and sing along with international artists of world music. Johnny Clegg and Savuka, Raffi, Peter Gabriel, Midnight Oil, Sting (song composed in the video, Spaceship Earth), Julian Lennon (“Salt Water Tear”) and Paul Simon (“Boy in the Bubble”) are only a few. Kid’s Eye View of the Environment, presented by Michael Mish, is a delightful audio cassette with clever lyrics and catchy melodies that will make everyone want to sing and dance. — TPE
Give each child a small piece of paper with one or more adjectives that describe something in nature (e.g., smooth, slimy, triangular, expanded, cool, soft and green, round and gooey). Have students explore a natural area to find items that meet these descriptions. Let students take turns sharing what they found. —JOD
Be a Tree
Have students identify characteristics of trees. Visit trees in a back yard, in an orchard, in a park, or in the school year.
Have the students do tree dramatizations, using their arms as the branches and their legs as the trunk. How does the tree look during a storm? How does a fruit tree look in the spring? How does a young tree look in comparison with an old tree? What would happen to change the tree in different kinds of weather or during the different seasons?
After feeling what it might be like to be a tree, have the students paint pictures of them. — EGO
Make a Refracting Telescope
Use two small convext lenses, a toilet paper tube, cardboard, rubber cember, and paper.
1. Find the focal length of one of the lenses.
2. Cut a lens-size hole in the cardboard
3. Glue the lens over the hole.
4. Trace around the toilet paper tube with a pencil over the spot in the cardboard where the lens is located.
5. Cut on this line, and glue the cardboard-mounted lens in the end of the tube.
6. Wrap a sheet of paper around the tube.
7. Tape it in place.
8. Mount the other lens in the end of the paper tube.
9. Slide the tubes back and forth.
Collect natural materials, or have students collect them. Suspend them with string under a crossbar of two sticks. Driftwood, acorns, and pine cones are among materials that are effectively used. Hang these in the classroom to brighten the scenery.
Growing plants in crowded and uncrowded situations will show the effects of overpopulation. Fill milk cartons about three-fourths full of soil. Plant several cartons with seeds — some with two or three seeds, several cartons with a small handful and several cartons with a large handful. Varying the amounts of seed in the different cartons creates different conditions under which the plants will grow. After the seeds have become seedlings, measure and record their heights on a piece of paper and draw a line graph on graph paper to represent each group of seedlings. Evaluate the plants’ growth periods in terms of the number of plants under the different conditions. —CTE
Living in the Schoolyard
Teacher begins activity by drawing an outline of the classroom on the blackboard. Develop a key to one side of the outline to be used to represent the plants, animals and special features which exist in the classroom. “Let’s see if we can make a map of all the living things in our classroom. Does anyone see a plant? Skippy, will you come up and mark the plants on our map for us?
Then provide a map of the schoolyard for groups of students (or for individual students depending on skills at map making). Take children outside and let them map all the living things that they see. Remind them that they have to look hard to see some of the things that are there.
After students have completed their maps, gather them together for discussion about the roles of the living things they found.
Discuss as a group the items a city has and make a list. Suggestions include people, factories, subways, cemetery, apartments, treffic, plumbing, stores, garbage collectors, streets, etc.
Divide the group into smaller ones of 3 to 4 each. Send each group out in a forest or wooded area and have them try and identify the natural item that corresponds to the ones on the list. —ECO
Pick a Package, Any Package
Visit a supermarket and find the following products: cereal, laundry soap, milk, fruit juice, vegetables, soup, cake mixes, spices, candy, and toothpaste. In what different kinds of packages can they be bought? Are they available in the bulk food section? Why are products available in so many different packages? Which packages have the least amount of throw-away packaging? Which packages cost the least for each product? Which one does your family usually buy? Back in class, make a wall chart. Can some of the packages be reduced or avoided, reused or recycled? Circle in green all the reusable items, in yellow all the recyclable items, and in red all the disposables. -NTW
Non-Pointing the Finger
Take a walking tour of the neighborhood. List possible examples of non-point source pollution, both natural and human-caused. Back in the classroom, compile a class list to see how many sources were pin- “pointed.” Use magazine or newspaper pictures to make an informational display of possible sources of non-point water pollution. — FSS
Water, Water Everywhere…NOT!
Point out that last year water was rationed in parts of California. It was shut off altogether in parts of Rhode Island when a leaking gas station tank polluted it. Our carelessness can hurt the water supply. Also, it is important not to waste water if we want to be sure of having enough for our needs. Have students name some ways each of us can help protect our water supply. (Ideas include using less water, not running water needlessly, not littering near bodies of water. Also some environmentalists suggest eating less meat to save water. A vegetarian diet requires much less water in its production than is used in the raising of cattle, for example.) —KT
Milk Carton Madness
In an attempt to determine how much potential space milk cartons take up in a landfill, students measure and calculate the volume of one milk carton. Students also determine the volume of their classroom. Using the milk carton volume figures, have the students determine how many cartons it would take to fill up their classroom. Then determine how many milk cartons are generated by the entire school in one day. Determine how long it would take to fill up their classroom. Extend these computations to a volume the size of the school. Follow this by discussing the importance of diversion of materials from the landfill and by exploring the feasibility of milk carton recycling at your school. — TGP
Shoot the Moon
Knowing that the moon returns to a given position every 29 1/2 days, have students figure out the dates that will have full moons for the coming calendar year. From this they can make their own calendars and check up on themselves. —JOD
Get Your Story Straight!
Invent or find a story that conveys an environmental message you wish to have your students think about. Divide the story into individual events that have ideas or words that allow the student to sequence them in a particular order.
As a group, or individually, have the students read the passages. Have the students number the passages so that the story can be read in the correct order.
Read the story aloud in the correct sequential order.
Use discussion and questioning to strengthen the story’s message. —IEEIC
How important is water to our society? Just think how many different words we have to express it. Have students brainstorm words that mean water or a form of water (e.g., splash, drip, etc.) while the teacher lists them on a large sheet of butcher paper. Can your class reach one hundred? Save the list and use it later for creative writing activities.
Wetlands Animal Masks
Students can create paper mache masks of their favorite wetlands creatures. Creative dramatics can be developed by students using their masks to play a role in a wetlands drama.
Students will need old newspapers, wallpaper paste or liquid starch, water, tempera or acrylic paint, round balloons, and scissors.
Choose a wetlands animal. Tear the newspaper into narrow strips. Blow up the balloon. Mix the wallpaper paste. Use one part wallpaper paste and 10 parts water or straight liquid starch.
Dip the strips of newspaper into the wallpaper and water mixture. Lay the paper over the balloon. Apply two layers to what will be the front of your mask. Let it dry completely.
Repeat procedure, building up the areas that will be noses, beaks, ears, etc. Let it dry completely.
Repeat the procedure, applying one last coat of paper over the entire mask. Let it dry completely.
Put the mask over your face. Feel where your eyes are. Have a friend mark the eye gently with a crayon or marker. Remove the mask and cut eyeholes. Put the mask over your face and check the eyeholes; remove it and make any corrections.
Cut a mouth hole.
Paint the mask and let it dry.
