Tuesday, June 26, 2007

EIC Reunion Conference: How to Teach in the Great Outdoors

Each summer environmental education teachers in Georgia gather for a Reunion Conference under the auspices of the EIC program. EIC is a strange letter combination taken from the awkward phrase "using the Environment as an Integrating Context for learning". An awful name for a great idea and a wonderful program. Carefully gearing activities to current school standards and best practices, EIC schools seek to use the real world around us to make learning of all kinds meaningful, exciting, memorable, and effective for students. We believe it works.

Our school is a poster child for environmental education. Our third through fifth grade elementary school has implemented EIC in all three grades through a bunch of programs and activities over several years. Here are a few examples:
  • a group of students proposed that the green tree frog become the official Georgia amphibian. They studied the process of a bill becoming a law. They wrote legislators to make the proposal and get their help in drafting legislation. They lobbied for its approval. It took three years and a good deal of controversy over state symbols, but they accomplished their goal. I know of no other instance of a bill proposed by elementary students becoming law. Here is a PDF booklet about the project for use with students.
  • our students planned and built a garden at a local oncology center and maintain it for the patients there.
  • our students planted a grove of American Chesnuts as part of the effort to reintroduce these magnificent trees.
  • our students participated in the program to reintroduce sturgeon to the waters of the Coosa River basin.
  • our students, teachers, and parents built a model watershed on our campus we call the Three Rivers Project.
  • our students built and distributed rain barrels to the community as a means of conserving water.
  • our students participated in the last three annual Coosa River Basin Initiative Environmental Quiz Bowls (winning twice.)
I could name at least that many more projects: the bog garden, many classroom gardens, the butterfly garden, the nature trail, the outdoor classroom, the Adopt-a-Stream program, Metatarsel Mayhem, the Roadkill project. our end of year camp experience, Monarchs in the Classroom, etc. These in addition to the every day use of the environment by regular classes. All of these activities have been keyed to Georgia Performance Standards (or the standards that these replaced) and use a multidisciplinary approach.

Now, like the folks of Lake Wobegon, we believe our mothers are beautiful, our daddies are good looking, and out students are all above average. Still I'd point out that our average scores on the Georgia Criterion Referenced Competency Tests have been anything but average. We consistently lead the county on most subtests. I think at least part of the credit for those good scores can be laid to our use of the environment as an integrating context.

So I found myself at the wonderful Gwinnett County Environmental and Heritage Center last week participating in a variety of workshops to enhance my skill at environmental teaching. The Center itself was a wonderful lesson. Check out its website.

It is a "green" building. Every nail, stone, commode, landscape plant, etc. came from within a fifty mile radius of the site. The roof is covered in dirt and planted with sunloving plants such as sedums. The building is partially heated and cooled by the effluence from the nearby sewage treatment facility. The building stones are salvaged granite tombstones from the many monument companies in this area of Georgia -- when the engraver misspells, the stone is useless to the company. The parking lot and driveway are paved with pervious asphalt and stone.

Our first workshop dealt with a topic of which I was basically ignorant: the geology of Georgia. It was led by Peter Gordon of the Elachee Nature Science Center near Gainesville, Georgia.

Peter had a neat tectonic plate puzzle, a huge map of Georgia showing the major geologic regions, screen-printed cloth maps of Georgia for student use, a neat Name That Rock exercise where we checked the various attributes (color, streak, luster, hardness) of a small collection of rocks to determine which was which.

Next came the wonderful Jerry Hightower, National Park Service Ranger at the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area and renowned naturalist.

He walked us through the campus pointing out the common plants and animals that can be found on most campuses, giving lots of examples of ways to use those in our classes and tying science to social studies by pointing out ways common plants and animals were used by American Indians, colonists, Civil War soldiers, etc. Many common plants are edible, though he advises against eating them with students.

The English plantain found in every schoolyard, for instance was sometimes called the white man's footprint because it seemed to follow the Europeans wherever they ventured on the continent.

Acorns, especially those in the white oak group, were a staple of Native American diets.

Susan Meyers who works with the PTA presented two of the workshops I attended. The first demonstrated a wonderful series of activity centers that can be set up for a Science Night program in a school They are all related to migratory birds. The centers can be borrowed from the PTA at no charge by any public, private, or home school group.

Susan then trained a group of us to use the testing kits for the OE parasite on Monarch butterflies. My students now will be able participate in a real science project by Dr. Sonia Altizer at the University of Georgia by capturing and swabbing Monarchs for the program.

In addition to these workshops, my fellow teachers and I worked to plan how we will implement the EIC program at or school this year.

And finally we toured the nature trail at Minor Elementary School and learned to write Windsparks and to make grocery bag portfolios.

This was a very helpful conference. If you ever get the chance to participate in the EIC program, jump at it.

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