Making Science Engaging at Camp
Connecting art and science helps students find STEM classes more engaging and enjoyable
By Elli Korthuis
is a youth development organization that focuses on helping members, ages 5-19 years, grow as individuals through their mastery of their passions, referred to as their spark. The more traditional 4-H program offers clubs in projects such as sewing, presentations, and livestock. However, 4-H reaches a broader audience through its non-traditional programs including camp and in-school instruction.
We attempt to offer a broad range of classes at our 4-H camps including those in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics). One of the reoccurring themes we see in 4-H camp evaluations is that the science classes are “boring” while the craft classes have remained highly popular. With the growing need for STEM education, we needed to find a way to make these classes more engaging and enjoyable for the youth.
Over 2017, my colleague, Robin Galloway, and I developed a camp class to teach aquatic science, microscope skills, and basic nature terminology. To engage the youth in the STEM themed class, we incorporated art lessons since this was where their interest resided according to past evaluations. It was initially to be taught at the Oregon 4-H Center in Salem for campers in grades 4 – 8 along with their camp counselors. The facility is in a forested region with camp cabins, several buildings for lessons, and a pond.
Drinking the Water
During the class, we started indoors with a discussion of what organisms and materials could be found in the pond. I opened by asking which youth would want to drink the water from the pond. To my surprise, nearly half the class agreed that it would be safe to drink the unfiltered pond water. Several more said they wouldn’t because it was “gross” but didn’t have an explanation for their answer. We talked about the flora and fauna that may leave their traces in the water all the way down to potential microscopic organisms. Terms were explained along the way but there was nearly always at least one youth that could define a scientific term for the class. It was also an opportunity to gauge how in depth their knowledge was of water particles from different sources.
After our discussion, we went as a group to the pond and they could compare their discussion to what they were seeing. We got a bucket of pond water for a water sample and the youth had the chance to identify some of the particulates. Clipboards with water color paper and a pencil were given to each youth and they were asked to draw the macroscopic world they were seeing on the top half of their paper. The drawing time gave us the opportunity to delve into how some of the organisms present could affect us if we drank the water and what other organisms and materials may be present at different sources such as the ocean, a river, or a swimming pool.
The class finished their drawings and we took our supplies and the water sample inside. I put a drop of the water sample on a microscope slide, making sure to include the particulates that had filtered to the bottom of the bucket. We had brought a digital microscope that included a small LCD screen to view the slide. In a larger group setting, this microscope could have been attached to a projector to show a greater audience. With our water sample under the microscope lens, we identified the materials and organisms. One of the highlights was when we found a mosquito larva and were able to use the highest magnification to view the blood platelets flowing through its open circulatory system. It wasn’t an original part of the lesson but an added bonus. Although some youth were disgusted by what they saw, the majority were fascinated and wanted to continue in the discoveries. The class was then asked to draw the microscopic organisms and particulates they had seen on the bottom half of their paper. We wanted to encourage the scientific fascination so after a quick explanation of how to use a microscope, the youth were free to continue searching for other organisms if they wished to during the allotted drawing time. We also discussed how some of the organisms they had seen impact our health and environment.
Although many of the youth were comfortable drawing what they saw, there were a few in each class that didn’t feel confident in their drawing skills. We encouraged them in different ways including saying perfection was not the goal and joking that it could be called abstract instead. The time constraint also helped encourage the youth that weren’t as confident drawing because they understood high quality drawings could not be expected in the given time.
Water color pencils were distributed after the initial drawings were done so the campers could fill in the color. While they were coloring, I poured our water sample into several cups and passed them around with paint brushes. The youth then created the water color painting by brushing the water sample over the water color pencil areas. While painting, they remarked on how the particulates from the pond water changed both the texture and color of their painting. We talked about how the results would be different if they had used another water source and they were overflowing with ideas.
Their views on whether they were willing to drink the pond water were drastically different from when we started the class. Not one camper wanted to drink the water and many were quick to offer their explanations why.
We ended with a quick evaluation to gauge how their opinions about both art and science had changed after taking the class. Some of the highlights from the evaluation include:
- 71.11% agreed or strongly agreed science is not boring after taking this class.
- 76.09% agreed or strongly agreed they want to learn more about science as a result of this class.
- 63.64% agreed or strongly agreed they would do more art in their free time because of this class.