Water Drop Necklaces
Give each student a sheet of paper onto which a large water drop has already been drawn on both sides. On one side of the paper, printed inside the water drop are the words, “I’M TOXIC, DON’T FLUSH ME.” On the reverse side of the paper, inside the water drop are written the words, “WATER IS PRECIOUS, AS PRECIOUS AS…” Instruct students to draw one or several toxic items that should not be flushed down the toilet (e.g., paint, oil, chemicals) inside the water drop on the “toxic” side of the paper. On the other side instruct them to draw pictures of one or more persons or items that are precious to them (e.g., grandma, grandpa, a pet, a bicycle).
Once the drawings are completed, have the students cut out the water drop, then punch a hold near the top of the drop using a paper punch and finally thread a string of yarn through the hole to create a necklace. The necklace has a positive “precious” side and a negative “toxic” side depicted by the students’ drawings. — CON
Torn Paper Art
To help the students understand the fibrous make up of paper, tear a scrap of paper and hold one of the torn edges up to the light. Along that edge will appear a slight fuzz. Here and there tiny strands will project separately, like fine hairs. These strands are cellulose fibers.
Discuss with the children all the different materials from which fibers can be harvested to make paper. Show them fibers from a small piece of cloth to illustrate the point.
Using scraps of construction paper, tear and glue different colors to represent the forest and creatures who depend on the forest for survival. Display these pictures throughout the school to heighten awareness of the need to conserve and protect natural resources. – CON
Use artistic talents to create blocks symbolizing rainforest creatures. Build a pyramid, putting the prey species such as insects at the bottom – building up until the top predators like the jaguar and harpy eagle are at the top. Show what happens when prey species are taken away – such as if insects are killed by pesticides, or small rodents are killed as pests. The same activity can be done for temperate forests of the Northwest as well, or any other particular ecosystem. —RC
Adopt a Part of Nature
Adopt part of a stream, creek, river, lake or ocean. Clean up the beaches or shores and spend time there as a class enjoying these special places.
After introducing the class to common shorebirds and the field marks used to identify them, take your class to a beach. Shorebirds are visible year round, especially as the tide goes out. Students should try to identify special adaptations the birds have and predict the type of food they are seeking.
How Did They Do It?
Have students investigate the lifestyles of Native Americans on the prairie or along the coasts or in your local area. How were their needs met by these different environments?
Nature’s Tool Box
Pass out to individuals or small groups of students an assortment of simple tools: paper clips, sewing needle, letter opener, hair brush, straight pin, comb, and so on. Have students examine the tools carefully and decide what kinds of natural objects could be used or modified to make them. After students hike through an outdoor setting and collect materials, have them use the materials to make specific tools. —EGO
Design a travel log to show the travelling you do for two weeks. Include the date, where you went, how you travelled, who went with you, how long it took and how many kilometres you travelled round trip. After two weeks, add up how many trips you took by car, transit, bicycle, foot, taxi or other modes. How many kilometres did you travel all together? Which transportation mode is the fastest? The cheapest? Which is you preferred transportation mode for each type of trip? Why?
Now analyze your information and make suggestions as to how you could have reduced the number of trips you made. How many times could you have used transportation other than a car? Compare your results with those of your friends. —LCA
Calculating Growth Rates
In 1990 the U.S. population was 248.71 million, in 1980 it was 226.54 million. If you need to determine the annual growth rate and doubline time from this information, use the following equation:
growth rate = (100÷number of years) x In (pop. 1990 ÷ pop. 1980)
To calculate natural log (In), you will need a calculator with an “In” key, which are available for under $20. The following is the series of keystrokes required to work out this example:
KEY DISPLAY READS
divided by 248.71
divided by 9.336603
Because of the uncertainty in the data, we will round this number up to 0.934. You now know that population in the U.S. increased between 1980 and 1990 at an average annual growth rate of 0.934 percent per year. Using the equation to determine doubling times (70 divided by the rate of growth), you can also figure out that the U.S. population at that continued growth rate will double in approximately 74 years. We cannot however, assume that the rate of growth will remain constant. The Immigration Law of 1990 for example, which increased immigration rates by 40%, will proportionately raise the U.S. population growth rate and thereby decrease the time it takes for our country to double its population. -CCN
Graph the Tide
Purchase a tide table wherever fishing supplies are sold. Enlarge and photocopy each month’s chart on a separate page. Make enough copies so that each student will have one month to chart on graph paper. Post the papers in a line along the wall to see the rise and fall of the tide for the year. Teacher may want to designate a place on the paper for the base point (0.0).
Here is a thought-provoking idea: Collect photographs, illustrations and/or paintings from magazines — some that graphically portray a healthy, balanced environment and others that depict a damaged, unhealthy Earth. Hang these on opposite walls in the classroom to stimulate discussion and inspire writing. How does each set of images make students feel? Encourage them to think about how the healthy can be changed into the damaged and how they can help to change the damaged back into the healthy. As students learn about environmental problems and the solutions, they may go to the appropriate sides of the room to record their thoughts and ideas in two separate notebooks. For example, if a student is studying about an extinct animal, that student may record his/her concerns in a notebook located next to the unhealthy Earth artwork. If he/she knows of possible solutions and actions that can be done to help, they may be recorded on the other side of the room next to the healthy Earth artwork. Eventually, your class will have two useful notebooks filled with concerns and solutions to many environmental problems. Prioritize these and use your computer to record the top ten items that can be posted in the room for reference and distributed to family members. – TPE
What’s the Idea?
Encourage students to be on the lookout for environmental articles in their magazine. Once they begin coming in, select one and duplicate as many as needed.
Distribute copies to students.
Instruct the students to read the selection very carefully. On a clean sheet of paper, or index card, they are to write the following:
• the main idea
• the problem
• a solution
• their personal opinion
• a summary (approximately eight sentences)
On the back they are to compose and write three quality questions with answers regarding the selection; one true-false, one multiple choice, and one fill-in-the-blank.
Collect papers and compose a comprehension quiz to distribute the next day, or perhaps create a game with which to exercise learned facts. — IEEIC
Students can write a paper that expresses their feelings about going to outdoor schooll. By knowing their anxieties, fears, and excitement, you may be able to better understand their individual needs. It is always fun for students to reread their own papers upon returning home. —JOD
Touch of Color
While visiting a wooded area, pass out paper to the class and have each student, using natural materials (soil, berries, flowers, leaves, moss), draw a picture of the forest setting. Give the class an opportunity to display their work and describe their feelings about the surroundings. Encourage the students to discuss what materials were used to add color. —EGO
For one game, divide the group into teams, with no more than 10 persons on a team. How write a column of numbers one to 10 in three widely separated places in the room. Each team has a pice of chalk or marking device.
At a signal, the first person on each team dashes to the column of numbers and writes the name of a plant or an animal opposite the number “1”. Then he dashes back and gives the marker to the second person on his team. This person goes to the column and writes the name of something that eats what is written in number “1”. The marker is then passed to the third person, and so on down the line.
If a player writest down an incorrect name, it can be erased only by the next player, who loses his turn to write a name. Winners are determined by the most correct food-chain connections identified by a group.
Once a group has developed some skill at playing, try limiting the habitat to that of the forest, a brook, a marsh, a pond, the ocean, or some biome or community.
Working with a partner, students research symbiotic relationships amongst intertidal and ocean organisms and choose one to report on. One example would be the anemone and the clownfish.
