A wary preteen approached a dragonfly larva at the Boston Nature Center, EDC’s Bernie Zubrowski recalls. He watched expectantly.
“Kids—especially city kids—don’t usually have extended contact with nature,” says Zubrowski. “It’s important to get them off the computer and more comfortable with the natural world around them.”
That’s why, in 2007, EDC developed a project called “Using Informal Explorations of Living Phenomena to Enhance Science Learning” in partnership with the Program Evaluation and Research Group at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
This project takes an in-depth look at young people’s experiences with trees and pond organisms.
Middle school students participating in the afterschool program head outside to explore, study, draw, and photograph various tree species and pond organisms at the Boston Nature Center as well as through 4-H clubs in southern New Hampshire.
“Each day, the students have an easier time talking about what they observe,” Zubrowski says. “Eventually, they begin to approach some of these organisms with some coaching by staff.”
The project aims to get kids outside and back in nature.
“Ten or 20 years ago, kids did not have computers and were probably watching less TV. Now we have to make an effort to get kids outdoors, because they’re not outdoors as much on their own,” says Zubrowski.
Like the preteen he once watched recoil at a dragonfly larva, he says today many kids from the city are skeptical of things in nature that they can’t detect. They shudder at their first encounter with a macroinvertebrate living in a pond, shrug off the differences between local maple and oak trees, and altogether overlook the tiny planktonic crustaceans so vital to the freshwater food chain.
“In the beginning, students will make a simple, schematic drawing of tree,” says Zubrowski. “By the end, their drawings become more detailed, and they can talk more about what they observe and their structure.”
The curriculum also places an emphasis on observing changes of trees over the seasons and changes in pond organisms over several months—with a little help from technology, of course.
“So far we’ve found that digital cameras help motivate the kids to establish a deeper personal connection to the natural world,” he says.
And kids will be able to continue to explore even after the project’s grant from the National Science Foundation and Research on Learning in Formal and Informal Settings runs out in 2010. “The curriculum will be available online for other afterschool programs to use on EDC’s Center for Science Education website within a year and a half,” says Zubrowski.
In addition, EDC will produce two extensive biology units based on the afterschool project, as well as a manual for developing similar programs. The hope is that the manual will impact program developers field wide, and the curriculum will be used at hundreds of afterschool programs.
“We expect students to walk away with a rich foundation of out-of-school experiences so they can more readily grasp similar concepts introduced during school inside the classroom,” he says.
Originally published on July 14, 2009