This is the second of two free articles from Vol 118 of Green Teacher. It is written by Maria Jeanneau and Iain Phillips.
TO ENGAGE STUDENTS in environmental issues, we must first engage them in science, which involves them learning scientific literacy — the process of learning how to carry out scientific investigations, and about the community of scientists. Many teachers default to a routine of lectures, labs, and tests, but science is so much more! How can we rekindle the joy and excitement of science in schools? In this article, we describe Maria’s experience with designing and teaching a science day-camp for 6–10-year-olds to demonstrate how any teacher can create a successful scientific activity in and outside the classroom for learners of all ages. As teachers, we need to invite students to live out real-world scientific investigations in which students believe they are contributing to something greater. Based on our experiences, we have determined that educators need to design scientific activities that are: (1) constructed from real, local scenarios; (2) experiential in nature; and (3) problem-based. This article will explain how Maria incorporated these three components in her learning activity so that you might apply it to your own teaching as well. We believe that repeated experiences like these can create a generation of people who are interested in scientific discoveries and current environmental issues.
Real local scenarios
Even by age six, most students have already heard about climate change, littering, and pollution. They learn that they need to do their part for the big global issues, but it is challenging to convince students that they are making a difference. Rather than focusing on the turtles in ocean, put your efforts towards a local problem. There are many environmental issues in every community in need of solutions — a teacher just needs to look. A few topics to start with include water or waste management, endangered species, habitat protection, or the effects of new infrastructure. The most crucial part of creating engaging scientific experiences is taking that first step to investigate issues, ask questions, and learn about your local environment. Drawing on real, local scenarios can be immensely motivational for any class.
The program that we — Maria and Iain (Executive Director of Troutreach) — created was based on examining the effects that the weir in Saskatoon has on the South Saskatchewan River system with a focus on how it affects the at-risk Lake Sturgeon. The weir is a concrete structure built during the depression-era and has caused much controversy in recent years. The weir creates an interesting line of water across the river, and has become a popular viewing site. Pelicans frequent the weir because they can see the fish coming over it. Also, the change in flow has formed an island just upstream which has become a useful roost for multiple species of birds. However, the weir is dangerous, providing a downdraft in the river which contributes to drowning deaths. Ecologically, fish cannot get upstream of the weir, and thus, their territories are limited and, for some species, their spawning is interrupted. The macroinvertebrate communities above and below the weir have been fundamentally altered, indicating that two different ecosystems have developed as a result of the weir operation. Because of these impacts, there is growing public support for removal of the weir; however, many are eager to maintain the weir’s function as it currently exists, valuing the pelicans and other birds on the upstream island. Some believe a compromise is possible, whereby part of the river would continue to fall over a barrier, while the other part would be less obstructed. Based on our research and conversations with various parties, we were able to design a day-camp that would help children aged 6–10 gain an interest in a problem so close to home.
Throughout the day, we discussed only local (provincial) ecosystems and organisms, supporting the children to draw on their past experiences to contribute valuable information. For example, Maria asked if they could name any fish we have in Saskatchewan, and they yelled out jack, walleye, trout, etc. They enjoyed the chance to share their knowledge and memories of family fishing trips with their friends, while remaining on topic. From there, Maria was able to transition into teaching about Lake Sturgeon in the South Saskatchewan River and even had a member of the Troutreach team bring a frozen sturgeon from the lab for the kids to touch.
To help make environmental issues real, we suggest taking your class outside every chance you get. How can a student be interested in the environment if they haven’t had opportunities to be in it? We chose to set up our activities in a park near the weir so that the children would get a chance to see it for themselves. After a few hours of learning about sturgeon, pelicans, and the weir, we walked down to the river where the kids could view the construction. They watched the pelicans and were awed at the fast-moving river as they talked among one another about fish, birds, and the weir. This led to a great “ah-ha” moment for all as they watched the water flow over the weir, with a few students remarking, “Ohhh… Now I understand why the sturgeon can’t get over the weir!” It took them until that moment for everything to click. Even though Maria had explained the situation and shown pictures, and the children had played with a model of the weir, seeing the weir with their own eyes was pivotal for understanding.