Assign one water-dwelling animal to each student or team. Students then must design (on paper) an artificial habitat which would suite the living requirements of the animal. To do so, they must investigate and establish the characteristics of the animal’s natural habitat, including food, water, shelter, space, climate, etc. This assignment could be followed by creating models of artificial habitats.
Create a large mural on butcher paper of a natural area complete with wildlife, trees, mountains, rivers, etc. but no human development. After completing the mural, brainstorm a list of things that would happen if a much needed energy source (e.g., coal, oil, uranium, water) was discovered in that area. Draw pictures of these activities and facilities and place them in appropriate places on the mural. Discuss the positive and negative impacts the “new development” will have on the environment and wildlife, and create a list of these effects. Now, re-develop the energy source and see if you can come up with ways that the development can have less impact on the environment and still get the energy needed, at an affordable cost.
To begin this activity, tell your class they are going to try an experiment dealing with classroom arrangements. Don’t mention the idea of overpopulation or limited resources. These concepts will surface as the outcome of the activity.
Select an area of the classroom to be used in this overpopulation experiment. an area approximately 10’x10’ should be marked with masking tape on the floor and two desks should be placed inside the area. Also provide a “Resources Box” with 4 pencils, 2 pens, 6 sheets of paper and 1 pair of scissors.
Select two volunteers to work in the square. They should take with them only the books they will need. One half hour later, select two more students to work in the square and add their desks to the other two. (Make sure to remove all “resource” from the desks first).
Continue to add students to the area in shorter intervals of time similar to the way population grows rapidly. When the area can no longer hold additional desks, add students and have them share desks. Make sure the tasks the children are involved in will require the use of resources in the “Resources Box.”
When the limited resources and overcrowded conditions lead to bedlam, bring the class together for discussion. How is this like the real world? What “resources” are in short supply? —LLC
Plan an Environmental Careers Day. Research various careers associated with the environment and invite people in to speak about their jobs. Try to get a variety of speakers to reflect the diversity of careers and educational requirements. Prepare an outline for the speakers to they will address the questions you are most interested in.
Both Sides Now
A forest management specialist, touring a watershed area, notes that in one part of the forest many diseased trees have fallen and are covering the ground. This is a serious fire hazard for the forest. The specialist recommends logging this area and replanting with young, healthy seedlings. A concerned citizen’s group protests the logging, saying that clearcutting the area will erode the soil, which will make our drinking water unclean.
Your group has been asked to list the pros and cons of logging that area of the watershed. Consider the environmental, economic and social arguments. Can you find a compromise to the problem? How do personal opinions affect your decision? —FSS
Students collect litter in an outdoor setting — school parking lot, playground, camp, or business district. Then each student selects a piece of trash – soda can, chewing gum wrapper, potato chip bag —and makes a life line of the litter, from the origin of its natural materials to its present state. — TGP
Types of soils differ in the amount of water they can hold. Collect a standard amount of each of five or six soil types. Place each soil sample in a sieve held above a container. Pour a measured amount of water onto the soil and measure how much is collected after 30 seconds, one minute, 10 minutes. The amount of water the soil can hold is total added, minus that which drained out at the bottom.
From the data obtained, determine which of the soils can hold the most or the least water. On what properties of the soil does this depend? Which soils would erode most easily? Which would be best for plant growth? —ECO
Food Chain Figuring
Use the following information to create math problems. A medium-sized whale needs four hundred billion diatoms to sustain it for a few hours! The whale eats a ton of herring, about 5,000 of them. Each herring may have about 6,500 small crustaceans in its stomach, and each crustacean may contain 130,000 diatoms…
Invite the participants to imagine that they have landed on Earth from another planet. The planet they come from only has minerals and air. They had received word that a substance had been found on Earth that could move or hold its shape. They are here to see if the report is true and discover for themselves what this “water” is like. They are equipped with finely tuned instruments for sound, feel, sight, smell, and taste. They are to split into two search parties, one going to the pond area, one to the stream. They have 15 minute to gather sounds, smells, signs of animal and plant life, observe water clarity, etc. The groups then discuss and compare the two water sightings and make speculations about the role of water on this green planet. Have students write an essay on their exploration of this strange planet and the miracle substance “water.” —JOD
Have students write an imaginary story using one of the following titles: a) The Life of a Pencil; b)An Autobiography of a Tree from Seed to Lumber.
Legends of the Sea
Many cultures have legends about the way the ocean and its life forms were created. Read some of these to the class, then encourage them to create their own legends about how somethings came to be. It would be helpful to have some pictures of marine life forms for the students to view. Some ideas: How the Eel Became Electric; Why Octopi Have Only Eight Arms; Before Whales could Swim; How the Hermit Crab Lost His Shell.
Students begin by brainstorming a list of all the ways they are dependent on the Earth. From that list should come some ideas for presenting that information to others. They may decide to have teams of students work on representing different items on the list. They may want to expres their relationship to the land written in story format, in poetry, verbally on tape, through photographs, drawings, paintings, or soft sculpture. They should come up with a theme uch as Native American philosophy, or a celebration of life-giving qualities of the Earth, or getting involved with conservation, and work from there. Ask for volunteers to write letters to local organizations requesting space to set up their display for others to view.
Encourage your students to express their feelings about our responsibility to live in harmony with the land. Is it our responsibility? Can the actions of one person make a difference? What kinds of actions does living in harmony with the Earth require? —LLC
Visit a natural history museum. Or, have students look through books with photographs of paintings depicting the environment. They may analyze, discuss, compare, contrast art works and give critiques. Pupils may be inspired to write poems or stories about ideas generated from the special works and they may then create their own works of art.
Sources of activities:
CCN — Carrying Capacity Network Clearinghouse Bulletin, June 1992.
KT — Kind Teacher, Natl. Association for Humane and Environmental Education
IEEIC — Inegrating Environmental Education Into the Curriculum… Painlessly. National Educational Service, 1992.
RC — Rainforest Conservation, Rainforest Awareness Info. Network, 1992.
ECO — Eco-Acts: A Manual of Ecological Activities, Phyllis Ford, ed.
JOD — Just Open the Door, by Rich Gerston, Interstate Printers and Publishers, 1983.
LLC — Living Lightly in the City, Schlitz Audubon Center, 1984.
EGO- Education Goes Outdoors, Addison-Wesley 1986.
CON – Connections: Life Cycle Kinesthetic Learning. The Energy Office, Grand Junction, CO 1993.
CTE – Consider the Earth by Julie M. Gates, Teacher Ideas Press, 1989.
FSS – From Source to Sea, Greater Vancouver Regional District 1993.
GGC – Growing Greener Cities and Environmental Education Guide
American Forests, Washington DC 1992
LCA – Let’s Clean the Air, Greater Vancouver Regional District 1993.
NTW – No Time to Waste, Greater Vancouver Regional District 1993.
TPE – The Private Eye, Kerry Ruef, The Private Eye Project, Seattle, 1992.
“Mr. D., that was the best science class I’ve ever had!”
The trials and successes of a classroom without walls
By Greg Derbyshire
he above feedback, made by a grade 8 student, is one of many similar comments made to me by students and parents who recognize and appreciate the opportunities provided by outdoor experiential education. That’s why I took students outdoors when I was a classroom teacher. Not for the accolades or ego stroking, but for the knowledge that I reached many students in a way that can’t be done inside the walls of a classroom. Few of us need to be informed of screen-time statistics when it comes to our modern society. A growing body of research is supporting what many of us know inherently, and the long-term impacts of the loss of exposure to the natural world are mounting. We now know that connecting with the natural world benefits many aspects of our being. Physical, social, spiritual, and mental health improve when we spend more time outdoors. Bullying decreases, ADHD symptoms are reduced, and social and cultural barriers diminish. For many of us, we know that we have an obligation as teachers to expose our students to the outdoors; it may be the only opportunity many of them get.
