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Modern Learning in the Great Outdoors

In Rocky Mountain National Park, middle school students from St. Vrain Valley School District are sharing a trail with a mountain lion, bear cubs, a coyote, deer, and a skunk intent on spraying the area under cover of darkness.

How do the students know all of this? They’re reviewing videos they collected the previous night taken from cameras they mounted on trees. They got some tips about field science from the park rangers, and now they’re gathering wildlife data and providing it to the park themselves. Their counterparts in high school are contributing in the field, too, working with Ocean First Education. They recently watched divers in the Pacific measuring the length of great white sharks using a device they designed and developed themselves.

Across the country, at BioTECH @ Richmond Heights High School in Miami, science teacher Noelle Gerstman is guiding her students as they analyze the DNA of flamingo feathers. Students are working to determine whether flamingos found in the wild are, in fact, wild or are escapees from a local race track that is home to a flock in captivity. Meanwhile, their schoolmates are collaborating with NASA on the Growing Beyond Earth project, germinating leafy greens, kale, and tomatoes to determine which vegetables are the best to grow in microgravity aboard the International Space Station.

Honing Environmental Literacy

These students are lucky, but it shouldn’t take luck to provide amazing educational opportunities like this. Environmental literacy is a critical skill that all educators should help their students develop. It requires authentic, student-driven, hands-on challenges in which every learner can pursue or discover an interest.

The North American Association for Environmental Education defines an environmentally literate person as “someone who, both individually and together with others, makes informed decisions concerning the environment; is willing to act on these decisions to improve the well being of other individuals, societies, and the global environment; and participates in civic life.” The association goes further to define four areas of competency: knowledge, disposition, skills, and behaviors. In other words, it’s not enough to understand the facts. One must care about and interact with the environment in order to be considered environmentally literate.

In a school setting, it takes a focused dedication to create relevant and rigorous opportunities for students so they can build the skills required to be informed and engaged citizens. Some of the best ways to foster engagement include presenting authentic problems in the classroom, encouraging active solution-seeking, and providing a link between the classroom and the community.

Gerstman finds that it doesn’t take much to get students involved. At BioTECH, student awareness and interest drive the inquiry.

“The changes in sea level at Miami Beach just in the last 10 years, they’re evident: they’re raising the streets in Miami Beach,” she said. “So, the evidence of environmental change is really in our face. The students like to watch the Weather Channel, and a couple of them commented, ‘There’s been no snow in Chicago.’”

For students to be able to understand an authentic challenge, they need knowledge; to create a solution, they need skills; to act, they need to care and connect. An authentic challenge offers a cycle of influence: understanding, application, action. Academicians are used to transferring knowledge and skills, but it is more challenging to teach disposition and behavior. In fact, it may be impossible to teach those concepts directly. However, students who can seize on opportunities for real collaboration and connection soon develop in these areas.

No Walls, No Limits

That’s what is happening with St. Vrain Valley School District’s students in Rocky Mountain National Park. Right alongside the students practicing field science is a group of students more interested in documentation. While one group of students affix cameras to trees and another downloads and analyzes the data, yet another group is documenting the whole endeavor on film, while still others are documenting the documentarians.

The benefits are broad: students gain experience with field science, the communication of scientific ideas, the process of documentation, and collaboration with fellow scientists.

“Learning takes on a whole different realm,” said Mike O’Toole, St. Vrain’s science coordinator. “They’re learning about film making and other 21st-century skills that have become so vital.”

The film documenting their work, “Plains to the Park,” was entirely scripted, narrated, filmed, and edited by middle school students. The final version is virtually indistinguishable from a federal park production, including voice-over narration and professional-looking clips of sweeping blue skies and babbling mountain streams.

Meanwhile in Florida, BioTECH’s high school students are listening to scientists and learning about ongoing mysteries at Zoo Miami. They’ve talked to scientists there and learned that, for some animals, reproductive rates are low. Using background knowledge they gained in the classroom about hormones, the students propose looking at the hormone levels of the animals to see if there are any imbalances that may account for the reproductive pattern. This is an opportunity to learn in the field while addressing a real, unsolved, scientific mystery and, potentially, make a valuable contribution to science at the zoo.

