Some teachers say today’s students know very little about where their food comes from, or why they should worry about the health of local fish and wildlife. And they say that makes subjects like biology and ecology boring. It also reduces students’ interest in protecting the environment. These teachers are finding a way to bring science home. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Linda Stephan reports:
Some teachers say today’s students know very little about where their food comes from, or why they should worry about the health of local fish and wildlife, and they say that makes subjects like biology and ecology boring. It also reduces students’ interest in protecting the environment. These teachers are finding a way to bring science home. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Linda Stephan reports:
In the Great Lakes region, home is never far from the water…
(teachers yelling to each other)
And these science teachers aren’t far from home either. They’re at the Lake Michigan shoreline pulling out a 150 foot net to catch fish. The teachers are getting an in-depth look at environmental issues near their homes in Michigan. And in return, they’ll weave those topics into their lessons this fall.
Today, their task is to catch a sample of fish, identify them by species, and to figure out whether those types of fish can survive in polluted waters. In the end, they’ll decide whether to let a hypothetical development group build a marina here. Michigan Department of Natural Resources biologist Todd Kalish built the scenario based on proposals he’s seen.
“This is a diagram of the proposed marina. They’re going to have to dredge about eighty cubic yards of sediment, and they’re also going to construct seawalls.”
Kalish says dredging will stir up sediment that can hurt some types of fish. Simply labeling fish will get some students’ attention, but Kalish says teachers can get more interest from more students by combining that lesson with his marina proposal. And it will also teach students how the environment is affected when we build things.
This training is the brainchild of Mary Whitmore, a curriculum developer. She’s using students’ local communities to inspire them to care about science, and she’s using science to inspire students to care about their communities. Whitmore’s setting up similar trainings in a lot of towns. She says investigating each community separately is a lot of work, but it’s necessary.
“My attitude has shifted completely from focusing solely on teachers – which I did for many, many years – to suddenly realizing that unless communities become meaningfully engaged with their schools, educating young people is going to become an increasingly difficult problem.”
Whitmore says that’s particularly true with life sciences. She says the subject’s ultimately about diagnosing and solving problems. And just talking about what some scientist has already figured out or simply labeling a fish misses the critical point for students. Who cares?
Whitmore says that’s especially true today when fresh water seems to come from bottles, instead of from a stream or a creek and produce at the grocery store rarely comes from a local farm. She says these days we’re not really connected with the environment that keeps us alive. But Whitmore says with the help of local environmental groups and other community partners, teachers can fit those lessons into the standard curriculum.
“As a high school teacher, I know I have to teach about, let’s say, ecology. And so, what I’m going to do is use water as a theme for my teaching about ecology. And I’m going to still be teaching the state standards and benchmarks in science. But I’m going to be doing it in a way that is much more meaningful for my students.”
Whitmore says teachers who attended her first training last year changed how they teach. They’re doing projects that mean something to students. One’s working with students to build rain gardens, others are raising salmon.
Teachers here today say it was already their goal to incorporate local issues in the classroom, but some say they couldn’t effectively teach on local issues because they didn’t understand those issues themselves. Christie Jenemabi Johnston teaches seventh through twelfth grade. She was impacted by a tour of the local wastewater treatment plant.
“Yes, I know how water treatment is done, and the essentials and the mechanics of it. But I never really took it to heart as far as what it meant in my immediate surroundings. And it just – it makes a big difference now.”
And she says knowing those things can help her students to get involved in their community. Of course in the end, if this model is to be truly successful it has to grab the attention of students, not just teachers. While the teachers were taking fish from the nets, a couple elementary-aged children were swimming nearby and they came over to see what was caught.
“Come on and look!”
“Wanna see ’em?”
“Oh, just little baby ones.”
“I don’t know are they all baby fish just because they’re little?”
If these kids are any indication of student response in the classroom, the programs just might work.
For the GLRC, I’m Linda Stephan.