The evaluation method was also an experiment for our program. We were trying to encourage higher levels of participation since regular paper survey evaluations are turned down by a large percentage of attendees normally. Instead, we had larger flip chart papers with each evaluation question stuck to the wall with columns for strongly agree, agree, disagree, and strongly disagree. Each youth was given a set of numbered stickers to share their opinion. This made the evaluation more engaging while remaining anonymous and encouraged more honest opinions. It was an extremely successful evaluation method that I will continue to use in the future.
After successfully conducting the class with 4th to 8th grade youth, we decided to offer it at a day camp for youth ages 5-8. The concepts were simplified but the class was still a high level science lesson for youth in this age group. They still discussed what the water sample contained, defined terms such as microscopic and macroscopic, learned how to use a microscope, and exceeded our expectations for their ages. These youth were not formally evaluated but from my individual conversations and the group discussions, I observed that the youth were engaged and excited about the entire class.
Since conducting the classes, this concept has been taught at the American Camp Association (ACA) 2017 Oregon Trail Fall Education Event where camp staff and directors from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho all enthusiastically agreed that they would like to incorporate it in their own classes. It will also be taught at the Western Regional Leaders Forum held in San Diego, CA in March 2018.
I am excited to expand this lesson into several 4-H camp STEM classes in the future. I believe that bridging the gap between art and STEM has proven itself to be a sound method for teaching “boring” science concepts to campers
Mary Birchem, Restoration Coordinator with Capitol Land Trust, guides students through a discussion of streamflow next to Johns Creek on the Bayshore Preserve. Photo by Bruce Livingston.
Outdoor Learning in Shelton: A Surge of Hope
by Eleanor Steinhagen
Bayshore Preserve – Shelton, WA
wo 7th graders have just tossed their pears into Johns Creek and are jogging downstream to see which one will cross the finish line first. Maneuvering around a large maple tree and jagged rocks on the stream’s bank, a handful of their classmates jog with them, including two “timers” who hold stopwatches in front of their chests, ready to hit the stop button when their designated pear reaches the finish line. The pears bob up and down for a moment, then drift into the creek’s swiftly flowing current and float eastward toward Oakland Bay.
The rest of the students are already standing at the finish line, peering upstream and cheering on their desired winner as they hunch forward and hide their hands in their sleeves to protect them from the frigid October morning air. It’s a sunny morning, but the temperature hovers in the high 30s and is slow to rise in the shade by the creek. As the winning pear crosses the finish line 25 seconds after the start of the race, several kids break into a loud cheer, while others throw their hands in the air, or turn away and yell, “Aw, man!” in disappointment.
The race was one of three that this group of 13 students conducted as a means of collecting the data they needed to measure streamflow in the creek at Bayshore Preserve, a 74-acre former golf course three miles northwest of Shelton, Washington, conserved by Capitol Land Trust in 2014. Before the race, the students learned about side channels and discussed how they impact flow; measured the distance from the race’s starting line to the finish line, or the “reach”; discussed key concepts they are learning in class, such as “ecosystem” and “biodiversity”; and, standing mere feet from the creek’s sand, cobble and stoneflies, they learned about the variety of sediments and creatures in northwest streams and where each can be found according to streamflow. Throughout the lesson, they used field journals to take notes and record data, including the depth and width of the section of the creek they were studying—information they would use to perform calculations in math class later that week.
The students’ work at Johns Creek is the culmination of three years of effort made by several groups to design and implement high impact field experiences for every student in the Shelton School District. The program started with a conversation at a community stakeholder meeting in 2014 between Margaret Tudor, then-Executive Director of Pacific Education Institute (PEI), Wendy Boles, Shelton School District Science Curriculum Leader and Science Teacher at Olympic Middle School, and Amanda Reed, Executive Director of Capitol Land Trust. Since the fall of 2015, Capitol Land Trust has been facilitating these field investigations for every 7th grader in the Shelton School District—serving around 300 students per year—using PEI’s trademark FieldSTEM model as a foundation for the work. In addition to Capitol Land Trust, Shelton School District and PEI, a handful of dedicated volunteers and other community stakeholders, such as the Squaxin Island Tribe, Mason County Conservation District, Green Diamond Resources and Taylor Shellfish, have stepped forward to support the program.
A student draws an example of a freshwater macroinvertebrate for his classmates to add to their field journals. Opportunities for students to share their work and learn from one another are built into the field investigation curriculum. Photo by Bruce Livingston.
