Science and Teaching for Field Instructors

Tale from the Field: Designing a Custom 4-Day Curriculum with BEETLES, Part 1

In the spring of 2019, Waskowitz Outdoor Education Center (Waskowitz) hired BEETLES to develop a curriculum for their 4-day residential outdoor school program. The curriculum was to include BEETLES activities connected to the theme of Ecosystems, Matter, and Energy, as well as  engage students in science practices and build their sense of place and connection to nature. Waskowitz implemented the new curriculum and program for their fall 2019 season, and we interviewed Meredith von Trapp, Assistant Director of Waskowitz, to hear more about the goals of the curriculum and how it’s been going. We also spoke with BEETLES Project Director Kevin Beals, who led this curriculum design effort, to hear about how BEETLES went about the process. In Part One of the blog, Meredith shares about the process of designing a curriculum that fit the goals and needs of Waskowitz. Stay tuned for Part Two!

BEETLES: Tell us a bit about the goals, values, and structure of your program.

Meredith: Waskowitz is owned and operated by the Highline School District which, in recent years, has fully funded the outdoor school program so students attend for free. We run a variety of programs for high school and elementary school students, but our outdoor school program is our longest-running and largest part of our organization– every 6th grader in the district gets to attend. Our  classroom teachers are instructors when they come to our program, and do the bulk of the teaching with high school leaders as teaching assistants. 

In terms of our goals and values, we want our students to go on “a magical journey of discovery, exploring the diversity of people and nature.” We’re about building and learning about connections  between students and their peers, students and teachers, students and nature, and connections between different parts of nature. And we really want to give students the opportunity to be kids– exploring and discovering, we try to offer enough structure to keep students engaged and also to give students unstructured time within that to explore and be curious.

BEETLES: What was behind your decision to design a new, cohesive curriculum and sequence of lessons that would be taught at your program? How did this connect with your program goals?

Meredith: Our school district went through a shift last year. Sixth grade used to be in elementary school, but now it’s a part of middle school. So we went from an elementary outdoor school program to a middle school program. We thought, “This is an opportunity for us to make a new program, to dream and say, how can we change and improve?” It was exciting, and I also felt overwhelmed. We thought of BEETLES, and how we wanted to have BEETLES help with this. We’re a small staff, so we do a lot with very few people. We reached out to 6th grade teachers who have brought students to our program for a long time and created a committee to assess our goals, what we wanted, and how to move forward to vision a new program and curriculum. 

The idea was: our program was great, but it could be better. Often, the teaching was a lot of isolated outdoor activities like assessing water quality, using a compass, etc. Unless the teacher was intentional in weaving these together, we were concerned students weren’t walking away with an integrated experience. So we looked at BEETLES lessons to think and plan our new vision at our committee meetings. We were asking ourselves, “what do we want students to know and experience?” 

After some initial discussions with BEETLES, decided we wanted to use the activity “What Lives Here?” as an overarching frame, so students would leave knowing what lives at Waskowitz, and would have the experience of learning that through their own observations. We contracted BEETLES to pull together a series of activities around this theme.

Kevin: Meredith shared Waskowitzs’ initial thinking about goals for students, which included making connections (as described above), developing science practices/habits of mind, addressing climate change, human impacts, and wildfire education. They were all worthy topics, but a lot– too much to engage with deeply in 4 days. We had some long phone conversations about how to proceed. After struggling with fitting these goals within the existing teaching structure,  Meredith and Waskowitz came up with the idea of shifting to longer teaching blocks for Waskowitz instructors, which made things much easier to plan. We talked about how, although climate change is the environmental issue of today, getting students to a point of understanding this global systems-based topic is challenging to do while focusing on place-based learning outdoors. We agreed to focus on the goal of students making connections about the ecosystem at Waskowitz. We recommended that using models to build understanding of the mechanisms of climate change is better addressed through classroom teaching, but that studying ecosystems is a way to begin to build students’ foundational understanding of carbon cycling. In addition to the goal of making connections, we also agreed to focus on developing students’ science practices/habits of mind, including making observations, making explanations from evidence, participating in respectful science meaning-making discussions, and field journaling. We also include Bark Beetles Exploration as an optional activity, which gives instructors an opportunity to facilitate a discussion on climate change related to their site.  The BEETLES activity Fire Management Discussion, which also has connections to climate change,  was offered as an option for classroom teachers to use during evening classroom meetings.

