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Mother Nature as Teacher's Aide: An Environment for the 'Basics'

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When engineers took steps to control water runoff from the construction site for Sumter High School in Sumter, S.C., what happened downhill was an accident of nature.

Water from a creek began to rise behind a dam they had reinforced, causing a two-acre swamp to double in size and flow into the surrounding woods.

Sumter District 17 then found itself in a quandary that is all too common to growing school systems: Its building needs were6having an adverse impact on the environment, and some action had to be taken.

Unlike many other districts, however, Sumter 17 did not simply drain or fill the swamp. Instead, it developed an outdoor learning center--a 40-acre facility that will soon be offered as a national model for how schools can go beyond environmental education, to make the environment itself an integral part of the curriculum.

Teachers use the Sumter High School Environmental Center for instruction in all subjects, not just science. With its landscape poeticized in English classes, measured in mathematics, and dissected in biology, the center has become a living reminder, officials say, that educators can get back to nature without leaving behind instruction in basic skills and subjects.

The developments at Sumter High represent an emerging trend, experts say, as schools look for ways to reconcile their desire to preserve and put nature to greater use with the pressure to focus on core subject matter.

"The real approach with environmental education today is towards the infusion of environmental-education concepts into the curriculum of the school," explains Steven C. Kussmann, president-elect of the Alliance for Environmental Education.

"Teachers are under a lot of pressure for what they must teach," he says, "so they don't need something additional."

South Carolina, where one of the nation's first and broadest education-reform laws imposed strict course requirements and curbs on noncurricular activities, offers a prime example of the time bind environmentally oriented teachers may face. But programs that use outdoor settings to teach the basics have become fairly common there since the 1984 reform package was adopted.

Drawing on their experiences, about 60 South Carolina teachers4have been working with the state department of education and a volunteer community-service arm of the local telephone company to develop an outdoor-education curriculum guide with extensive sections on math, social studies, reading, and other subjects not typically taught outdoors.

The guide will be distributed nationally by the U.S. Soil Conservation Service, an agency with extensive experience in the environmental-education field.

"With this, the teachers will be able to meet the state mandates for teaching their own subjects, but the students will be imbued with knowledge of the environment that supports us," says David C. White, chief of program support for the soil-conservation service.

'Green Islands' of Innovation

Environmental-education teachers have frequently worked basic-skills lessons into their curricula. The treatment of the basics is extensive, for example, in Project Wild, an environmental-education guide distributed by the Western Regional Environmental Council, and in Project Learning Tree, distributed by the American Forestry Institute.

And more and more teachers of core academic subjects, experts say, are seeking ways to mention environmental concerns in their classes. Students in English courses, for example, might be asked to write compositions about acid rain.

But the idea of actually using the outdoors to teach basic skills has yet to gain more than isolated acceptance, the experts say, even though it has been around for at least 20 years.

In 1965, John Hug, a consultant with the Ohio Department of Education, included more than 350 activities in math, language arts, social studies, music, science, and recreation in a book called Curriculum Enrichment Outdoors, written with Phyllis J. Wilson. But the book has long since gone out of print, he says, and has not been followed by many similar efforts.

Morris Weiner, chairman of faculty and outdoor teacher education at Northern Illinois University, says the curriculum demands on teachers are so overwhelming today that only the most committed and innovative have found ways to teach outdoors.

These innovators have become what Mr. Weiner calls "green islands." They are attempting to spread their knowledge to others, he says, but are finding limited success among teachers who may take "an inordinate amount of time" to accept new methodology.

Most outdoor-education experts hold similar perceptions of the obel10lstacles facing their field. But they disagree on how best to make multi-disciplinary use of outdoor settings more widespread.

Edward J. Zero, the administrator of outdoor and environmental-education programs for the Suffolk County, N.Y., Board of Cooperative Educational Services, maintains, for example, that more training is needed.

Each year, Mr. Zero's office provides outdoor-education training to about 400 teachers of math, science, history, and other subjects. But most teachers enter the field with little or no formal training, he says. Unprepared to manage a class in a natural setting, they told of watching their outdoor excursions degenerate into disorderly, unproductive experiences not worth the risk of repeating.

These teachers need only a few days of inservice training to be able to apply their backgrounds in the outdoors, Mr. Zero insists.