The last class of my indoor teaching career was one of the nicest groups of grade 7 and 8s I’d had the pleasure of working with. They were energetic, creative, and enthusiastic. They weren’t, however, good listeners. During the first couple of weeks of September, I tried to help them develop better listening skills.
The usual strategies didn’t work; being late for gym class bothered them, but didn’t change their attentiveness.
With some trepidation then, I prepared them for a study of our schoolyard and the adjacent vacant land. The grade 7’s would investigate biodiversity for the Interactions in the Environment science unit and the grade 8’s would review the above, plus collect plant and water specimens for investigation with microscopes for the Cells unit.
Prior to going outdoors, we reviewed the expectations. Each small group would carry a clipboard, worksheets, scrap paper, pencils, measuring tapes or metre sticks and numerous zip-lock bags for collecting samples. Members of each group were to stay together and work together, solving problems on their own if possible.
I knew this class might be a bit challenging in an outdoor setting because of the struggles we’d had with listening skills in the classroom. But it was much worse than expected. Groups split up, metre sticks were used as swords, pencils got lost, and worksheets didn’t get filled out properly. And, that was just in the schoolyard! With thirty years as a classroom teacher under my belt, and with considerable experience at outdoor education centres, leadership centres and summer camps over the previous thirty-five years, I had no idea a group could be so frustrating. Despite the schoolyard behaviour, we moved to the adjacent vacant land and continued our study. When we finished our work and lined up at the school door to go back inside, I shared with them my dismay at their blatant disrespect for their peers, for me, and for the learning opportunity, which they had just spoiled. I told them that I had never had such a challenging group in all my years teaching outdoors, and that my experience that day was much like trying to herd cats. They knew Iwas upset, so they followed my instructions to return to class, sit down,open their reading books and remain silent.
I sat down at my desk to plan my lecture on respect and listening skills. After fifteen minutes, I asked for their attention.
Instead of my lecture though, I instinctively asked them to share what was good and what wasn’t so good about their outdoor learning experience. A few students offered the correct observations about poor listening skills and a general lack of following instructions. A couple of students suggested that the hands-on learning was a lot of fun. Then, the comment I’ll never forget: “Mr. D. – that was the best science class I’ve ever had!”
I paused. It was obvious that many other students felt the same. “Why then,” I asked, “were you so out of control out there?” It took some time, but some students shared that they seldom, if ever, went outdoors for anything but recess and gym class. They just couldn’t control themselves with the perceived freedom; it was too much like recess, despite having clipboards and worksheets in hand.
Even with this frustrating outing, the learning that followed was substantial. We spent many quality hours preparing plants for pressing, identifying species, mapping study plots with species variety, comparing schoolyard plots with vacant land plots, preparing slides for looking at samples through microscopes, identifying microscopic invertebrates, and preparing reports for presentation. Just one afternoon of outdoor learning provided plenty of extended learning opportunities in the classroom, and set up anticipation for future forays into outdoor experiential education.
In fact, the outdoors became our classroom without walls. Students began to ask if we could go outside to learn. We did. Over the course of the year, we left the classroom for language, math, history, geography, science, physical and health education, and the arts. The outdoors became a natural place to learn. And they became better learners as a result.
Benefits, Barriers, Basics and Beyond
As suggested above, there are dozens of benefits to outdoor experiential education. Students get more exercise, they socialize more, co-operate more and learn more.
They are exposed to new venues for learning where staff can share their expertise. Some students, who might find desk learning a bit of a struggle, shine in the outdoors; they often take leadership roles in groups – something they would not normally do inside. In my experience, students become motivated to work well together so that they don’t lose their outdoor learning opportunities.
The different venues open up different ways of learning. Most will know of Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, (Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences,1993).
There are now nine recognized intelligences: logical-mathematical, spatial, linguistic, bodily-kinaesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic and existential. I am convinced that outdoor experiential education can support and enhance all nine intelligences.
Recently in education, differentiated instructionhas been touted as the way to reach more of our students. Take them outside, then! Some will thrive. Some will be challenged. All should benefit in their own ways.
There are, however, a few barriers to taking classes out regularly. A single permission form for a year of local outdoor excursions may not be allowed at some schools. On the other hand, many schools and boards are moving toward being “paperless,” so trip-specific permission forms could easily be completed electronically. Depending on administration, specific school and classroom compositions, the availability of volunteers may be a barrier. None are typically needed if you are staying on school property, and possibly if you are going “next door.” Other outdoor resources within walking distances would require volunteers. Individual schools and boards will have their specific requirements.
As is suggested by my “herding cats”experience, individual class dynamics will impact on the quantity and quality of outdoor experiences. Teachers must recognize the uniqueness of each class and the individuals within it, and plan accordingly. The reality is, some classes may not be able to get out as often as others. Regardless, the benefits of outdoor excursions will be palpable.Whether you’re a novice outdoor educator who needs support, or the experienced teacher who can provide that support, there are a few basics to keep in mind. The list below is a starting point. Adjust it as you see fit for each activity to suit your specific needs. The more experience you get at this, the easier it is.
- Get to know your local resources, (schoolyard, woodlots, vacant land, urban studies opportunities, talented parents or other adults in the community who might be able to help you with specific aspects of outdoor learning).
- Get to know your board and school policies and procedures for outdoor excursions; complete any required paperwork. Perhaps a generic permission form for occasional excursions close to school would suffice for those outdoor teaching opportunities that present themselves throughout the year.
- Arrange for volunteers, if needed.
- Know your students; what are their strengths and limitations?
- Plan the activity for your chosen curriculum area and topic, and gather materials and supplies.
- Carry out that plan; take those kids outside!
- Debrief the students to find out what they liked and didn’t like, and what they understood and didn’t understand. This feedback will prove very useful for future outings.
- Do follow-up activities to solidify learning.
Beyond the basics, here are some ideas for developing a network of outdoor educators within your school and district.
- Consult with colleagues to learn the basics.
- Share your ideas and experiences at regular meetings.
- Create outdoor activity resource documents specific to your schoolyard and local resources, (saved on your school’s server, of course). All teachers can contribute to it.
- Combine classes for some of your excursions. This is one way to team up experienced and inexperienced teachers, and more appropriate student groupings may be easier to arrange.
- Be an advocate for outdoor experiential education whenever you can.
So, why bother?
From my years of experience in the outdoor education and recreation sectors, I’ve seen what a difference going outdoors can make. Beyond all the wonderful benefits stated in research, there’s something that happens to children when they spend time outdoors. Their eyes soften. They begin to see the world in a different way. They’re more centred and at peace. They discover a part of themselves they didn’t previously know. What more could you want for your students?The bottom line is, if you don’t make the small effort to take your kids outside, who will?
Greg Derbyshire is a recently retired classroom teacher with the Grand Erie District School Board in Ontario, Canada. His many and varied outdoor interests and pursuits continue to occupy much of his time. More recently, his interest in promoting the benefits of outdoor experiential education has inspired the creation of a new venture, It All Comes Naturally.
