Taking Class Outdoors with Environmental Education

>>Narrator: The sounds of spring
in Apple Valley, Minnesota, rain falling, birds singing,
and students learning.>>Teacher: Open up
“Find Wild Ginger.” It’s on page 59.>>Narrator: These students at the
School of Environmental Studies, just outside Minneapolis, are learning to identify
the plants growing around a pond next to their school.>>Teacher: Why do you
think it says, “A base?”>>Student: Like down
towards the bottom, maybe the animals spread the seeds?>>Teacher: Excellent.>>Narrator: There won’t be a multiple
choice test on what they’ve learned, because there are few tests here. instead, they’ll apply their
knowledge later in the week when they conduct a
survey of plant material for the City’s Parks Department.>>Student: Well, it looks
like they’re budding.>>Narrator: This kind of
hands-on exploration is part of the school’s unique
interdisciplinary approach to project-based learning
in service of the community.>>So there’s red and black
raspberry right here.>>Dan: We’re a two-year high
school, eleventh and twelfth grade. And when kids come into the
school, it’s a little bit of a transition time
coming into the school, because this is quite different. When the juniors come
into the school, right away they’re doing
something called a pond profile. And we work with the local
communities, and we have 20 ponds and lakes that we are monitoring
every year since we’ve been open. And now this is our seventh year. And so the kids go out and do a
chemical analysis of the water. They also will write
a technical paper, and then they present their findings to the water commissioners
from the local cities. And those people actually will
be assessing the student work. And what we find is it
really raises the bar for kids in their performance. And what we also find is that kids
tend to remember what they’ve learned down the road, because they
put so much effort into it, and they work with other students
to create a high-end product.>>Could use one more, I think.>>We need way more.>>Narrator: While the school offers
courses in many different subjects, including art, and
multi-media production, the environmental focus
informs everything. From a video promoting the
Minneapolis Zoo’s Winter Monorail Ride, to this fish sculpture, made
from recycled plastic bread tabs.>>Craig: Having the environment
as a core is a great foundation, because it’s something that
everyone is connected with.>>Teacher: You can see that there’s
a large amount of debris in here, which you would expect
in a [inaudible] pool.>>Craig: A lot of the students
are very involved in the outdoors. They go hiking. They go camping. They have a woods in their backyard. So it’s a connection that
they have with everything that they can build off of.>>Teacher: So that would be one
of the predators of the pond.>>Amanda: I can’t learn
from a textbook. I can’t concentrate. I just don’t have the ability
to concentrate like that. And here, with the hands-on
activities that we do, and the integration of
everything into our daily lives, it helps me observe the
information a lot better.>>Do guys see little holes in there?>>What do you think made those holes?>>Mice.>>Ants?>>Ants, What else?>>Narrator: The students get a
chance to apply what they’ve learned by doing community service work, like
explaining the function of ecosystems to a group of first graders.>>No, fungus is more
like a mushroom-type.>>Narrator: Involvement
with the community was one of the guiding principles of the
school when it was founded in 1995 in partnership with its
neighbor, the Minnesota Zoo. SES students are engaged in a
variety of activities at the zoo, from animal behavior studies
to theater performances.>>A zoo detective’s job is
both intriguing and complex.>>Grant: They’ve been
performing on weekends out here, “They Mystery of the
Ravished Rainforest.” It’s a half-hour kids’ show. Very interactive, very fun. Just try to make it real
light, and hopefully get across an important message, which is that rainforests are
worth conserving.>>Go away, we don’t want
any more humans here. Go away, get out of here!>>Ahhhh, Detective!>>Grant: I often find it fun
to have these kids come to me with their ideas of what they want to
do with the project, and then I try to show them, “Okay, that’s a great
idea, but let’s see how it can work in the real world, you know?” And I think that’s what
the Zoo can do for them.>>Lynda: You remember like a while
ago, there was like something that looked like a battery?>>Narrator: Lynda Staus
is studying the behavior of the Zoo’s Snow Monkeys, a project that earns her school credit
while providing a valuable service to the Zoo. Lynda: For example, I’ll
write down whether Niko, our only male, is mating with anyone. I’ll write that down, and
then I’ll watch those girls to see whether they get bigger, or
they seem to be treated differently. Because zookeepers use that
information to tell whether or not they’re going to be pregnant.>>Grant: We can provide them with
the resources, with the experts to help them kind of shape
their ideas and grow. And I really think that’s,
you know, true education. That’s how kids, you know, learn.>>Tom: You know you’re going
to start at this point…>>Narrator: In the nearby town of
Eagan, Tom Goodwin’s students are about to put their
knowledge of plant material and trigonometry to the test.>>Tom: And then from
there, you’re going to go into your plot, and you know…>>Narrator: They would be working
in small teams to identify plants, and measure the height of trees
in a swatch of park land scheduled for recreational development.>>Gregg: In any growing city,
which Eagan is, where you seem to always have more work than we