But H. Dean Jernigan, who received a National Science Teachers Association Star Award for his environmental-laboratory program at the Shawnee Mission Schools near Kansas City, Kan., says inservice programs usually operate under time constraints and often cannot give teachers enough instructional tools to sustain their interest in outdoor education over time.

"If you workshop teachers on activities to do outdoors, the ones they will do in the workshop are the only ones they will do in the classroom," he says. "They don't try new things."

"You have to sell teachers on the idea of working with kids outdoors," Mr. Jernigan maintains.

Building on Book Knowledge

The forthcoming teaching guide tries to incorporate both views. It ac4tively involves teachers in the outdoor-education process, but reduces the training and effort required by supplying dozens of outdoor lesson plans for each subject.

Once the curriculum guide is published, for example, a 1st-grade teacher will be able to cross-reference standard arithmetic lessons to find examples that use natural objects like rocks or apples for counting. A 12th-grade calculus teacher will be able to select an exercise that has students calculating not an abstract equation, but the volume of water in a real pond.

"Our idea is that you can learn twice as much outside the classroom as you can sitting in the classroom looking at a book," says James W. Britton, the Sumter High biology teacher who played a key role in developing the outdoor learning center.

"We try to take the facts that we have learned in the books and build on the concepts," Mr. Britton explains. "If it's planned and it's organized, it's very productive. If you just use it to go out and walk around, you are wasting your time."

The South Carolina guide will contain a separate section on teaching environmental issues, but will make little or no attempt to work environmental education directly into basic-skills lessons, says Virginia N. Able, who is compiling the guide as environmental-project director for the South Carolina Telephone Pioneers, a volunteer arm of Southern Bell.

Ms. Able and others involved in the project say the guide needed to have sections focusing strictly on basics because, in the past, the use of outdoor settings by teachers of "the three R's" had been discouraged--first by the state's Basic Skills Assessment Program, enacted in 1978, and later by the Education Improvement Act of 1984, which limited noncurricular uses of the school day.

Science, which is regarded as a basic skill by the South Carolina Department of Education, has always lent itself easily to outdoor instruction, Ms. Able notes.

M. Joel Taylor, director of the state education department's office of general education, says that while the benefits of outdoor instruction in the basics are difficult to measure, "the response from communities is that students stay in school longer and are more interested in academics."

Adds Mr. White of the U.S. Soil Conservation Service: "This kind of learning is particularly good for at-risk kids, kids with learning disabilities, and even gifted kids. Everyone seems to flourish in an outdoor setting. It treats kids equally."

Some Urge 'Holistic' Approach

But the South Carolina effort is looked on with disfavor by some outdoor-education experts. They say it underestimates the amount of basic-skills learning that can come from a traditional environmental-education class and imposes an artificial barrier between environmental education and the teaching of basic skills.

"When you go out to an outdoor setting just to look at math, that is a rather narrow view of what ought to be going on," Mr. Hug contends, adding that the interdisciplinary, holistic approaches to environmental education that became popular during the 1970's "are much better for students."

But most in the field agree that the South Carolina effort will be a boon to the environment if it persuades more schools to maintain4and use outdoor learning centers.

Ms. Able, whose South Carolina Telephone Pioneers have worked with state agencies and other groups to establish 250 outdoor learning centers at schools during the past five years, says promoting multi-disciplinary uses of the centers has helped ensure their survival.

When teachers use outdoor learning centers only sporadically, she notes, they tend to ignore them and let them fall into disrepair.

Involving students in the development and maintenance of the centers, Ms. Able says, has also been important to their survival, because students acquire a sense of stewardship as they plant trees, build bird houses, and do whatever is necessary to keep the centers thriving and clean.

"Getting the kids involved has cut down on our vandalism," adds Mr. Britton. "If they go out and sweat and do all of the work, they don't want to see someone else tear all of this up."

Not all such facilities are on the same grand scale as the 40-acre Sumter High School Environmental Center, however. It features trails, benches, a well-equipped outdoor laboratory, an observation tower, and dozens of handcrafted houses for the once-endangered wood duck. All of the work on these was completed by students or volunteers from the community.

But even without such a large-scale commitment, schools can still provide space for teaching students to appreciate and use the outdoors, environmental groups say.

The National Wildlife Federation, for example, has encouraged schools to develop "backyard habitats." These may consist, it says, simply of flowers planted to attract butterflies or rocks piled to provide shelter for chipmunks.

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