Students in the science club at Pickens Middle School in Pickens, S.C., had been planning a trip to swim with manatees in Florida when news of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico hit last year.
“I was kind of worried about the manatees,” said 12-year-old Alex Womack, who had been studying the marine mammals in the club after school and in the summer. “I thought the oil might hurt them and make them extinct.”
In February, 54 students from the school took that trip, traveling 12 hours by bus to see the creatures in their winter-migration home of Crystal River, north of Tampa, Fla.
“You actually got to see how pretty they are, and you feel more for them and how much they are endangered,” said Alex, an aspiring marine biologist who said the manatees looked like a cross between a dolphin and a cow and felt like seaweed when she petted one. “It made me like science a whole lot more.”
That’s just why science teacher Susan Hilyer, the faculty adviser to the science club, along with two other teachers—Laura Anderson and Louise Hope—persuaded the 16,000-student Pickens school district to overcome its concern about exposing children to water and wild animals. They knew the experience would be more powerful than a classroom lesson.
“There is no comparison to just being outside and in the midst of it,” said Ms. Hilyer, adding that the experience doesn’t have to be as extreme as swimming with manatees. “You can get that same ‘wow’ just digging in dead logs with little shovels. It’s real. If it’s not real, they don’t care.”
Informal science programs that focus on the environment often hook young people because they are about issues that really matter in their lives—the quality of the air and water and the well-being of animals. If it’s relevant, they want to learn. And often, children are motivated, in response, to make a difference by cleaning up a stream, starting a recycling program, or advocating eco-friendly policies.
“It’s that application to real-life experiences that brings environmental education alive,” said Brian Day, the executive director of the North American Association for Environmental Education, a nonprofit group in Washington. “It turns kids on if they take an action component and can make an improvement in their school community or backyard. Then all that education has a focus and a purpose.”
And an after-school or summer science experience offers time and flexibility for children to explore and follow their own interests, with no stress of grades, said Lucy Friedman, the president of The After-School Corp., or TASC, in New York City. “Science and after-school programs have such great synergy. Kids feel it’s OK to take a risk,” she said. “Sometimes there isn’t always a right answer.”
When TASC does science training for after-school staff members, it emphasizes that the leader is merely guiding the process. “There is a tendency of adults to explain to kids what happens,” said Ms. Friedman. “It’s much more powerful when kids discover on their own and make some of the mistakes.”
Some TASC programs take students to New York’s Coney Island to measure the temperature of the water and sand. “All of a sudden, the beach they connect with fun becomes a learning environment,” Ms. Friedman said.
Making it Real
In California, water is the “new gold,” because it’s a limited resource in great demand, so it’s important for children to understand it, said Marianne Bird, the youth-development adviser for the Sacramento County 4-H Water Wizards, a 12-week after-school program for grades 4-6.
“Young people need to be aware that there is no new water,” she said. “Water is always involved in a system, and they are in the system.”
The nearly 500 children who take part in the program learn about the water cycle, the watershed, and wetlands, and they conduct experiments. A service-learning piece and a field trip to a water education center where Sacramento’s water is held are also part of the program.
Being outside and part of a larger environmental project is a big motivator for young people, said Rick Bonney, the director of the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology program and a co-founder of the lab’s Citizen Science Program. Many students participate in the lab’s Great Backyard Bird Count and BirdSleuth as campers or in an after-school setting. They learn the protocol of identifying birds and collecting data.
“This is authentic, real science. We are answering questions whose answers aren’t known,” Mr. Bonney said.
Another citizen-science initiative, the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, engages middle schoolers. In the summer, groups track monarch butterflies once a week to see how they change over time, said Karen Oberhauser, a professor of fisheries, wildlife, and conservation biology.
The children all do independent research questions and set up experiments, Ms. Oberhauser said. One student recorded the fate of 60 larvae that she tied to various locations to study monarch predators. Another studied the timing of the arrival of monarchs, who only lay eggs on milkweek, vs. the availability of that milkweed for their larvae to eat.
“In the end, when we gather around the picnic table, I love hearing them come up with questions. They’re so focused,” Ms. Oberhauser said.
Once, students observed butterflies mating, which triggered a discussion. “In school, it would be a reason to be giggling and not pay attention to the science of it,” she said. “But they took it very seriously.”
Exposure to Nature
The St. Louis Science Center takes small groups of teenagers from its Youth Exploring Science program to a pond at dusk armed with flashlights to sit still, listen, and record frog calls. Their information goes into a larger database as part of a project examining the impact of climate change on frog populations.
By participating, the youths begin to understand the process of science better, said Kerri Stevison, the senior educator in charge of the Communicating Climate Change program. “Science isn’t something people just write about,” she said. “They learn to follow strict rules and understand the protocol.”
Over time, those inner-city students—many of whom don’t have much exposure to nature—become more comfortable with animals and stomping around in the mud.
Likewise, at New York’s Captain Manuel Rivera Public School, in the Bronx, many K-8 children don’t have much of an opportunity to connect with the outdoors. The after-school program Frontiers in Urban Science Exploration, sponsored by TASC and coordinated by the Committee for Hispanic Children and Families, is designed to provide that link with trips to zoos, parks, and rivers to explore natural resources, said Helena Yordan, the site coordinator for the committee. Through the inquiry-based, hands-on activities, children get excited about learning and the scientific process. “Science is for everyone. That’s our slogan,” said Ms. Yordan.
In the program’s informal setting, leaders can talk about careers in science. Ms. Yordan also keeps teachers informed about the projects to connect the after-school work with what’s happening in the classroom.
Contests such as the Siemens We Can Change the World Challenge give children a chance to create an environmental solution and compete for prizes.
Last year, 6th graders Rani Iyer and Isha Laad, both living in Lexington, Mass., at the time, spent 200 hours each working on an entry for the contest. Concerned about the harmful impact of chemicals used in dry cleaning, they tested a wet-cleaning process and worked to persuade businesses to switch to a more eco-friendly process.
The girls did testing in nearby college labs, where they used chemicals they wouldn’t have had access to at school. “No one was telling us what to do,” said Rani, 13, who has since moved to West Lafayette, Ind. “It seemed like it meant more than what we do in school, where the teacher knows the outcome of the experiment. We don’t know what it is.”
The team was a finalist, and each girl won a $5,000 savings bond and a pocket camera. Rani is considering entering the contest again and perhaps pursuing a career in science or math.
This story was underwritten by a grant from the Noyce Foundation, at www.noycefdn.org.
A version of this article appeared in the April 06, 2011 edition of Education Week as Environmental Issues Inspire Children to Dig Into Science