This article first appeared in Stepping Into Nature, a publication of The Back to Nature Network, a multisectoral coalition oforganizations and agencies working to connect children and families with nature. The Network was established with the support of the Ontario Trillium Foundation through a collaborative partnership between Royal Botanical Gardens, Parks and Recreation Ontario and Ontario Nature.
Use the Real World to Integrate Your Curriculum
In today’s test-driven schools, there’s little room for including the world outside the classroom in the curriculum, even though school is supposed to be based on the real world. And prepare us for it.
by Jim Martin
CLEARING Associate Editor
his year I watched good classroom programs which involved and invested students in the learning they were doing come to a halt for several weeks so they could prepare for the standards tests. This, during what is the best teaching time of the school year: January through March, when there are very few breaks in the schedule, and teachers can concentrate on the delivery of curricula. Somehow, we have to wake up, get back to our senses, and use this time for learning.
That said, students do need to go out into the world to learn. Let’s look at two possibilities, the first in a stream, the other in a school yard. We’ll do the stream first, since it is the kind of place we ought to be going to. Then the school yard, since it is often the only alternative we have.
There are many places where students can find a streambank to explore. Or a wooded area; an open meadow; some place where they can see and count the organisms who live there. Then learn about them. These are wonderful places for students to engage new content via Active Learning. There is one, a small stream, near where I live. Here’s a list of some of those who live there: Salmon fry (very small, recently hatched, eat copepods); Copepods (eat algae and organic debris); Amphipods (eat organic debris, algae); Mayflies (eat algae, organic debris); Caddisflies (eat organic debris, algae, mayflies); Organic debris (this is dead and decomposing organisms on the streambed); and Algae (plants found on the streambed and submerged rocks). This list of organisms and information about them is abbreviated, mostly out of necessity; this is a blog, not a book!
Why Employ Active Learning?
Active learning is the best way for humans to learn. It entails having a learner-generated reason to find out something, and access to the resources which will help them find out. Finding plants and animals in a riparian area always stimulates students, and easily leads to conceptual learnings. Providing their teacher is comfortable with this way to learn. This is because noticing something in the world outside your body that catches your interest can, if you’re allowed to follow up on noticing, engage your prefrontal cortex and the machinery it employs in critical thinking. That builds brains. We need to do it.
Let’s say you find a stream near your school which has been restored, and supports a small salmon population. Your class can make a round trip to it in 20 minutes, which leaves time to make observations each time they visit. When they make a visit, they’ll group to study macroinvertebrates on the bottom of the stream, algae on the stream bottom and rocks, and animals living in the water column who will fit into a small net. Next, they’ll organize themselves to learn to identify the organisms they’ve found, and find out what the animals eat. This is an opening to several NGSS standards: Let’s look at four, one each from K-3, 4-5, 6-8, and 9-12. (I haven’t started this yet, but it should be doable. It’s all LS.) So, while they’re gathering data to build a food web, they can also be embarking on an integrated curriculum about diversity, thermal tolerance, diet, a John Steinbeck novel; whatever is coming up.
For K-3, look at K-LS1-1: From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes, in which students use observations to describe patterns of what plants and animals (including humans) need to survive. In this case, building the food web helps students answer the question of what do living things need to survive. That might also lead to learning how some organisms not having enough to eat might affect their food web.
For 4-5, try 5-LS2-1: Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics, in which students develop a model to describe the movement of matter among plants, animals, decomposers, and the environment. In this case, when one species becomes scarce in its ecosystem, then is lost, this affects the movement of matter in its food web. In doing this, it also affects species diversity. This might lead to learning more about diversity, how we determine it, and what it provides for the species in a food web.
For 6-8, try MS-LS2-4: Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics, in which students construct an argument supported by empirical evidence that changes to physical or biological components of an ecosystem affect populations. This might lead to learning more about how their food web reflects ecosystems, and some of the biotic interactions which affect them. Middle school students might also use their food webs to approach another NGSS standard, MS-LS2-5: Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics, in which students evaluate competing design solutions for maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem services. Again, they learn how to assess biodiversity, and apply those learnings to their food web.
For 9-12, try HS-LS2-6: Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics, in which students evaluate the claims, evidence, and reasoning that the complex interactions in ecosystems maintain relatively consistent numbers and types of organisms in stable conditions, but changing conditions may result in a new ecosystem. For instance, they can use their food web to learn about thermal tolerance, and how it might cause the loss of one or more species in their food web. Then they might even search the literature for current evidence that, as species move from one ecosystem to another due to the stressors involved in global warming, they are replaced by other species, more tolerant of the changed thermal regime.
Can you engage active learning?
All of these can be enhanced with lab and field activities. This is in addition to the learning each group of students engages. Because they’re learning about particulars they have engaged in a stream, these learnings will become part of a readily accessible conceptual schematum, rather than a smorgasbord of disconnected facts.
Pick one of these which doesn’t seem overpowering, look it up on the NGSS web site, and try it out. Read what the NGSS says about it, then think of what you understand of food webs, and see how you can put the two together. When you’ve done that, then see what area of science you will soon be teaching, and see how you can use the NGSS description plus what you know of your food web, to integrate all into a workable unit to teach.
While the NGSS documents don’t often refer to food webs, there are some references to them at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. You can just do a search for ‘food web’ to find them. I’ve used the labels and titles, and the descriptions from the NGSS site in this writing. But I’m uncomfortable with the bureaucratic way they describe a very vivacious, dynamic, interesting system. A food web is one place where much science can be effectively addressed. Then, instead of learning facts about systems, students develop conceptual schemata which tie many areas of science together in meaningful concepts, ideas of how the world works.
We’ll use the organisms I found at the stream near my home for the next step; and that is to build a food web for this riparian area. As in all studies like this, the data collected will apply to just my reach, not the whole stream. To be more confident that my sample represents the stream, I’d have to sample more reaches. This collected information can then be used to construct food webs for that extended reach of the stream. Here’s one for the stream near where I live. (I had to look in side channels and slow waters near the stream’s edge to find the fry. Then, lacking time to complete the sampling, I looked up their diets on the web. I used this information to construct the food web in Figure 1.)
Figure 1. A Riparian Food Web. Elements of the food web are organized by trophic level.
While I’ve named each organism just once, I’ve grouped larvae, both young and mature, in one place, even though they might show up within more than one trophic level if I have considered all of the stages in their lives. And for some, there are more than one species gathered under a name. Considering all species and their life stages would make a more complex, but more informative food web if done with more attention to these details. You can take this as far as your students can comprehend or stand. Complexity increases comprehension up to a point. Beyond that, learners are on overload, and their work isn’t effective. This information/concept overload point is different for each student. You can overcome these differences in capacity by parceling out the work according to each student’s capacity and instructional level. And interest!
You’ll find that active learning is evident in the negotiations within groups as they sort out the pieces of their food webs. As they learn more details about the organisms, their conceptual understandings grow exponentially. And their food webs become more complex, and more meaningful.