This type of outdoor hands-on STEM learning appeals to many learner types and helps students overcome barriers to learning often found inside the classroom. During this first field investigation day, a group of students was asked why they liked learning science outside. Rian, a student at Olympic Middle School who used to go clamming near Bayshore with his mom and grandparents, said, ”I know some kids, they’re better with a complete visual. Not like a visual coming from a book, or written on a whiteboard.” Another student, Madison, said, “It’s good to be outside because you get physical education and you get to look at a lot of stuff,” she said. “I like coming out here to do hands-on learning and have fun with my friends.”
Capitol Land Trust in particular has done a lot of work to realize the initial vision of using Bayshore as a place to provide Shelton School District students with these learning opportunities. Daron Williams, Community Conservation Manager, and Mary Birchem, AmeriCorps Restoration Coordinator, are the land trust’s “boots on the ground,” making the improvements needed each year to transform the program from an average field trip to a PEI-style high impact field experience. Of his drive to help make these experiences happen for students, Daron said:
Doing FieldSTEM—where [students] can get the knowledge they need in a way that actually works for them—can help connect them with the land they live on. Shelton is an economically impoverished area. And a lot of families are struggling… As a small organization, we bring a capacity that the schools don’t have on their own. And that can make a difference in the students’ lives. Doing these project-based lessons, we could actually be helping students get through school that maybe wouldn’t have, and get them excited about science. This is a way to show them how science is connected to the real world.
To this end, Daron and Mary have worked tirelessly to increase student engagement and develop the program curriculum. When the program started in 2015, Daron collaborated with teachers to correlate what Bayshore offers and what is taught in the field to what students are learning in the classroom, ensuring that the lessons are aligned with state and national learning standards. In the summer of 2017, a year into her AmeriCorps service with Capitol Land Trust, Mary began recruiting additional volunteer teachers, and then designed and implemented a program to train them. Together, they have worked to adjust the schedule and coordinate the logistics of the field experience with district teachers. And on field experience days, both Mary and Daron work alongside the volunteer teachers to help them guide students through the FieldSTEM tasks.
This year especially, their effort shows. Viola Moran, student teacher at Olympic Middle School, shared her observation of Fiona (her name has been changed to protect her privacy) during the field investigation at Bayshore. A high-needs student in one of the district middle schools, Fiona doesn’t like to be the center of attention. As a rule, she doesn’t participate in activities or raise her hand in class. The commotion that comes with being in large groups of people makes her feel so uncomfortable that she waits in the bathroom until the hallways clear out during breaks before going to class. And when she gets there, she doesn’t want to sit with the other students.
When the Bayshore field investigation day was announced, Fiona said, “I’m not going. I’ll be sick that day.” But in spite of her reluctance, she got her permission slip in and ended up attending. And in the course of the afternoon, she became so engaged in the fieldwork that she and her classmates were doing that she volunteered to throw one of the pears during the fruit race. She also offered to draw an example of a macroinvertebrate on the board for the class—a profound shift from what Viola had observed in the classroom.
Throughout the first field investigation day, as well as the week following, Wendy, Viola, Mary, Daron and several of the volunteer teachers remarked that student engagement is at an all-time high this year. With the inevitable exceptions of “kids being kids,” the students listened attentively, asked questions, volunteered for a variety of tasks and diligently took notes and recorded their data. Viola and Wendy also observed that the students handled the creatures more gently this year than in the past. At the “Tidal Life” station, for example, on the first day of the field investigation, a group of students were so concerned about a hermit crab that had shed its shell in the molting process that they spent 10 minutes trying to persuade the crab to crawl into a shell they had found on the shore while offering various words of encouragement: “You want your shell!” and “Come on, man, you need a home!”
Students examine macroinvertebrates at the saltwater station. For many of them, this is the first time they’ve come into contact with the creatures that live in their surrounding area. Photo by Bruce Livingston.
Viola expounded on the above by adding:
Even though this is their community, there’s a good portion of [the students] that have never actually been around the creatures out there. And so, seeing the hermit crabs and the different specimens that they got to handle—they were just fascinated by that… And as they grow up, it’s right there. It’s a part of their environment.
What’s more, the impact of the field experience was evident in the classroom after the students went to Bayshore. “When we are going over ‘producer, consumer and decomposer,’” Viola said, “they are relating back to the information they got at Bayshore.”