Planning 4 days of curriculum is a huge task, and the BEETLES Team e had a very limited amount of time to work on this. Developing  new resources wasn’t within the scope of the contract, so the BEETLES team had to develop a curriculum using our existing activities and resources. Fortunately, we’d already been working on an Ecosystems and Matter Theme Field Experience (to be published in 2020), and this work laid a critical foundation for the curriculum we developed for Waskowitz.  The Ecosystems, Matter, & Energy Theme Hike lays out 3 sample field experiences for 2, 4, and 5 hours, and each field experience includes a sequence of  existing BEETLES published student activities, with lots of connecting “tissue” to craft the series of activities into a coherent experience. We had developed the Theme Experience to offer lots of options to choose from, depending on student needs, instructor preferences, and what’s present in nature. It uses What Lives Here? to “bookend” and frame the whole Ecosystems Theme Field Experience, and  we used that as the starting framework.then, we filled in with a lot of recommendations and details  specific to Waskowitz. We wrote up options and possible sequences of activities based on natural features and phenomena at their site. The script for Waskowitz field instructors, who tend to have more background in ecosystems knowledge and an opportunity to develop expertise with the activities by teaching them repeatedly, was more complex and content-heavy than the script for classroom teachers, who we knew would have much less experience with the setting and activities. We also added other BEETLES resources for classroom teachers to use before and after attending the program. We handed it all over to Waskowitz, and they took it and made adjustments to make it their own. Then we crossed our fingers and hoped that it would all work out, and that Waskowitz staff and teachers would be open to it all!

BEETLES: What does the curriculum look like?

Waskowitz Outdoor Science Program Schedule

Meredith: The theme of the field experience is Ecosystems, Matter, and Energy. As Kevin said, instructors and classroom teachers have a main set of activities that everyone does, which centers around the activity What Lives Here? and then there are different options of activities they can choose that fit in with this theme, all focused on understanding What Lives Here? and ecosystem interactions. Throughout the week, students make an ecosystem model of the organisms they see as they do other activities, like Lichen Exploration, Decomposition Mission, Discovery Swap, and Case of the Disappearing Log. As students do these activities, they engage in science practices, and deepen their understanding of organisms that live at Waskowitz and ecosystem interactions.  We have an ecosystems model in their student journal, and throughout the week students add the plants and animals they find at each location, and spend time outlining connections between them as they learn about more organisms and about interactions between organisms and parts of ecosystems, like in Decomposition Mission. Students add what they find throughout the week to their own ecosystem model. On the last day, they do a Card Hike that includes reflection and some content about ecosystem connections. Then they spend an hour making a giant poster version of the ecosystem model based on what they did during the week, and discussing interactions in the ecosystem (this is the last part of What Lives here?) We encourage teachers to take a photo of the model to bring back to the classroom and build on it from there. 

Ecosystems Model

Before this curriculum, the classroom teachers did most of the teaching in our program, and our field instructors taught one 90 minute block for each teacher during the week. Now our field instructions lead a 6 hour long instructional block for each class. The other 6 hour instructional block is taught by the classroom teacher. The classroom teacher is with the class the whole time, so even when the outdoor educator is teaching, the classroom teacher is there supporting student learning and engagement. On the first day the classroom teacher facilitates a 2.5 hour instructional block, and on the final day students work with both classroom teacher and field instructor for 2 more hours.

We made the decision to expand the time our field instructors are teaching to provide more support to the visiting teachers. Increasing the field instructor time has provided opportunities for our teachers to focus on relationship building with their students instead of delivering content. At the same time, instead of field instructors being solely responsible for curriculum, or just the classroom teachers, it is a partnership and team approach. Classroom teachers move with one group of students the whole time, so they’re also a part of the group when our field instructors are teaching, and we encourage them to play a role of co-explorer.

BEETLES: How does this curriculum connect to your mission statement, values, and goals for students?

Meredith: The idea of exploring What Lives Here? grounds them in developing a sense of place, and considering their own relationship to the land. It starts off by asking, “what’s your connection to this place? What is your connection to the natural world?” That lays a strong foundation for the rest of the week. And while studying ecosystems, there are pieces in there for caring about one another and caring about relationships to the land. This also really connects to Social and Emotional Learning, which happens throughout the conversations and collaborations during the program. 

Students at Waskowitz

As BEETLES suggested, we researched and now begin the program with a Land Acknowledgment. We had begun working the Snoqualmie Tribe to revise parts of our 4th grade living history program and during that process we learned that even though Land Acknowledgements are something organizations are doing to pay respect–  if your organization has no connection to the Tribe then what is the purpose? Because of our work in the 4th grade program and because of the shift in our outdoor school program to have students consider their relationship with the land, there is a direct link to those who have lived on this land Since Time Immemorial. To craft our Land Acknowledgement, we did some initial research and worked with the Snoqualmie Tribe to include a few statements from their perspective. The end of the Land Acknowledgment gives students an opportunity for a moment of silence to think about the Land Acknowledgment. And during instruction on the first day we ask students to think about the relationship they want to have with the land here at Waskowitz. That’s all been transformative for the teachers and students on day 1. It’s a richer experience. It’s one thing to go to the river and collect macroinvertebrates, and explore this from a scientific perspective, but the Land Acknowledgment adds a lens of how the human experience of building a relationship with the land is important. It frames the experience for students.

Stay tuned for Part 2, where Meredith shares about how she prepared staff for the transition to the new curriculum, and about challenges and successes of implementation.

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