Right before heading home, one girl noted, “I didn’t know this was real life. I thought this was just a science project!” School seems to condition students to believe their in-class learning is only for school; the learning comes from texts or from simulations, and is not part of the out-of-school world. From this student’s comment, we learned that children need to get out of their classrooms, to see science in operation. By making science real, students will be motivated to learn more. Take the students to learn about issues in their local communities. There are many local issues!
Making connections within the community can provide many opportunities for you and your students. Maria was able to invite Iain and a few members of the Troutreach team to share their knowledge and resources with the kids. They provided the children with “pails of river” collected that morning, which contained a variety of macroinvertebrates for the children to examine, play with, and identify. The children were highly engaged with these tiny living creatures as they watched them swim around in the pails. In small groups, the children talked, screamed, and laughed as they tried to capture the macroinvertebrates to observe them more closely in smaller containers with magnifying glasses. The children learned much more from observing and playing with the macroinvertebrates than they would have if they had just been identifying pictures on a sheet of paper. They learned not only the names of these species, but also their relative sizes and behaviors. This activity fueled inquiry-based investigations without any adult prompting. The children were able to ask Iain, an aquatic ecologist, questions as he went from group to group. Having a local expert interact with the children was invaluable as he could answer their questions as well as provoke further investigations. He was a far better source than the internet since he knew what the children were looking at, and could wonder alongside them while he prompted them to try other investigations.
Learners, young and old, learn better if they experience what they are learning about directly. Science, as much as or more than any other human endeavor, has been built on experiences, thoughtful sense making, and community collaboration. There is a role for transmitting some of the accumulated human knowledge to children, so that they don’t have to “discover” everything that has already been learned; however, for the learning to be engaging and meaningful, children need to experience questions worthy of answering, and be involved in finding the answers.
Which parts should the teacher tell the students about, and which should the children experience and explore? That is a perennial question facing teachers. This issue can only be resolved in context. For the particular activity we were doing with the children, it did not matter if they understood how different species were assigned their names; thus, we told them that this was a beetle, this a crayfish, and this a sturgeon. It did matter that the children recognized that these species interact, live together in rich ecosystems, and that this particular ecosystem has been disrupted by the weir.
The experiential aspects of the Troutreach program kept the children entertained and interested in science on a hot and sunny day. Experiential activities are collectively a fun way to learn, but the teacher must constantly monitor the sense children are making of their experiences. To introduce the problem for the sturgeon, I modified a simulation from Project Wild, and built an obstacle course (kinesthetic learning) to utilize the high energy levels of these young children. The course represented obstacles that Lake Sturgeon encounter as they travel down the South Saskatchewan River to the confluence of South and North Saskatchewan Rivers (the Forks) for the winter, and then back up the river to spawn. This obstacle course included jump-rope “turbines” to represent the Gardiner Dam on the South Saskatchewan River, adult supervisors as “pelicans” and “fishermen” to tag the children who were the “sturgeon” as they ran by, and then, a long jump to represent the “weir” at Saskatoon. The objective of the game was to swim downstream, spend four months at the Forks, swimming back and forth four times (past fishermen and pelicans), and return upstream to spawn in the spring. Once the children became familiar with the game, we made the long jump distance at the end of the obstacle course impossible to jump over. This represented the sturgeon’s inability to get over the weir in Saskatoon since sturgeon cannot jump and there is no fish passage there. This frustrated the children as they tried again and again to clear the jump and complete the obstacle course.
To help the children make sense of their experiences, I explained the sturgeon situation in relation to the impossible jump. The children’s frustration with the impossible jump helped them to develop empathy for the sturgeon. I noted that the weir also affects other species in the river, and the children increasingly began to develop a passion about the weir and its effects. The non-experiential content that we wanted them to learn was now more meaningful, and they were attentive as we told them about the patterns, reproduction, and physical characteristics of the sturgeon; the history, purpose, and function of the weir; and the effects that the weir has on fish, birds, and people. At the beginning of the day, the children did not know what a sturgeon or a weir was, and by the end, they were properly using these words in conversations among themselves.