Susie Vanderburg, retired elementary school teacher, former Thurston County Stream Team Coordinator and former Education Director for Olympia’s LOTT WET Science Center, agrees with Viola. “A lot of kids today are not getting exposed to the outdoors, not having experiences outside. They’re not given opportunities to love the land and be fascinated.” While her work as a volunteer is a big commitment, Susie does it because she believes that giving kids the opportunity to learn science outside, in the field, simultaneously gives them the opportunity to become stewards of the land they live on. “In environmental education we always say, once you get to know something, like a wetland or a prairie, then you begin to care about it. It’s personal. And if you care about it, then you’re willing to do something to protect it. If you never get outside and get to know the outdoors, you’re never going to care about it, you’re not going to protect it.”
While young people’s lack of exposure to the natural world poses a challenge, Wendy Boles, who is in her 15th year as a science teacher and is another major force behind implementing these powerful experiences for students, has begun to feel a surge of hope with a discovery she’s made in her classroom in recent years. It used to be that students entered her 7th grade class without any knowledge about (and very little interest in) the problems caused by issues such as overpopulation, resource depletion and pollution. In the past few years, however, Wendy has noticed in her students an increased awareness of and concern about climate change and environmental issues. She sees field investigations as an opportunity to help kids make the connection between these issues and how they impact their community. She hopes that by having real-world science learning experiences, her students will discover what they love to do, learn about science-related careers in their communities and be empowered to pursue them if that’s their dream.
Along with the work she does to help integrate the field investigation tasks with the district’s science curriculum, Wendy helps train volunteers and coordinate schedules with Capitol Land Trust, district teachers and the English language support staff that the district provides. “It is a lot of work. I mean a lot of work,” she said of the field investigation days. But all of that becomes worth it when she witnesses the new awareness among her students and their desire to safeguard the environment. “The kids are starting to go, Wow, we have to start caring about the environment. That to me is the biggest thing because if we aren’t taking measures to be good stewards, we are going to be in trouble. That’s my concern. Making sure that our planet can continue to support us in a way that we’re used to.”
At Bayshore, several individuals and community partners have come together to seize this opportunity by providing Wendy’s students, and every 6th and 7th grade student in the Shelton School District, with real-world, project-based, career-connected science education. The hope is that this education will enable them to lead richer and more meaningful lives, and that they, in turn, will draw from their time exploring and learning science out in their community to generate change where they can. Yes, it is a lot of work. Everyone involved agrees with Wendy on that. But they do it because they believe that the return will be well worth the effort.
Eleanor Steinhagen is the Communications Coordinator for Pacific Education Institute in Olympia, Washington.
STEM Field Study Kits for All!
by Martin E. Fortin, Jr.
AWSP Director of Learning Centers
arly in my career as a science teacher I had the opportunity to attend a lecture by the famous Princeton professor Dr. Herbert Alyea. His demonstrations were so legendary he was referred to as Dr. Boom. In fact, he loudly ignited some gases for us during the lecture. But I better knew of his creation of the TOPS program. The acronym stood for The Overhead Projection Series. Dr. Alyea was convinced that the best way to learn was for each student to have their own miniature lab kit that they could use at their desk to follow along with his demonstrations. This kit did not involve explosions but did replicate real lab investigations. I still have my kit I received the day of that seminar.
As a former 7th grade life science teacher I knew that given the assignment, students can find almost anything in the natural environment. I would announce a weekly field trip just out the doors of my classroom. The students were charged with finding mosses, ferns, grasses, insects, or whatever natural science unit we were studying. They never failed in finding the samples I requested. It wasn’t until I began my tenure at the Cispus Learning Center that I realized we could replicate the professor’s ideas for field study in an inexpensive way. Dr. Alyea’s concept of each student having the means for hands-on investigations inspired me to develop a field kit for outdoor study.
As an ASB advisor I was very familiar with the contents of the catalogs from the Oriental Trading Company and US Toy. Combing through those catalogs I discovered inexpensive items that could replicate those pieces of equipment commonly used in a formal laboratory. Among other things I filled the study kit with a pair of scissors, a hand lens, a ruler, and hand-made meter tape, a plant press, study plot place-markers, and tools to hold or probe those interesting items found outdoors.