have staff to be able to do it, in my experience with the School
Environment of Sciences has been that they’ve always provided a real
top-notch, high-quality workload or data collection procedure.>>Student: Sixty, again.>>Elizabeth: They’re actually going
to use this information that we get. It’s not just going out and doing
a project, the teachers are going to grade it and that’s it. It’s something that the Eagan Parks
and Wildlife is going to be able to use for years to come.>>Wait, two?>>That’s right here.>>Narrator: Goodwin feels
students gain much more than math and science skills working
on projects like this.>>Thomas: What it does for kids is
gives them a great deal of confidence that they can do just about anything. They don’t necessarily
get better grades, but they develop this sense
that this is worthwhile. And they also develop a sense
about how they want to live. And what they want to
do with their lives.>>Thomas: So this is this
year’s growth of this plant.>>Students: Oh!>>Narrator: The SES hands-on approach
to learning has caused Goodwin to redefine his role as teacher.>>Thomas: I’m a facilitator. I’m a helper. I’m a coach. My relationship with
them is much stronger.>>Thomas: You have some other
herbaceous plants like this one.>>Student: Dandelion.>>Thomas: Dandelion. And this one, do you know this one?>>Student: Mullen.>>Thomas: Right! Mullen.>>Thomas: Their understanding of how the educational
process works is much stronger. Their commitment to the
process is much stronger. So that they come in here as
students, and they become learners.>>Student: What are
you doing for your IDP?>>Student: Site development.>>Narrator: When they’re not working
in the field, students are working in a unique schoolhouse,
designed from the ground up with the learner in mind.>>Dan: Typically, in a
school, you’ll build boxes and then you decide what
to teach in the boxes. We had an opportunity to
design our entire program.>>Craig: If you’re going to talk
about reworking the entire curriculum and moving large chunks around,
no, I’m not comfortable with that. If you’re…>>Dan: We talked about
how kids would learn best. So the whole focus was on student
learning and their learning needs. We talked about some of the
learning episodes that would occur. sometimes it would be larger
groups, sometimes smaller, or sometimes it would be
kids working in teams. And then once we fleshed out
our entire two-year program, then we went to the architect
and said, “We want a building that will meet our expectations for
how kids are going to learn best, and then design the
building to support it.>>Narrator: Renowned school
architect, Bruce Jilk, designed SES.>>Bruce: The organization of
our bricks and mortar does, in fact, influence our behaviors. And if you put 30 kids and a teacher in a 900-square foot
room, guess what? The teacher is going to take control,
and is going to start lecturing. So we needed to break that
mold or model for this school. So just by the fact that
there aren’t classrooms here. That the students, they’re
organized into small groups, brings on a different behavior. And it’s one that really is
designed to focus on the learner.>>Dan: The school is very much a
personalized learning environment. Each student has their
own workstation. There are pods of ten
students working together. And we use a house concept where
100 students are in a house with those same set of
teachers for the entire year. And so by creating that
sense of personalization, by having the flexibility of
space, we’ve really been able to have quite a variety of
learning that takes place.>>Student: Is this your manual
right here that you created?>>Student: This is the
beginning workings of the manual. It’s called “The Safe
School Handbook.” And…>>Narrator: In the Forum Space, students share their individual
research projects with their peers and community members, some of whom
help grade their presentations.>>Student: Driving an SUV has a much
greater impact on the environment than driving most other
passenger cars. Much of this is due to standards
for SUVs that are less stringent than those of smaller passenger cars.>>Narrator: At the
culmination of their studies, seniors deliver speeches on the
subjects of their final projects.>>Student: People putting too
many bad chemicals into the water, and just letting it go down, so
it just sits and poisons the fish. And through biological magnification,
the Tiger Heron is then poisoned, because it eats the fish.>>Narrator: Some report their
findings from research trips to threatened ecosystems
from Alaska and Mexico. Others focus on issues that have
become their personal passion.>>Student: Our recreational use.>>Student: There’s actually
230 endangered species that live in our national forests.>>Narrator: But all of their work
reflects the pride and confidence that comes from putting
knowledge into action.>>Student: Write to someone in
government, and tell them that, “I don’t want you to
be logging our forests. We need to protect this resource.” Sign a petition.>>Amanda: If you look
around at this school, you’ll see so many
confident people walking around with their heads held high,
and they know what they want. And they’re getting the
support that they need.>>Narrator: For more
information on what works in public education,
go to edutopia.org.

2 thoughts on “Taking Class Outdoors with Environmental Education”

  1. If you’re concerned about environmental issues, try the Environmental Studies curriculum Preserving Our Pale Blue Dot,  a featured curriculum published by Go Teach It (https://goteachit.com/curricula/preserving-our-pale-blue-dot-3464). A list of the 191 Activities can be seen at

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