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Teachers learn how to use nature in lesson plans

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

Setting fish traps on a marshwalk at Hobcaw Barony last week, Tammy Byrge, a third-grade teacher, couldn’t help but think how much fun her students would have with such an activity.

“I could just see the kids down on that deck, trying to jump off in the mud to get those hermit crabs,” she said.

That vision may soon become a reality.

There are wetlands at Maryville Elementary, where Byrge teaches, and staff have been talking about building a marshwalk with grants Georgetown County elementary schools are receiving to build outdoor classrooms.

Through a partnership with the University of South Carolina’s Longleaf Environmental Learning Center near Prince George, early education teachers are learning how to use nature in lesson plans. Their schools are receiving $4,000 grants from the S.C. Commission on Higher Education to build outdoor facilities.

Teachers from Maryville, McDonald and Plantersville elementary schools were selected this year to receive the funds and attend the center’s summer ecology institute. They spent last week hiking through pine forests, exploring salt marshes, investigating ponds and other ecosystems, and participating in classes, workshops and activities.

Teachers from Andrews and Pleasant Hill elementary schools did the same last summer, and next year the remainder of the county’s elementary schools, including Waccamaw, will get a turn.

“They’re excited about it,” said Amy Weinmeister, the center’s education coordinator. “They’ve been asking when they’ll get to do it.”

Weinmeister said she’s already been scouting some of the campuses to see what kind of opportunities they might offer for outdoor learning.

During this year’s week-long summer session, teachers took nature walks on the undeveloped Longleaf property and learned the common names of plants and animals they saw. They identified animal tracks, learned to collect plant specimens, and took pictures of plants to take back to their schools. As part of the program, the teachers will have their students create a photo nature guide.

One of the good things about using plant life in lesson plans is “you don’t have to go very far to find stuff to talk about,” said John Nelson, curator of the herbarium at USC.

He took the teachers on a nature walk Friday to show them how many different things can be found for study in a small area. Such an outing is a good way of helping kids understand the biodiversity that exists around them, he said.

Weinmeister called the teachers “troopers.” Despite heat, humidity and swarming bugs, they threw themselves into every activity and were positive and enthusiastic, she said.

“It’s been wonderful. We’ve gotten so much information and knowledge,” said Norma Briggs, a kindergarten teacher at McDonald Elementary.

“And every bit of it can be used in the classroom,” Byrge added.

Karen Owens, who teaches second grade at Plantersville Elementary, said she can’t wait to take what she learned last week back to her students. They’re going to love being able to tromp through the woods.

“Before, that was a no-no,” she said.

The kids will see now that they don’t have to be in a traditional classroom to learn, she said.

Owens said she’s thankful for this program, because it makes it clear that outdoor learning is not only acceptable, but encouraged in the district.

“I kind of felt uncomfortable taking my classes outside before,” she said. “This kind of reinforces that just because you’re taking them outside, it doesn’t mean they’re just going out for another recess.”

Bert Ely, project director and a professor of biological sciences with USC, said the environment can obviously be used to teach the sciences, but the program shows teachers how to incorporate nature-based learning into other subjects, as well.

When teachers checked the fish traps they set at USC’s marine institute at Hobcaw, they typed and measured the fish they caught, then used the information to make graphs, showing how nature-based science can be incorporated with math.

Ely said it can also be used in language arts, art and other subjects.

“The advantage to this is that you’re putting these subjects into a context kids can relate to in their world,” Ely said.

Outdoor classrooms encourage kids to learn by asking questions and searching out the answers through observation and experimentation.

Teachers who participated in the program last year reported their students responded well to an outdoor learning environment. One preschool teacher said her students are writing in science journals and coming up with “sophisticated ideas” she would have believed beyond them.

Initially, there were concerns about whether the kids would “go wild” outside. And they did at first.

“Then they get used to the idea that ‘this is our classroom,’ ” Ely said. “Boys in particular sometimes feel antsy indoors, so they respond well to this kind of learning environment.”

Plans are to have outdoor classrooms finished by the winter, Weinmeister said. A “science mentor” will work with staff at each school throughout the school year to plan and establish the outdoor classrooms and help them begin utilizing the new facilities.

Follow-up sessions with science and education specialists from the university will also be scheduled during the school year.

In addition to sharing what they learned at the summer institute with their students, Ely said he wants teachers who attended to share their newfound knowledge with other teachers.

“We want them to take ownership of this,” he said. “Basically, one of our main goals is to work ourselves out of a job.”

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