Here’s the breakdown:
$0.15 Small writing pad for taking notes
$0.05 Magnifying glass for examining items
$0.02 Small Cardboard Plant press for collecting samples
$0.05 Cardboard Clipboard & Produce bag rain cover
$0.125 Ruler for measuring
$0.125 Scissors for collecting samples
$0.02 Popsicle sticks for marking sites
$0.06 Small plastic bags for collecting items
$0.02 Acid/ base indicator strips from a spa supply company
$0.15 Crayons for sketching, recording, marking
$0.05 Plastic Scratcher for digging
$0.01 Toothpicks for separating or holding down items
$0.00 Flexible measuring tape made from back-to-back masking tape and marked by students
$0.04 Zip lock bag to keep everything together-marked with the owner’s name.
$0.08 Sales tax
Some other almost free options I found along the way:
Plastic picnic knife for separating items, Old cassette tape boxes for collecting and storing specimens, Paper plates as an examination platform, Coffee filters for separating liquids.
I believe using readily available and inexpensive tools to encourage and nurture the exploration of our natural environment is an effective approach to learning. Especially valuable when the student is alongside their teacher using the same tools. Dr. Alyea once said “A good teacher is one who explains a concept; a better teacher is one who asks questions about the concept; and the best teacher is one who demonstrates the concept then solicits the questions from the students.”
With this Field STEM kit every student can have their own personal set of tools to investigate the natural environment. Even better- they can take them home at the end of the school year and continue to explore the out of doors wherever they go.
Martin Fortin is director of the Chewelah and Cispus outdoor Learning Centers in Washington. He was a science techer for 16 years, and was given the President’s Award from the Environmental Education Association of Washington.
The Utility of Partnerships – Joseph Gale Elementary
Because clean water is part of daily life and it’s readily available, we often take it for granted. It’s easy to see why local utilities, wastewater included, don’t always come to mind as educational partners. In fact, many utilities are eager to partner with schools and community groups to provide relevant and valuable hands-on learning opportunities for students of all ages.
by Ely O’Connor
Clean Water Services
Joseph Gale students explore a marsh at Fernhill Wetlands as part of an erosion unit.
ecause clean water is part of daily life and it’s readily available, we often take it for granted. It’s easy to see why local utilities, wastewater included, don’t always come to mind as educational partners. In fact, many utilities are eager to partner with schools and community groups to provide relevant and valuable hands-on learning opportunities for students of all ages.
Everything we do at Clean Water Services (CWS) aims to protect public health, while enhancing the natural environment Oregon’s Tualatin River Watershed. Combining science and nature, we work in partnership with others to safeguard the river’s health and vitality, ensure the economic success of our region and protect public health for more than 560,000 residents and businesses in urban Washington County.
Education is a big part of work and through participation in the Portland Metro STEM Partnership (PMSP), we’ve connected with several schools and classes that are seeking the very resources, expertise and experiences we offer. These partnerships have led to into the development of in-depth units, standards-aligned curriculum and hands-on experiences for students. Far from the one-off programming we seek to minimize.
Our partnership with the fourth grade classes at Joseph Gale Elementary in Forest Grove is one example of how non-formal educators can lend expertise and relevance to increase student understanding of complex subjects. Over the course of the 2014-15 school year, 60 fourth grade students participated in four classroom and four field experiences to investigate and understand human impacts on erosion in their watershed. To supplement teacher-led lessons, CWS staff led students on tours at Fernhill Wetlands and Forest Grove wastewater treatment facility (less than a mile from school), led field activities to measure erosion potential along a rural stream and identified and planted native species for erosion control. In class, CWS staff led lessons about the Tualatin Watershed, erosion cause and effect, explored a watershed model, and identified and planted native plant species on school grounds.
Beaverton and Forest Grove science teachers get a behind-the-scenes look at how we clean water.
CWS and Hillsboro Water staff also collaborated with the PMSP, Forest Grove and Beaverton School District science teachers to develop a water chemistry unit in 2014-15. The water professionals helped teachers work through lab logistics and protocol, with one Forest Grove teacher training in our lab with certified staff. On a professional development day ten Forest Grove and Beaverton chemistry teachers were co-trained on lab protocol and attended a specialized tour of our Rock Creek facility to learn more about the how we use chemistry (and other science disciplines) to clean water to nearly drinking water standards. In the spring nearly 400 chemistry students at Forest Grove, Aloha and Westview high schools participated in the newly developed unit. CWS staff also attended Forest Grove and Aloha science career fairs to talk about STEM and water careers.