Now, we’ll go to a school yard to build a food web. It may not be a riparian area, but it is an area we can study nonetheless. (When I taught inmate students in the college program at the Oregon State Penitentiary, they were able to discover and report data on food webs found in the prison’s exercise yard, an ecosystem where there were no trees, shrubs, or streams. We, too, can do this, without going to prison.) Natural areas are the best to study, but as a workable alternative, you can do an effective study in your own school yard. For lots of us, this is a more workable alternative than field trips to a stream or forest. Take a look. What can you find? Jot down their names, or make names up. (As you learn their actual names, update your food web. This tactic works well with students.) Make an initial food web from your observations, then amplify this with information students research. (Food webs are easier to assess in fall and spring, when the organisms are there in greatest number. However, as compost piles remain warm in their interior, you can probably assess them any time. Be sure to cover them back up!)
Here is one I made up as an example. It’s based on what you might find in a compost pile in a corner of the school yard. If you’ve ever rummaged a compost pile, you’ll know that this is a much simpler food web than you’d find in most compost.
Figure 2. A Schoolyard Food Web.
Food webs, by themselves, provide a visible platform for thinking about organisms and their ecosystems in a dynamic, conceptual way. Both species diversity and thermal tolerance can be effectively introduced via a food web. Thermal tolerance can affect diversity as species move from an ecosystem where temperatures have gone from within their thermal tolerance range to one which offers a better thermal regime. Diversity can attenuate the effects of thermal tolerance limits by reducing the effects of losing a food web species. The more diverse the population, the better the chance that other species will utilize the food sources that the departing species exploited. And might be exploited by the same consumer which consumed the species which departed. Like the visible, dynamic structure of a drawn food web, these two biological phenomena effectors of ecosystem stability live in a dynamic relationship with one another.
So, what will they do with their food webs? In the next two blogs, let’s look at diversity first, then thermal tolerance. Both will provide valuable insights into the effects of global warming on living things; which is something our students need to become experts in.
This 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.”
Wenatchee School District’s Case Study of Science Field Experiences
by Susan Ballinger and Karen Rutherford
his year (2005) in the shrub-steppe eco-region of rural Eastern Washington, over 3600 elementary students, teachers, and adult volunteers will spend a wonderful day of adventure and learning outdoors, at a science field experience. Kindergarteners pound leaf chlorophyll into fabric, 1st graders capture insects amidst blooming wildflowers, 2nd graders use iodine to measure sugar content in ripening apples, 3rd graders wade in icy waters looking for aquatic insects, 4th graders build paper dams, and 5th graders climb a 1000-ft mountain, rewarded with an expansive view their valley home below.
All science field experiences take place within a 20-mile radius of city elementary schools. Each experience is co-sponsored by local organizations. In the Wenatchee School District, a field experience differs significantly from a just-for-fun “field trip.” This place-based field experience is a relevant, multidisciplinary day of adventure and learning in a local outdoor setting. There are two distinct parts to a field experience, both tied to local natural resources:
1. In-class curriculum integrating science and social studies concepts
2. On-site field curriculum, applying classroom concepts with hands-on activities.
Here is our story of how weíve worked from the inside of our school district to make significant connections with the natural and cultural landscape of our collective home.
As field teachers, we try to fight the desire to verbally import knowledge and instead allow students time and space to discover using their senses.
The Wenatchee School District (WSD) is located along the Columbia River in the state’s geographic center with a rural metropolitan population of 50,000.
Over 7,000 students are served at seven elementary schools, three middle schools, an alternative high school, and a 4A high school. Our K-5th student population is 55% Hispanic with 55% Free/Reduced lunch poverty levels.
Six years ago, the Wenatchee School district embraced a vision to connect classroom science curriculum to the local landscape of our watershed and cultural community. At that time, our assistant superintendent, Dr. Jeanine Butler, wanted our district to comply with our state’s (unfunded) mandate to provide environmental education, K-12. A wonderful model existed in the Leavenworth Salmonfest, serving all 3rd grade students in our region. This outdoor festival co-sponsored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S.D.A. Forest Service included teacher training for classroom pre-work lessons. Student come to Salmonfest with foundational knowledge and participates in hands-on activities at the festival. Initially, only schools that had strong parent support organizations could afford to pay for school bus transportation to Salmonfest. Dr. Butler recognized the need for equity and strategically budgeted bus transportation money for all schools into the science curriculum. This budget decision significantly addresses the issue of environmental justice. In our district, we see a high correlation between poverty and ethnicity in student populations, which is reflected in our low scores on state standardized testing. Among our 7 elementary schools, a wide disparity between overall ethnic and poverty levels is found between buildings. Schools with high poverty rates have fewer resources available to provide student trips. With a district-level initiative, all students, regardless of income or ethnicity, have this opportunity and an even-playing field for learning. For science field experiences, district-budgeted bus transportation money has been the key to serving all schools.
The community college arboretum is the location for the kindergartner Wenatchee Tree Walk and college students work as volunteer teachers.
CREATIVE FUNDING and SUPPORTIVE PARTNERS
Community partners provide the key help needed to launch a science field experience. For example, the USDA Forest Service spearheaded a successful grant-writing effort that enabled the purchase of supplies and development of the 5th grade field experience curriculum. Our 4th grade field experience found significant funding support at our local Public Utility District for 25 classroom kits, valued at $400 each. They are our hosts for our annual watershed-based River of Power experience at Rocky Reach hydroelectric dam. Our community college arboretum is the location for our kindergartener Wenatchee Tree Walk and college students work as volunteer teachers. Our local museum provided relevant local history resources and staffing for many grade level experiences. Members of local non-profit conservation organizations volunteer each year as field teachers. Our local Arbor Day Committee purchased non-fiction tree books for 25 classroom kits. As part of their coursework, Central Washington University pre-service teachers lead groups of 5th graders each May. This broad base of community support has institutionalized field experiences in both the school district and the partner organization.
The key to effective use of community agencies and organizations has been the use of a school district coordinator. The coordinator initiates the contacts, ensures good communication, and follows through with strategically worded thank you letters sent to organization leaders and local newspaper letters-to-the-editor.
Most of our community partners have organizational education goals and our district curriculum structure allows them to concentrate their efforts annually. For example, instead of responding to year-round requests from individual teachers to give tours or be guest speakers, local research scientists from Washington State University know that every September, they will teach stations as part of the Awesome Apple Adventures, serving every 2nd grade student in our town in a concentrated manner.
IN-CLASS CURRICULUM- A FOUNDATION FOR THE FIELD
Teacher today are under great time pressures. Increased testing requirements means even less class time is available for extra activities or field trips. By using a district science field experience coordinator, classroom teachers can focus solely on teaching. The district coordinator designs, and produces an in-class curriculum. With this, we provide a classroom kit filled with all the materials needed to teach the classroom field experience lessons, from videos to local maps, books, and supplies. For example, our second teachers receive an art kit with craft supplies necessary to make anatomically correct insects. This pre-work art lesson prepares students to learn in the field where they use beating trays to find aphids and moths living in apple trees. Another example is our linkage of local cultural history to watershed concepts when our fourth graders view a vintage 1950s film documenting the building of Rocky Reach Dam, prior to their visit.
A pre-work art lesson prepares students to learn in the field where they use beating trays to find aphids and moths living in apple trees.
