Sunday, July 19, 2009

From Texas Prairies to the New Jersey Skyline

This week I am attending the Michelson ExxonMobil Teachers Academy in Jersey City, New Jersey. We will be attending classes at the Liberty Science Center. According to Phil Mickelson, our benefactor, "The Academy is an opportunity for teachers to share best practices with colleagues and pick up tools to positively impact the science and math education students receive."

Right now I am sitting in a beautiful room at the Hyatt overlooking the Hudson River with a view of NYC. This is quite a difference from the flat lands of Texas or even the woodlands of Virginia. As the week progresses, I plan to share my reflections about what I'm learning. It's going to be an exciting week sharing knowledge with teachers from all over the United States. I'm looking forward to it!

Monday, July 13, 2009

My Home on the Range

Returning to my childhood home inTexas, I find myself looking out over the plains wistfully. I remember being on vacation as a child traveling the highways of Texas, it got pretty monotonous. Mile after mile, there was nothing but flat country. You could see all the way to the horizon without a single tree in sight. It seemed to go on forever.

Now those wide open vistas are getting rarer. Motels, restaurants, shopping malls, and housing developments are standing in the place where space used to be. That's sad. I now see that open space with new eyes. Hope it's not too late.

In my research to learn more about the Texas prairie, I discovered an organization to save it called The Great Plains Restoration Council. I found out that "The Fort Worth Prairie ecosystem is a subset of the once famous Southern Tallgrass Prairie. Tallgrass Prairie in general is the most endangered major ecosystem in North America. The Fort Worth Prairie, with perhaps 30,000 scattered acres remaining (was originally 1.3 million acres stretching from just south of the Red River down to Johnson County) is considered G1/G2 (Globally Imperiled)." Not surprisingly, these are endangered lands.

I also discovered that there are several universities in the area who are using this land as an outdoor classroom. This gives me hope and lends some assurance that being outside, learning from nature, is a way for students to become more knowledgeable through hands-on and authentic experiences. In my work with elementary school children in the outdoor classroom, it is my hope that they will both learn and come to love these wide open spaces. Wouldn't it be a shame if years from now when they are on vacation as I am, traveling across Texas, they find themselves saddened by the disappearance of the prairie? They'll turn and say, remember when it seemed to go on forever...

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Nature Explorer Backpacks

To encourage my urban dwelling students to go outside and explore nature in their free time, I found this cool idea from Acorn Naturalists. It's a thematic backpack loaded with resources for exploration. The first backpack I'm going to make up is a general explorer backpack. It will have a junior field guide book on trees, a magnifier, and a couple specimen cases. There are other backpacks that you can pull together on rocks and minerals, flowers, and birds-- to name a few. Kids will be able to check out the backpack for home use and keep it from Friday to the following Friday. They will then be invited to share their findings with the class with specimens, drawings, and notes from their nature journal.

Short outdoor education programs improve children’s science test scores

According to a 2005 study for the California Department of Education, sixth-graders’ scores on a science knowledge test improved by 27% after participating in a week-long outdoor education program. Scores remained higher 6-10 weeks after the program.
“Most of my students have never been out of their neighborhood. Outdoor science school opens them up to the world outside. I have seen many of these students get excited about learning (discovering) after they attend outdoor science school.” —Participating teacher
“Many [students] who do not do well in a classroom setting excel at outdoor science school. They are able to gain a wealth of background knowledge we use for nearly every other academic area.” —Participating teacher
“…[when learning outdoors,] kids are being confronted with science curriculum that is hands-on and all around them and real. When we teach science in the classroom, a lot of it is video oriented, text oriented, but the student is not immersed in it. Just by virtue [of] living in the outdoors, which is the setting they are studying, they are embedded in the curriculum itself.” —Outdoor science school principal
Source: American Institutes of Research (2005). Effects of outdoor education programs for children in California.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

No Child Left Inside - Grants Coming

On April 22, 2009 the U.S. Senate and House bills introduced the “No Child Left Inside Act of 2009.” The bills would provide $100 million in new grants to schools that have adopted environmental literacy plans to provide environmental and outdoor educational opportunities for students and professional development for teachers. No Child Left Inside makes a strong argument for getting children outdoors so that they can learn about their natural environment. Being outside can enhance children’s creativity and critical thinking skills. Environmental topics such as air quality, energy conservation, wildlife protection, become real and help children become better stewards of their environment.

YA Book Recommendation - Hoot by Carl Hiaasen

With a Florida setting and pro-environment, antidevelopment message, author, Carl Hiaasen returns to familiar turf for his first novel for young readers. Characteristically quirky characters and comic twists will surely gain the author new fans. A young runaway boy is on a mission to protect the miniature owls that live in burrows underneath a proposed pancake restaurant. Roy, who has recently moved to Florida from Montana, befriends the homeless boy (nicknamed Mullet Fingers) and takes up his cause, as does the runaway's stepsister. Ages 10-up.

The Motivation Behind Outdoor Education

The best part of growing up in Texas was how my father would take any opportunity to get us kids outside. Any given weekend and often during the week, he'd take us for a drive into the countryside. With him at our side, we would run our energy off exploring creeks, and live oak forests, and prairies. It was through him and his quiet and calm way, that I learned to love nature.

Even though my dad was no scientist, I learned the difference between a tadpole and minnow, between an oak tree and a pecan tree, and the difference between a creek and a river, by joining him in our outdoor adventures. Just think how these experiences built up my word bank, filled me with memories, and enriched me in ways no book or movie ever could!

Being outside in nature creates a sense of exploration and discovery in children. As they cultivate this love of nature, children will develop a respect for it and see its value. Without these informal and sometimes formal learning experiences, students will miss the opportunity to see how we fit into our environment. Someday they will be making decisions between preservation or building another mall or highway. Without a love and understanding of nature, it will be all too easy to tear down a forest, dam a river, or plow over a prairie in the name of progress. It doesn't take that much to help a kid connect to nature-- just go outside and see what happens.