This partnership brought capacity to our education and outreach efforts through leveraging resources. In the past, working directly with 400 students would have been a challenge.By training the teachers and assisting with curriculum development, we’ve extended our reach and supported the development of standards-based units. We love working directly with students when possible, but would definitely like to replicate the teacher training and support model.
Both of these partnerships brought the opportunity to engage hundreds of students and several teachers in our community in a way that meets our education goals and supports NGSS and STEM learning. We’ve also been able to use Clean Water Services resources and staff in a sustainable way to extend classroom learning and show real-world applications in the local community.
I would encourage looking for non-formal education partners inside your community but outside the norm. Connect with your local utilities, cities, business and non-profits to show students local examples and bring context to lessons.
To learn more about Clean Water Services’ education programs check out our Student Education Annual Report or contact Ely O’Connor.
Arts and Humanities in the Sciences? Is that incongruous, or what?
By Jim Martin
Have you ever ‘felt’ the weather as cloud formations began to change? I love to watch Mares’ Tails form; multiple long extensions of a cumulus cloud that race out ahead, then turn up and curl back. They signal a change in the weather; an eye-catching choreography in the sky; a dance students could perform to learn about weather. I started teaching biology to college students in 1970, and had no thoughts about using the arts and humanities in my delivery. I was open to them; my childhood and youth were infused with them. But I saw no way to employ them because it seemed to me that they were an adjunct, a vehicle I would have to tack onto an already overloaded syllabus.
Then, a few years later, concerned about the quality of my general biology (Bio 101) students’ understandings, and wondering what they were learning during their K-12 years, I accepted an opportunity to teach a 7th grade self-contained classroom. Before the first day of school, I decided not to use the school’s language arts texts and workbooks. They were utterly boring; pages to go through so you could answer a few tedious questions. So, I organized my own curriculum. In one part, the delivery vehicle was drama. We stretched sheets across the length of the classroom, and began to write and perform scripts.
I used these scripts, and their repetitious deliveries to teach topics like DNA and protein synthesis, natural selection, and more. While doing that, I discovered that certain pieces of the science were learned well with this method, so this integrated way of teaching started to become a vehicle I used to teach multi-disciplinary units in language, performance arts, and science.
This is beginning to sound ominous! Don’t despair. I did these things because I was comfortable with them. For one thing, I was teaching both language arts and science to this class. Since we were in the same classroom all day, it was an easy thing to do. I can tell you this: If you can find the courage to try to use one piece of the arts and humanities in one science activity, you might discover the strength of this method in helping students understand the concepts they are studying. And, developing critical thinking and executive functions you might not have noticed they carry with them.
Be patient. Let me finish this reminiscence, and we’ll get to the pragmatic details of how you might try one small activity; and assess it. Not long after, I found myself learning what I could of the human brain; how it learns, how it expresses these learnings. This set me on a journey I still travel. An interesting viewpoint on that journey was one where I could see the parts of the brain, and their connections (critical piece there) that were used to conceive a visualization of a piece of art, then execute its expression in the finished piece itself. Contrary to what I’d always assumed, that art and science used different parts of the brain for their work, both used nearly the same parts and their connections. No wonder my tentative attempts to teach art and science together seemed to work! While we isolate and jurisdict the disciplines, the brain does not.
It’s challenging to meet science standards and benchmarks by using the arts and humanities as vehicles for teaching to these standards. The main reason teachers who do this continue the practice is that students’ learnings stay with them. After they take the test, they don’t forget what they have learned. The Seeking System, as described by Jaak Panksepp, is a coordinated effort between the limbic system and the cortex which can lead to conceptual learnings, encourages conceptual learning by engaging learners in an active learning inquiry which builds on students’ curiosity. It’s this state of expectant curiosity which keeps students on-task, seeking an answer, finding out. Like observing paramecia flitting about among algae on a microscope slide. What are they? What are they doing? Where are they going? Curiosity a fair wind which drives their sails, students will devour the books and internet for information they seek.
While this state is initiated in the limbic, a part of the brain which does little thinking, it engages, via prompts from the limbic to the prefrontal cortex (pfc), which processes students’ thoughts, engages critical thinking, brings to working memory in the pfc other relevant information, and performs the executive functions which keep learners on task, following their plan. Learnings there then move back to the cortical regions brought on line, where they become connected; long-term memories, which can be called out via any of the neural circuits brought to the pfc to deal with this new experience.
