Eco-Science Program Takes Education Outside
Published:October 28, 2008
A new Science curriculum called EcoScience Works is being rolled out this year as part of the Maine laptop initiative, a pioneering program launched five years ago to integrate technology into middle schools across the state.
“The kids are being given the opportunity to be scientists. They're using the same tools as scientists use to figure out ecological problems, and it's empowering.” Kara Wooldrik is environmental education director at Maine Audubon, the environmental conservation advocacy group that helped develop the software, also known as EcoBeaker. The project is funded by the National Science Foundation which Wooldrik says is interested in getting students into technology careers. "And we are interested in getting kids outside as Maine Audubon, so the organizers of the project we’re looking at 'how can we use this laptop program, which is a model across the country, to get kids outside at the same time, while understanding how computers work?’”
“At the moment what they're doing is they are measuring off a transect, so they're looking at a 5 meter by 5 meter plot of land, and what they’re going to do is they're going to inventory that.” Science Teacher Patti Mendelson is overseeing these 8th graders at Philip W. Sugg Middle School in Lisbon Falls as they do field work on nearby farmland. She's using EcoBeaker to teach a unit on field-forest succession, a study of how different types of trees affect the environment. “What they have here is a tree and shrub layer data sheet, so they've got to look at the number of deciduous trees in their transect, the number of conifers, the types of trees that are in that area and the size of them based on their circumference. So what they'll do is after they're finished collecting all this data, they’ll go back to school, we’ll input that data and then what they’ll do is they’ll talk about the successional stage.” “We're trying to find the circumference of them, er, 1.7 meters, so, and then we're trying to figure out how many deciduous and coniferous.. and we put them in the categories.. it's pretty fun.”
Eighth-grade Student John Wentworth particularly welcomes the outdoor aspect of the new curriculum. “We get to be outside and breathing fresh air, instead of stuck in school all day.”
Part indoor computer studies, part outdoor natural discovery, EcoScience Works is available to all middle school students in Maine, including Zachariah Cribbin of Lisbon Falls. ”It helps like to be like active when you're learning, instead of like textbooks. The software like allows you to figure out what really happens in life, and then we go out here and we really see what's happening.”
Biology field trips are nothing new in science, but teacher Patti Mendelson says EcoBeaker is different. ”Because it integrates science and technology with getting kids outdoors. And they're actually able to do a lot of the work that real scientists do, so it's very real world and it really gets them thinking. And it's a great use of the Maine laptop program.”
“With each software element, there's an outside element, a field exercise.” Maine Audubon's Kara Wooldrik says the program, currently only available in Maine, also enables students to study the ecosystems particular to their local environment. “For example there's a lab called Runaway Runoff. That's where you learn about the water that's going into a lake, or into a water body. So with that there's also a field component. The kids do the inside computer lab but then they also go outside to connect it to the real world, so it's tangible.” Wooldrik says she's finding this combination of virtual reality and actual reality causes many schoolchildren to become better environmental stewards. “What's happening is the kids are asking the questions of 'how am I affecting this ecosystem? Does it matter if I pour something down the drain and what's the effect?'”
EcoScience Works is a collaborative project of the Foundation for Blood Research in Scarborough, the Maine Learning Technology Initiative, MIT's Teacher Education Program, SimBiotic Software of New York, and Maine Audubon. It was made available to all 7th and 8th grade teachers in the state at the beginning of the school year.