By Deborah O'Neil, Environmental Science Teacher, Sutton High School, Sutton, MA
“Working with the Blanding's Turtles is a very exciting experience. Not only are they adorable, but it helps me understand human impact on other species and what we can do to help. “ --High School Student
Summary of Inspired Learning Project:
Students were given the opportunity to use their academic knowledge to affect positive change in the quality of our environment. They are doing this through a variety of pathways. Some students were involved in a program with U.S Fish and Wildlife to foster a species of threatened turtles called Blanding's Turtles. Other students managed a school-wide initiative to improve our recycling program. Additionally, some students reached out to political and corporate leaders to provide positive feedback and to encourage environmental change.
Creating a Curious Learning Environment
I want to create an environment for my students where they can take on the role of apprentice and feel that we are on the journey together. I was lucky enough to be treated as an apprentice during my education as a scientist and I believe this style is what made me excited and curious. In high school, my advanced biology teacher would sit down next to us and get involved in our labs. He didn’t stand in front of the class and lecture, but rather jumped right into the hands-on science with us. Similarly, my ecology professor in college made the class active and engaging by working beside us as we studied things such as the biodiversity of snails at the ocean and the high underground temperature caused by decomposition at landfills. Finally, during my first career as a research assistant at Massachusetts General Hospital, I was surrounded by open and nurturing scientists who focused not only on their own research, but also on encouraging another generation of scientists. I try to continue this method of teaching science so that my own students will be excited and curious. My hope for the students is that they will be better stewards of our planet, either in their day-to- day lives or as a future career.
My inspired learning experience began as a result of encouragement from both my administration and my students. On a regular basis my principal passes along information about opportunities in the area of environmental activism and then fully supports the implementation of our plans. Likewise, I have wonderful current and former students who are motivated to be activists. They send me information and encourage me to work with them.
Blanding's Turtle Project
My students are a wonderful source of information about ways that we can become advocates for the environment. Last year a student became motivated to help the environment through the Sierra Club of Worcester. He met with the organization and learned about the work of the Worcester Tree Initiative, which was looking for volunteers to plant trees at the World War I Memorial Grove in Green Hill Park. Like this particular student, I have found that others want to take an active part in helping the environment and having a voice in decision making, not just learning about it. To that end, each student wrote a letter to express their opinion about environmental policy. The letters ranged from positive, complimentary letters to companies that use sustainable practices, to letters to government officials expressing their disapproval of changes in environmental protections. The students were passionate about their opinions and learned that they can share their ideas in a productive way.
This year, the students wanted to make a positive impact at our own school. Two seniors led the charge to restart an Environmental Club. The group got off to a fantastic start and immediately worked on an initiative to improve recycling at our high school. They made a slideshow, gave presentations in Advisory classes, created posters for the school with recycling directions and included messages in the morning announcements. Along with that, they are creating artwork with bottle caps in order to bring attention to the overuse of single-use plastic beverage containers. In the spring, they will be making seed balls to give to members of the community. The seed balls will help replant native flowering plants that are beneficial to the soil and to pollinators such as bees, birds and insects. This group of students is highly motivated to put their beliefs into action.
Inspiration from Graduates in the Field
My current students also received inspiration from our graduates. By maintaining connections with former students, I am able to provide links to the real world of environmental science. For example, a graduate became a researcher at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire. He shared his experiences from working at the world’s longest running experimental forest, and studying the quality of water as it is affected by weather and contamination. My students also loved to hear about a graduate who went on to work at the New England Aquarium and helped to educate the public about marine animals. Sharing these anecdotes confirmed how students can have a positive impact on the world.
I recently had a conversation with a few students that helped to validate the importance of our work in environmental science and let me know that they were inspired about learning. The students admitted that when they made their course schedule, they were not really sure that they wanted to take an environmental science class. Now that they are taking the course, they think that it is so important that it should be a required class in high school. They feel this way because everything that they learn applies to real life in an important way, whether or not they choose a career in science. I can also tell that the students are inspired when they show me their reusable ziploc bags, send me articles about how to restore the tropical rainforests, or share environmental photographs that they take on their trips to visit colleges. They demonstrate their interest every day when they stop by the classroom during their free time to check on the progress of our Blanding's turtles. All of this shows me that they are feeling a drive and motivation that extends beyond the class. When they look back on these experiences, I think that they will remember it as a time when they made a tangible contribution to helping the planet.
A Few Words of Advice
Some advice for someone looking to implement the Blanding's turtle fostering program with U.S. Fish and Wildlife would be to get involved because they will be amazed at the many ways it can be woven into the curriculum. It leads to discussions about food webs, comparative anatomy, legislation, funding and resource allocation, habitat fragmentation, and climate change, to name a few. In regards to other areas of environmental activism, my advice would be to let the students take the lead and to provide support, resources and encouragement.
Blanding's Turtle Project
Living Memorial Tree Planting in Worcester
Source of Supplies for Seed Balls
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