Seven years ago, we adopted a national FOSS curriculum for K-5th grades. This broad-based national curriculum needed a local focus to become relevant, interesting, and meaningful to our teachers. Teachers have no time to research local connections and then integrate this into the adopted curriculum. For example, our fifth grade teachers were struggling to teach the FOSS landform kit topographic map lessons, using a Mt. Shasta map, and many found the stream tables to be baffling. Most had never heard of Mt. Shasta and had never worked with a topographic map themselves. Many teachers are new to our region and had limited knowledge of the local environment and landforms. Teachers simply didn’t realize that our region was a topographic wonderland. Views of Mt. Rainer, catastrophic Ice Age floods, and the Columbia River Watershed were literally within a short bus ride of every classroom. As curriculum designers, we realized we had to start with adult-level learning as a key part of our trainings, giving foundational knowledge to our teachers. At the training, our teachers heard a respected local geologist lecture about our valley’s remarkable erosional features. Suddenly, stream tables are seen not as sandboxes, but as working models of the Columbia River that bisects our town. The FOSS curriculum suddenly had connections to the local environments, so teachers saw the connection between science and experience.
Classroom teachers, librarians, and music specialists spend one month preparing students using science lessons, integrated with reading, writing, art, music, and social studies. Our 4th and 5th grade curriculums include a student reader containing local artist biographies, memoirs, interpretive sign texts, song lyrics, poems, legends, radio plays, and newspaper articles. Classroom teachers have the option to teach non-fiction reading lessons using original source material directly linked to the science lessons. After the experience, students reflect on their experiences and new knowledge by drawing, composing poetry, producing a play, and or by writing essays as culminating classroom projects.
Local research scientists from Washington State University teach stations as part of the Awesome Apple Adventures.
SCIENCE FIELD EXPERIENCE — THE DAY!
Coordinators, not teachers, set up the logistics of the experience, so teachers can instead focus on preparing their students to learn in the field. Coordinators write and prepare hands-on field station curriculum, schedule the buses, recruit station teachers, and devise class rotation schedules. The coordinators take care of the nuts-and-bolts of putting on a big event: making sure everyone can get to where need to be, drink, eat, use the bathroom, and stay safe. They make sure that schedules are fastened to clipboards, binder clips secure watercolor paper to lap easels, port-a-potties and hand-sanitizer are strategically placed, small digital clocks attached to clipboards, large water jugs are ready to refill water bottles, and first aid kits are on hand to handle skinned knees.
FIELD CURRICULUM-BUILDING ON CLASSROOM LEARNING
One of the most fun and creative parts of developing a science field experience is designing the outdoor learning stations. We aim to select activities that extend classroom learning, are best done outside, are too messy for the classroom, and that require special equipment. We assemble an array of visual aids and needed tools into a station kit that is delivered to the field location, ready to go. We often enlist the expertise of a scientist to help with the content of a field lesson. For example, several local wildlife biologists helped develop 5th grade stations called “Mule Deer/ Marmot.” and “Coyote/Cougar.” We use pelts, scat, prints, skulls, and photographs to compare and contrast the life history of these two sets of native mammal species.
We strive to offer an art or music station at each field experience. Art teachers develop the watercolor painting or pastel drawing lessons so that every student produces a masterpiece in the field that is later delivered to their classroom. Our music teachers have enthusiastically created music stations, teaching science content through finger-plays, songs, dances, and games. We provide classroom teachers with a music CD (recorded in-house) so students can start to learn the songs before coming to the field experience.
Each station lesson presentation is written as a “script” so that a non-scientist volunteer or paid teacher can successfully present the material with minimal preparation time. If a skilled professional is available as a station volunteer, we encourage them to modify and extend the lesson to best match their expertise. These scripts are modified and improved each year, using input from the field teachers.
Teachers simply didn’t realize that the region was a topographic wonderland. Views of Mt. Rainier, catastrophic Ice Age floods, and the Columbia River Watershed were literally within a short bus ride of every classroom.
FIELD EXPERIENCE LOGISTICS
A critical element for success of a field experience is detailed event planning. Logistically, field experiences differ significantly in length, type of location, and structure. We try to match amount of time spent in the field with the developmental abilities of students. Kindergarten students spend only 2 hours on site, eliminating the need for eating, having lots of extra water available, and frequent bathroom stops within this time window. In contrast, our 5th graders spend 5-1/2 hours on site, hiking a steep trail, covering a roundtrip distance of three miles. We provide port-a-potties at 3 strategic points, lots of water, and schedule a 1/2 hour seated lunch break. While students rest at lunch, music teachers lead a camp song sing-a-long.
In-District partnerships are another key to our success. The most essential partnership has been between the two co-coordinators for field experiences. Both of us bring a different suite of skills to the tasks of curriculum and event design, event implementation, and last-minute problem-solving. It takes two coordinators to pull off each event, dealing with the last minute crisis that always arises. We do have stories to tell! Maybe you’d like to hear about the time a sudden gust of high winds blew over a port-a-pottie, with a child inside!
In designing the activities and the flow of the day in the field, we’ve borrowed what we call the “Disneyland principles.” To ensure that science learning can happen in the field:
1. Participants leave, wanting to come back because they didn’t get to do everything;
2. Music is embedded in the event;
3. Adequate food and drink are ensured;
4. A wide variety of offered activities; and
5. Something to take home to remember the experience.
What may look like a marketing plan, in reality has ensured a quality science learning experience for all ages of participants. It ensures a good flow of the day that taps into all the senses. We strive to create a scheduled day that runs smoothly with a balance of activities at a pace that isn’t rushed. At all of our experiences, student groups attend some, but not all learning stations. Many of students are dual-language learners so field learning activities involve touch, smell, and creation of art, singing, and movement. We strive to minimize talk and maximize doing. As field teachers, we try to fight the desire to verbally impart knowledge and instead allow students time and space to discover using their senses. Simply being in an unfamiliar outdoor environment is very new to our mostly urban, poor children. We try to select field locations in public spaces so children can potentially return with their families.
We’ve discovered that field eperiences have woven a web-like interdependency between non-classroom employees and our classroom teachers in our school district.
We’ve discovered that field experience have woven a web-like interdependency between non-classroom employees and our classroom teachers in our school district. School nurses, warehouse managers, delivery truck drivers, building secretaries, food service workers and district office administrators all provide logistic support. We’ve also built partnerships with a corps of district substitute teachers who are hardy souls, willing to teach outdoors in all types of weather. We depend upon hired station teachers who can modify and adjust their teaching when high winds spread materials far and wide, a massive bloody nose erupts, or when a rambunctious high school helper decides to capture a bull snake. Community volunteers, many of whom are retired, and will likely vote in the next school bond levy, have positive, one-on-one contact with students and are introduced to the diversity of our student population. Many of our volunteers return year after year. We often need to provide special transportation for senior citizens and some teachers in order to get them to their teaching locations. We strongly encourage pregnant teachers to take advantage of our transportation offers!
Creating a sustainable field experience program is important to us. Often, outdoor education programs depend upon the charisma and energy of a few key people and once these people move on, the program dies. By fully integrating our field experiences into classroom curriculum, they have become part of the schoolís culture. Students and teachers alike look forward to their annual adventure in the field. District funding ensures that staff are dedicated to refurbishing kits and implementing six yearly experiences.
An important key to our success is that we’ve taken the FOSS and STC national general science curriculums and made them place-based for both social studies and science. Integration has helped our teachers see the “why” of teaching science because it is locally relevant and fun. We’ve brought science “home.”
Karen Rutherford is the K-8th Science Resource Coordinator for Wenatchee School District. Over the past 6 years, Karen has implemented and maintained over 270 FOSS and STC kits. Karen has a strong background in Marketing and Business to compliment her passion for science education.