Let’s look at an activity which incorporates the arts and humanities to drive a science unit in weather. Teachers have used dance to help their students learn the meteorological processes that cause phenomena like Mares’ Tails. You can do the observation any time in the year, then recall it when your class does meteorology. Or, start the dance when you make the observation, and finish in the appropriate unit. When students observe Mares’ Tails, then build a dance around what they have observed, they follow an interesting trail into meteorology to discover the processes involved in producing Mares’ Tails. And, even better, their connection to subsequent weather. Then, students and the teacher can use this newly learned information to better inform the choreography they are constructing.
As they observe and find out about Mares’ Tails, the fact that they are also observing for the clouds’ dynamics will engage the Seeking System in many students; the quest to find out. Engaging the idea of dance and Mares’ Tails will pique the curiosity of others. And, a very nice coincidence, both alert the prefrontal cortex and initiate the critical thinking and executive direction capacities of the brain as they build an abundance of routes to relevant memory, which your students use to move effortlessly through the landmarks delimited in Bloom’s Taxonomy.
While relatively simple, the teaching and learning in an activity like this is challenging for teachers. It is definitely not part of most of our pre-service and in-service professional educations. We all want to teach well, and to understand what and how we are teaching. If, like most Americans, the arts and humanities aren’t an integral part of our teachers’ developmental experience, incorporating them into our teaching is uncomfortable at best. In spite of this, in time, this sort of integrated teaching will have wider acceptance, but just now it seems like an adjunct to most education. I say this: The education establishment in America is woefully unfamiliar with the brain and its processes in learning, and its relationship with the rest of the body currently being described in the area of embodied cognition; the close coupling of processes in the brain and processes in the rest of the body. We need to have the courage to begin to explore this lucrative, brain-based teaching modality. The brain is the organ of learning.
By actively participating in the process of using dance to begin to learn about Mares’ Tails, both teacher and students incorporate the learning in long-term conceptual schemata they will carry with them. This is because the conceptual information they have learned is available via multiple neural pathways; much better than being accessed only by reading a question stem. Both the dance and the science inquiry follow similar trails through the brain. This is in contrast to the effect of relying on what Panksepp terms the limbic’s Fear System; the anxiety of some degree which is associated with learning science facts in order to pass a test. In this case, the information is stored by itself, un-connected to other relevant conceptual information stored elsewhere, and with no connection to the real-world memories produced during active learning. If students are to carry what they learn into their lives, they need to learn it in authentic ways. Seeking’s learnings are remembered; Fear’s are forgotten after the test. This means that the teacher has to be committed to this learning modality. And, committed to taking on only that which she is comfortable with. Should you want to try, but are unsure, you can contact a dance teacher to help, or a colleague who has taken dance. Lots of them around. You could even check a dance studio. Most people who work in the arts and humanities are open to help.
Here is a breakdown of planning steps a hypothetical teacher might take in preparing to deliver the Mares’ Tails meteorology/dance section of a unit on weather. As you read each step, ask yourself if you could do it now. You might surprise yourself.
1) Observe Mares’ Tails; either a serendipitous observation, or consult a meteorologist to find out when to expect them. Difficult until you’ve positively identified one; fun and easy after that. Students can do this as homework, or as a whole class if Mares’ Tails occur during a class. (You may have noticed that weather doesn’t program itself to coordinate with school schedules. Or their needs.)
2) During the observation, have students note any dynamics in the clouds. This is a good time to suggest the idea of clouds dancing.
3) If their interest is piqued, raise the idea of a Mares’ Tail dance; otherwise wait.
4) First approximation of the dance. Note questions which arise within groups.
5) Ask the class what more can they find out about Mares’ Tails. Give them time to find out.
6) Incorporate this information into the choreography. Name the dance’s sections from meterological learnings. (Note: I was feeling creative, in Seeking mode, by this time, and that’s when my pen wrote, “. . . (n)ame the dance’s sections from meteorological learnings.” Words and a visualization just popped up. Evidence my prefrontal cortex was coming on line. One of the things Seeking does.)
7) Perform the dance for an audience, and explain the meteorology; perhaps by dance section.
8) Two assessments or tests: Yours, based on their work; and a standard test from your publisher or the web. Compare results.
9) Assess the project: you, your students, their audience.
10) Write an article for Clearing and send it 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.”