Stream Study Project
At Friends Central School (FCS), the science curriculum has worked to dissolve the boundaries between school and community by emphasizing service learning and by relating to students as members of communities of practice (Lave and Wenger, 1991) such as scientists, innovators and designers. One of the curricular blocks that illustrates this approach in the FCS Middle School is the stream study project. Through the stream study project, students explore the health of the local watershed by exploring a stream adjacent to the school grounds; over the course of the fall trimester, the stream evaluation becomes the medium for exploring topics such as water chemistry, watershed history, and larger scale environmental issues.
The stream study project is a collection of lessons and practices, including some water chemistry labs in the classroom and weekly stream visits to our “outdoor classroom” environment. A variety of content lessons are part of the whole class experience but then students choose individual pathways to deeper exploration. Some students choose to focus on the history of the stream area from forest to mill creek, to industrialized area, to estate grounds, to public park (https://sites.google.com/a/friendscentral.org/2017feaciara/final-stream-report ). Other students take more of a chemistry approach to studying stream health, collaborating with each other and past student evaluation to track trends in water quality data (https://sites.google.com/a/friendscentral.org/20178-4samweiss/stream-data-and-observations). The students gather their work on individually created and digitally shared web pages and are encouraged to collaborate, comment on, and cite each other’s findings. In this way, the class becomes a community of practice sharing resources, supporting each others goals and providing complementary resources.
Ultimately, the best of the students’ final stream study evaluations (Examples:https://sites.google.com/a/friendscentral.org/fea-2017-olivia-bartholomew/final-stream-report,https://sites.google.com/a/friendscentral.org/2017feaclaireszapary/home/…) are sent to local conservation partners, the Fairmount Park Commission, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation as part of long term monitoring efforts of the urban and suburban Philadelphia watersheds. The middle school students are engaged in meaningful, authentic research that is shared with a larger audience of practitioners. Finally, the stream study site is also the location for a long term FCS service learning project of stream and watershed restoration. Students can track and celebrate the progress of fifteen years of FCS commitment to stewardship of this stream and watershed area. Each new group of middle schoolers standing on the shoulders of the prior years’ students.
Hands on experience with their local environment, agency to choose their own area of focus and an expectation that high quality work will be shared with local practitioners encourages students to pursue problems that are relevant to their lives and their communities. The outdoor classroom environment of the stream study project provides further benefits. Direct connection to nature, especially as children, is not only beneficial to childhood development but also the most critical influence on later environmental attitude (Zaradic & Pergams, 2007). Children engaging in hands-on nature experiences tend to be more self-disciplined and more resilient to stressors (Kellert, 2002; Zaradic & Pergams, 2007). Spending time in natural environments is beneficial for cognitive functioning and the amelioration of symptoms of ADD/ADHD (Zaradic & Pergams, 2007). Consequently, applying a connected learning curriculum to nature-based classrooms offer the benefit of accommodating a variety of learning styles and providing a supportive learning environment for authentic exploration. Finally, working in a local, nature-based classroom fosters authentic learning in a relevant environment, opportunities to develop student agency through choosing diverse pathways of exploration, and connection to a relevant audience of peers, local community members and partners in practice.
Kellert, S. R. 2002. Experiencing nature: Affective, cognitive, and evaluative development in children. In P. H. Kahn, Jr. & S. R. Keller (Eds.), Children and nature: Psychological, sociocultural, and evolutionary investigations. (pp. 117 152). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Lave, J. and Wenger, E.(1991) Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. New York: Cambridge University Press.