Ecological education program gives educators a kid's-eye view

The Baltimore Sun

On an ordinary weekday, Kathleen Tunney teaches seventh-grade Life Science at Burleigh Manor Middle School. But Friday, she and about 20 other teachers became students for the day.

"It was funny how everyone went straight from being a teacher to [being a] student. It didn't take long to slip back to being 12 years old," said Tunney.

On the school system's Professional Development Day, these middle school teachers visited the Girl Scouts of Central Maryland's Camp Ilchester and engaged in Project Wild activities designed for their students.

"It's always good to do an activity before your students because you know all the pitfalls," said Jennifer Furman of Hammond Middle. "You feel more comfortable using it in your classroom."

The state Department of Natural Resources sponsors Project Wild, a K-12 conservation and environmental education program that includes free workshops and resource books for educators.

"Project Wild is a fun way for Scout leaders, schoolteachers, any youth leader to get their students ... to learn the important ecological concepts," said Project Wild state coordinator Marilyn Mause.

Mause acted as the teacher throughout the day, guiding the other adults in Project Wild activities.

"[Mause is] modeling everything they are supposed to do [in the classroom]," said professional development facilitator Lynn Birdsong.

The teachers participated in outdoor activities such as "How Many Bears Can Live in the Forest."

Mause "spread out cards that were food," said Hammond Middle teacher Mark McCullin. The participants, or "bears," raced to pick up as many cards as possible. "I was the blind bear, and I didn't get any food, and I died," McCullin added.

While fun, the activities illustrate key concepts such as carrying capacity, competition for resources, and biodiversity.

"We're very lucky that the science department organized this because it's 100 percent lessons we can take back to the classroom and use," said Melanie Poknis of Mount View Middle.

Said Mause: "One thing that teachers pick up on right away is that they don't need a big budget for these activities and yet a lot of great things can happen."

While seventh-grade Life Science teachers made up the majority of participants, a few special education teachers also attended.

"This training is an inclusive piece. The lessons they're presenting can be used across the board in general and special education," said Patuxent Valley Middle special education coordinator Warren Tilley. He added that Project Wild's hands-on quality helps both special and general education students retain their knowledge.

"These are good tools," Tilley said, referring to the "bear box" that contains a bear hide, a plastic bear skull, plastic bear scat, and other items. Project Wild lends the Black Bear Education Trunk and White-Tailed Deer Trunk to educators for a couple of weeks at a time.

"It's also multidisciplinary in content and grade level," Tilley said. "There's a little math in averages and population, so you're reinforcing math skills in the science curriculum."

The group also incorporated some English skills in "Wetland Metaphors" by comparing objects to a wetland habitat.

Next, "Fashion a Fish" tapped the teachers' artistic side to address the topic of aquatic adaptations.

"Look how excited they are," said Birdsong, as the teachers crowded around a bin full of markers, googly eyes, straws, paper plates and brown bags.

One team created a fish that controlled another fish with radio signals. Other fish had camouflage or whiskers to aid in navigation.

Just as the adults enjoyed presenting their designs, middle school students also like to strike a balance between structure and creativity, many teachers said.

"Giving them that freedom of choice is really critical in middle school," said Furman.

In addition to a section on ecology, Project Wild offers sections called "Social and Political Knowledge" and "Sustaining Wildlife and Fish Resources."

"This is where the students move from learning to action," Mause said. "This is especially applicable for middle and high school students [who might develop] their own projects."

As the teachers participated, they discussed Project Wild's possibilities in the classroom.

"You can bounce ideas off other professionals," said Furman. For instance, "How would this work with GT [gifted and talented] versus special education?"

Some of the teachers had participated in previous Project Wild workshops but returned for fresh ideas and an updated book.

The participants hope to instill in youth a love of learning and "a sense of commitment in caring for the environment," said Birdsong.

Poknis aims to make environmentalism relevant for her students with lessons about local bears and white-tailed deer.

"It's going to bring to life the vocabulary. And in the county, they're very familiar with the white-tailed deer. They see them on the sides of the highway," she said.

Said Birdsong: "That's what we're all about - real-world applications. It's this kind of thing that turns kids on to science at all ages."

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