Restoring Environmental Literacy
Teachers discover authentic lessons in crayfish and caddis flies
By Lee Sherman
The dense grove of willow, ash, maple and alder looks like 100 percent nature's doing. But in fact, the 3,000 towering trees shading the east bank of Marys River in Philomath grew from the vision and dedication of a science teacher and his students.
The riparian restoration that Jeff Mitchell and his biology students accomplished 10 years ago stands as a testament to the power of natural resources education and community collaboration.
"A whole generation has lost their connection to the land," observes Mitchell, a longtime practitioner of environmental field studies at Philomath High School. "My generation were farmers and foresters. But with urbanization and electronics, people have lost track of the land and how it works. We need to restore that literacy in forestry, wetland biology and watershed dynamics."
Now an OSU initiative is helping to re-forge those links. Oregon science teachers are getting hands-on lessons in environmental research through a two-year-old Extension program called Teachers as Researchers. This partnership between the university's Oregon Natural Resource Education Program and the Andrews Forest Long-Term Ecological Research Program is helping educators guide their own students toward authentic, meaningful discoveries - and activism - within their local communities.
Watery Food Web
One late-September afternoon in the shade of Philomath's student-planted trees, 15 high school teachers from Astoria to Roseburg scoop samples from the slippery riverbed with long-handled nets. Then, peering closely through handheld magnifiers, they compare their samples against photos and scientific illustrations on laminated field guides, trying to distinguish "shredders," "collectors," "grazers" and "scrapers" - aquatic invertebrates like caddis flies, crayfish, damselflies, pond snails - that live and feed in healthy Northwest streams. As each creature is identified with the expert input of research ecologist Sherri Johnson of the Pacific Northwest Research Station, it is sorted with its brethren into a white plastic ice-cube tray. The proportions of, say, aquatic worms to pouch snails to blackfly larvae are indicators of the river's ecological balance.
Ultimately, Mitchell points out with a wry smile, the study of stream ecology is all about "who's eating whom. The presence or absence of certain species of aquatic invertebrates can tell you a lot about past and present water quality of the stream."
During the two-day workshop, the teachers also get skills instruction in classroom-based activities like graphing water-quality variables from chemicals and invasive species to organic pollutants and temperatures.
Inspired to Learn
The project's ultimate goal, says OSU's Kari O'Connell, is to get high school students out into the field to conduct their own investigations. Aquatic sampling at Marys River is one of three workshops teachers take during their year-long participation. They also learn about decomposition and carbon cycles at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest near Blue River and about fry and fingerlings at the Oregon Hatchery Research Center near Alsea.
"This project helps teachers engage their students in outdoor settings," says O'Connell, who leads Teachers as Researchers. "Studies show that kids do better on achievement tests, behave better in class, get more excited about learning and feel more pride in their accomplishments when their lessons are tied to real-world environmental issues."
The project is already having an impact in Oregon schools. During 2008, the project's first year, nine of 13 workshop participants made quick use of their newfound skills by engaging their students in local watershed studies.
Oregon the Magnificent
Oregon's storied landscapes — its mountains, rivers, oceans and rangelands — are prime, readymade environmental learning labs, notes Silicon Valley transplant Pete Tuana, superintendent of the Philomath School District.
"Oregon has a unique reputation as an outdoor state," Tuana reminds the teachers before they head to the river with their sampling nets. "This environment is so magnificent. Yet today's children get so busy playing videogames on the sofa, they don't go outside and get dirty. Those kids are tomorrow's stewards of the land. We're not connecting the dots. We need a coherent, K-12 curriculum on natural resources."
Oregon took a big step earlier this year when it became the first state to pass a "No Child Left Inside" act (House Bill 2544). Co-sponsored by Corvallis representative Sara Gelser, the legislation, part of a national movement to reconnect kids with the outdoors, created a state task force to develop guidelines, aligned with state science standards, for environmental literacy.
With its growing cadre of teacher researchers, OSU is in the vanguard of this urgent push toward authentic lessons in local landscapes.
"These inspiring teachers are preparing the future students of OSU," says O'Connell, "and the future citizens of Oregon."
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