For students: actually experiencing the problems, seeing, hearing, and feeling them can make a huge difference in being able to understand why there is a problem. The teacher can support the children in making sense of the experiences. The teacher may set up constraints, and offer other materials to provoke children into thinking in particular directions. These constraints and provocations support the children in solving the problems with minimum input from teachers.
To make learning about science and the environment meaningful to students, we need to provide them with real-world problems in need of solutions. Teachers can be creative when inviting students to create solutions and become advocates for environmental issues. Students can write letters to the government, companies, or organizations that might help them. They can use a demonstration or simulation to represent a problem and their ideas to solve it. They can create an initiative to make a difference by becoming hands-on in their own school and environment. The sky is the limit when they have flexible teachers willing to support creative solutions.
There are currently a handful of solutions for the weir that have been presented to the city of Saskatoon, but each solution comes with its own consequences. The children’s inquiries supported them in understanding these. For example, we provided the children with a flume demonstration of the weir to help them further understand why fish cannot swim upstream past the weir (Figure 1). As their interest in the subject grew, the children asked Iain, the scientist, and Maria, the teacher, question after question. They asked things like, “Why is there a weir, then?” and “Why don’t they take it down?” We discussed this option, but also challenged them to create a solution that would allow sturgeon to travel over the weir. In groups, the children sketched their ideas, and then, with the flumes and a handful of materials, tested them.
Interestingly, with the diversity of solutions, every child had a reason or theory for why their solution would work, which they represented in their drawings and conversations. Once the children had built their models, they tested their fish passages by dragging a fly fish hook through the water loosely attached to a string (Figures 2 & 3). If the angle were too steep, the fly fish hook would fall off the string. If they succeeded in carrying the fish upstream and downstream without losing the fish, they had the instant gratification of having designed an effective solution. This simulation allowed the learners to test ideas and recognize success without a checkmark or an “A”. All groups and individuals had interesting ideas, including a tunnel under the weir, and a mill to lift the fish over, but the general solution that seemed to work best with the materials provided was to build a gradual slope to help the fish swim upstream and over the weir.
We hope that this problem-based learning activity might inspire the children to take action on local ecological problems, drawing on scientific conceptual knowledge as they continue to grow and learn.
Teachers can plan for learning the outcomes of the science curriculum by considering local problems, and determining which of the outcomes most easily apply to those problems. They can then organize for the students to experience the problem in a tangible way. As this project shows, seeing the actual problem makes a difference to the level of engagement, as well as to the consideration of potential solutions. Nearly all global issues — poverty, food security, patenting of foods, endangered ecosystems, etc. — can be exemplified in a local way.
Drawing on local issues also allows children to learn about the role of science in their society, because students can get directly involved in carrying out research, such as in the case of the weir in Saskatoon. Ideally, teachers will be able to take their students to site(s) in question, but if doing so is not possible, building models or creating (or modifying) simulations are useful alternatives that still allow students to engage with the scientific process.
The children of our Troutreach Saskatchewan Kids Program collectively expressed a positive view of science. Most had no plans of ever becoming scientists, but they were engaged in the scientific information and activities all the same. By observing what made the children light up and by listening to their feedback, we determined three key attributes of our Saskatchewan Kids Program that made it successful. To build on our learning, we recommend that teachers create learning experiences that are real in the context of their students’ worlds, experiential, and problem-based. Thereby, we can get kids “doing” science and loving it!
Maria Jeanneau is now an alumna of the College of Education at the University of Saskatchewan and a former employee of Troutreach Saskatchewan. She was the outreach coordinator for the NGO Troutreach Saskatchewan (www.troutreachsk.com), an ecological research center, focusing on healthy water ecosystems. Janet McVittie, University of Saskatchewan, is a faculty member in the Department of Educational Foundations at the University of Saskatchewan where she teaches and researches place-based and land-based education towards supporting greater social and ecological justice. Iain Phillips is an aquatic ecologist, with a keen interest in macroinvertebrates and aquatic food webs. He is the Senior Aquatic Macroinvertebrate Ecologist for the Water Security Agency, an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biology, University of Saskatchewan, and is the founder of Troutreach Saskatchewan.