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Natural history, nature science, and science teaching

By Mary Bigelow

Posted on 2008-02-25

The Science Teacher cover, February 2008Our science department meetings were interesting. My colleague and I taught life and environmental science, and our counterparts in the high school sciences would poke (good-natured) fun at our “woodsy-birdsy” themes. Well, I hope they’re reading this month’s issue. The article “Back to the Future” really spoke to me. It’s scary to know that our students spend less time in the outdoors in favor of other diversions. And we don’t help matters by building schools without windows and yards and by trying to “cover” as many facts as we can instead of going beyond the facts in authentic investigations.
The articles Ecological Field Studies and Place-Based Investigations and Authentic Inquiry describe authentic investigations that don’t necessary involve a lot of travel. One question my students investigated dealt with the effects of lawn chemicals on the diversity of lawn plants and the critters that live in the soil. For those students who didn’t have a lawn of their own, we used the grass in front of the school for their samples (the principal was not thrilled, but he got over it). Our class motto soon became “It’s not just a yard – it’s an ecosystem.” I don’t have all of the documentation anymore for this activity, but if you contact me via a comment, I can share an outline of the investigation. For more on ecosystems, go to Scilinks and enter the term ecosytem or the Keyword TST020801 for sites related to Ecology.
Yellowstone is a place I think we’d all like to study. The 1988 Fires in Yellowstone article describes a new web resource The Greater Yellowstone Science Learning Center and includes a poster about the park and the wildfires. This is a wonderful website that’s worth taking a look at. Not being a creative bulletin board person, I really like this kind of poster as a source of information to stimulate student interest and discussion. For more resources on wildfires in general, go to SciLinks and enter wildfire as a keyword.
It’s spring and time for field trips (at least for those schools that still have field trips – another topic for another time!). Most of us want these to be learning experiences, rather than just letting kids loose on unsuspecting guides and docents at zoos, museums, and gardens. And so we see the “scavenger hunt” lists which students use in a race to gather trivial information (name three frogs that live in the rain forest). While I must confess that I’ve used these, I’m excited about how the students in the article It’s a Zoo Out There used their time at the zoo to conduct a real behavioral study of a particular animal and present their findings. What impressed me was the fact that the teacher took time before the study started to model and provide guided practice in observing animal behavior. I wonder if this is the missing link – the scaffolding that many students need, not because they are slow or unmotivated but because they just don’t have the experience we think they should have. It seems like a few sessions of modeling, “think aloud,” and practice will pay off in positive experiences.
With all this reading about nature and field studies, I’m going out for a walk!

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