Susan Reynolds Ballinger has a M.S. Education and M.A. Biology and works as a consultant to Wenatchee School District as the Science Field Experience Coordinator. Susan’s former pursuits include middle school science teaching, biology field work, and a variety of natural history interpretation projects.
For Science Field Experiences, Karen and Susan have worked together for over five years on grant-writing, curriculum development, kit assembly, and event coordination.
Why kids need ecology now!
Teachers, as well as science majors and graduate students, need to understand the process of science. And they need to be able to argue it, discuss it, suggest novel perspectives, give and respond to criticism. Does our inservice education deliver this to us? Especially critiques of current practice? The Vision of the Framework for K-12 Science Education Vision table and, some of the descriptions of the New Generation Science Standards indicate that all science teachers will need to understand both the process of science and the process of student-centered science education.
by Jim Martin
CLEARING Magazine Associate Editor
lobal warming; hot topic, little consensus. What if students were learning the ecology and environmental science they needed to understand the nature of global warming: its history during the tenure of life on Earth, the similarities and differences between this episode we’re experiencing now and others, the nature of food webs and their connections to the concept of species diversity, the connections between temperature and habitat? What would be the effect of this work on students? They are young citizens, and will be among the adults, as will their own children, faced with the results of our generation’s effect on global climate. How much curricular time do we devote to these topics? Are we allowed to? They’re definitely good science; but, are they currently culturally correct education?
Do these topics conform to our expectations of curricula meeting New Generation Science Standards (NGSS)? The NGSS have addressed a relatively small part of their standards to ecology. Students in schools today, and their children, need to know ecology at a level which makes it, especially at the conceptual level, clear and comprehensible; fits the understandings we need to cope successfully with the effects of global warming. They’ll be dealing directly with these effects in their lives. Will they understand and use what they know of, say, food webs and the effects of global warming? Concepts like thermal tolerance? Species replacement? The concept and applications of niche? What can we do to help? Knowledge of environments and their biota are important components of our response to global warming. We do a better job of responding to issues when we understand their pieces.
While the NGSS call for active learning in their delivery, there is no advice in the Resources Section at the NGSS web site (http://www.nextgenscience.org/resources) that assists teachers to employ active learning and learning for understanding in the classroom. They do provide brief descriptions of active learning, but provide no examples. Nor do they provide inservice instruction that will prepare teachers to engage students in active learning and acquire the requisite curricular understandings they will need to do the job well. We need to attend to this.
At the end of the NGSS Resources section, there is a table at the end of the NGSS Resources section which describes changes in the way science will be taught when it is aligned with the standards; how science was once taught, and how it will be taught as the NGSS is implemented. The transition moves learning from teacher-centered delivery to active, student-centered, constructivist, self-directed inquiry on the part of students, their preferred delivery modality. My experience teaching, and working with teachers, tells me that this transition is difficult, and needs time and support to do effectively. Done by confident teachers, it is always effective, involves and invests students in their learnings, and empowers them as persons. The didactic, teacher-centered modality is effective when you’re teaching how to use a dissolved oxygen probe, but for most learning, the constructivist, student-centered, active learning modality works best.
I’d like to spend some blogs describing how this transition in delivery modalities might work at the various grade levels. To facilitate this, I’d like to discuss a paradigm which is easily assimilated by humans of all ages, and which helps some of the more esoteric ecology standards make down-to-earth sense: food webs. (Note: Food Webs are also called Food Cycles. Both Food Webs and Food Cycles are composed of Food Chains, which show the chain of animals which eat a particular Producer. I favor Food Web because it infers a complex of interactions, which are the means for maintaining ecosystems.)
We’ll start with students’ (and your) own food chain. I decided to do this to illustrate the process of constructing a food web. After that, we’ll do a food web on a school ground or neighborhood for our initial food web, and amplify it as we move up the LS2 grade levels from K to 12. While we’re working, we’ll use the Vision of the Framework table to see how active learning works, and what we can do to facilitate it. I suppose that this means that there will be many blogs to follow.
Here’s how I constructed my own food chain (Since I’m the only consumer eating what I eat, a food chain will have to act as my food web!): I wrote down what I ate for each meal for a day, then looked up on all package and can labels any ingredients which were included in the prepared foods I ate. They were all derived from plants, so I placed all of the plant species’ names on the bottom row of the diagram, (Figure 1), and the things which eat them above that row. Next, I drew lines from each plant species to what eats it. (Some draw lines from the eaters to what they eat. Either type of placement does the job.) In this case, that was always me. I’ve added salmon and mackerel to my food chain, even though they don’t eat the plants I’ve listed. I did this because I eat those fish too. If I wasn’t on a vegan diet for my health, the list of one label’s ingredients would make my food chain too cumbersome to draw. As it is, the ‘web’ looks like a mess.
Figure 1. My Personal Food Chain. First Pass.
If you have started your own food web, and got this far, you might entertain the same feeling. Why do you think this, my personal food web, seems so confusing? Unnatural? Perhaps because it is. In the first place, it is a food chain, not a food web. If I were to trace each ingredient to the place where it lived, there would be very few which lived near where I do. Is this true of all organisms living in ecosystems on Earth? Do you know how to find out? Do you know enough about ecosystems to make informed opinions and decisions about our response to global warming? Should our children’s educations provide them with this capacity?
What else do I eat? Some of the food sources listed, prepared or simply harvested, contained microbes, insects, etc., either whole or in part within them. That’s just how food happens. How do I account for them? Another fact about my food chain: The mackerel and salmon I eat are part of other food webs. Do I show them? While they are consumed by me in my own food chain, I affect theirs. Migratory animals’ food webs do this as they move from one ecosystem to another, but I stay where I am. (They become transient parts of those food webs. I’m a permanent part of mine. But mackerel never swim past my house!) These questions suggest to me that my food chain needs attention. (Exploring this might present a nice activity for students of any age.) If we are to survive the effects of over-population and global warming, I think a first thing to understand is that we are members of an ecosystem, and need to be contained within it. At least, as much as is possible. Constructing a food chain is the first step in this process.
So, what will I do? I’ll cut down my producers (plants) to those which grew here. I’ll pretend all of the salmon are from here, but eliminate the mackerel. What does it look like now? (See Figure 2) You may see that this is complex. What I’ve written so far may not seem like exploring what students need to know about species diversity and the connections between temperature and habitat. I think that exploring those two topics will work best if we can envision their effects on food webs. We’ll go through this a step at a time as I do mine, and expand to a food web in a riparian area. (Is this what I will do?)
Figure 2. My Personal Food Chain. Second Pass.
I could show what Salmon eat, and that would make this a more realistic food web; more informative by placing me within an ecosystem. And I could add the herbivores who also eat the oats in my food chain. (Rest of paragraph needs work.) But, it wouldn’t be Mine! Instead, I would begin to become part of a food web based on the ecosystem I live within. Hmm . . . . Closer, perhaps, to where I should be? A further step: I can add other animals which eat the producers I do, and animals that eat them. I could even show the organisms which decompose them, and those who redistribute our parts when we die or lose them. A more realistic food web, and one which would make me a better-informed citizen when I am engaging or reading about our efforts to compensate for the effects of global warming. Just what today’s students need.
This 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.”