Environmental literacy applies across the STEM spectrum, including projects that require technology, engineering, and math skills. For instance, O’Toole has partnered with Ocean First Education to support divers studying great white sharks. The student contribution to the deep-water dive in the Pacific is a laser-based measurement tool that allows the divers to measure the sharks in motion with a high degree of accuracy. O’Toole, who supports the efforts of science teachers across his district, focuses on creating partnerships with organizations like Ocean First Education and NASA to find rich learning opportunities for students.

So, how is this possible in a district or a school that hasn’t been designed for these types of partnerships and programs? After all, they take funding, time, and intense collaboration with the scientific community.

Starting Small, Dreaming  Big

“It doesn’t have to be anything extravagant. It’s just getting students outside,” he said. “Right now, we’re really focusing on using technology to get students invested in the outdoors.”

In St. Vrain schools, teachers use their schoolyards to begin studying outside. They use a math scavenger hunt in which students are challenged to find examples of math concepts in nature. Elementary school students, each given a camera or tablet, head outside to find something in nature that’s circular or parallel. Or, a teacher might use his or her own interest, such as hiking or gardening, as a jumping-off point and contact a scientist in the community to seek a collaborative opportunity.

Gerstman agrees that you can start locally, with a university partner, for example, but she is convinced that to truly maximize environmental literacy programs, educators need a deep commitment at the federal level in the form of funding. The grant proposal for BioTECH was written by a team of teachers and scientists with the express purpose of funding this biology and botany magnet school. The school has its own analytical chemistry lab, a zoology lab, and a DNA lab and is staffed with veteran teachers, most with advanced degrees in their field.

Even if you’re starting small, with a purposeful use of technology, scientists and students can share and collaborate online. O’Toole regularly uses technology to connect students around the world. He’s invited classrooms in Colorado and Tanzania to connect through a learning expedition at Mount Kilimanjaro, and he shares the excursions online so students everywhere can follow along. During the Discovery Education Virtual Field Trip to Kilimanjaro, students all over the world sported safari gear at school and joined in virtually as the group reached the summit.  Online watch parties, chats, conferences, and social media exchanges are all good ways to expand the impact of environmental projects.

Some contests and challenges are also good for developing environmental literacy and may result in collaborations between students and scientists. Contests with authentic challenges require students to meet all four competency areas: they must learn about the problem, care about it, have or acquire skills to address it, and act.

Discovery Education’s Young Scientist Challenge is an example of this type of challenge. Participating students propose solutions to the world’s most pressing problems, underscoring in the process that humans are affected by and can affect the environment. Finalists have the opportunity to work with scientists from 3M to participate in authentic scientific process and prototyping, including the presentation of results and proposals.

Fostering Citizen Scientists

With all the potential for partnerships and global connection, the most important ingredient in the development of environmental literacy seems to be a dedication to creating opportunities for real scientific learning and impact to occur.

Educators must provide experiences that allow students to develop knowledge and empathy in order to stretch toward a concern for the world and a sense of agency about their part in it. Only then can all the necessary components sync toward environmental literacy.

After all, environmental literacy isn’t a check mark on a mastery list for children or adults. Rather, it is an evolving competency. In our changing world, educators must continue to be involved and informed citizens, preparing the next generation to carry the torch forward.

Jeanette Edelstein is an educator dedicated to making learning more engaging for students of all ages. She has been a classroom teacher, curriculum designer, and program developer. She was a founding teacher and the gifted and talented coordinator at Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts. Her curriculum projects include Hive Alive!, a collection of teaching resources about honey bees, Animal Planet Rescue, a disaster relief and educational vehicle that rescued over 1,000 animals, and CapsinSchool, an elementary curriculum based on the math and science of hockey.

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