Want Better Discussions? Just Wait A Few Seconds.

…the way teachers respond to their students greatly impacts the authenticity of the discussion. It’s not surprising that teachers who interject their own ideas and/or reject or rephrase students’ ideas, kill the conversation off quickly.

Want Better Discussions? Questions are the Answer

Teachers ask a lot of questions, but many of those questions target basic knowledge or recall. We can make our discussions more effective by beginning them with “What”, “How”, “Why”, “If…then”–open-ended questions that require more thought.

Devastation in Puerto Rico

Shelly Johnson, Martha McCormick and I planned to travel to Puerto Rico this Tuesday. Next Step was chosen to present at the North American Association of Environmental Educators’ (NAAEE) Annual Conference in San Juan this week. Our presentations were planned, and we were looking forward to learning about a place we had never visited.

Instead, we have anxiously followed the news as two storms approached and hit the island, and through the weeks since. Here are some of the things we learned–

  • Eighty-four percent of the population in Puerto Rico is still without power nearly one month after Hurricane Maria.
  • According to the Washington Post, only 63 percent of the islanders have access to clean water.
  • Just 60 percent of wastewater treatment plants are working. Food supplies and medical systems are inadequate.

People are dying. Three weeks of recovery, yet so many US citizens continue to live in devastation.  This is unacceptable.

If 3 million people were suffering in a different part of the country, perhaps even Iowa, I can’t help but think the response would be different. Constant media coverage would put a spotlight on the slow recovery. A stream of politicians would visit. Certainly, the president of the United States would not be threatening to abandon relief efforts.

Obviously, our conference was cancelled. The organizers have scrambled to make some of the conference topics available online. We’ve been invited to submit the materials we would have presented to a virtual conference site.

Here are some of our plans. Focusing on these projects has been difficult because my mind dwells on the families living in such desperate circumstances in Puerto Rico.

SESSION TITLE: Keeping Environmental Education Programs Fresh: Aligning with Next Generation Science Standards
SUMMARY: Naturalists’ interactions with school groups have a major impact on the next generation. By tweaking programs as school curriculum evolves, naturalists can expand their outreach.

  • Participate in an interactive online NGSS scavenger hunt to learn about Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).
  • Align your own programs to NGSS with a template. An example is provided as well.
  • A description of Next Generation Science Standards, tips for aligning programs with the standards, and sample before/after lesson tweaks are in our slides. Contact us for a copy.

SESSION TITLE: Teaching with Mini Wind Turbines and Solar Panels: Opportunities and Challenges 
SUMMARY: Renewable energy production is on the rise, offering both benefits and challenges for our next generation.  Learn about these technologies as well as strategies for incorporating them into STEM learning experiences for students.

  • Experience a sample activity from our middle school renewable energy curriculum: VIP interviews.
  • To explore opportunities and challenges in renewable energy, take on various perspectives from the assertion jar. Find the Assertion Jar lesson in our middle school service learning curriculum.  This renewable energy add-on provides specific statements.
  • Build mini circuits using materials from the Teachers Going Green teaching kit.  Then search for energy lessons on the website.
  • If you would like a copy of our slides, please contact us.

Even though we don’t get to travel to Puerto Rico this year, our hearts are with the people of that small island. If you’d like to donate to the recovery efforts, here’s a link that may help you decide the best route to do so.

Lessons for Harvest Time

Gardening gets kids excited about how things grow. Use time in the garden to apply math concepts, and experience wonder. To wonder so much you want to read, ask questions and read some more.

Lessons for Fall

For many of us, buying new pencils, pumpkin spiced everything, football, and warm socks mark the beginning of fall! But for teachers autumn ushers in a wellspring of environmental education themes. Three topics are especially interesting this time of year–resilience, migration, and animals we love to hate. 

Perhaps our strongest instinct is for self preservation. Even in the most difficult conditions, living creatures strive to survive. Fall is a time many animals gather resources and prepare for the long winter ahead. Even though they run around like crazy, squirrels show a lot of discipline as they collect their food for winter to improve their chances of survival.

Watching the preparations squirrels and other mammals are making leads to a unit on human survival. While humans don’t gather nuts and berries to survive the winter, we do have basic needs to take care of–warm clothes, winterizing our homes, preserving food from the garden. Help your students compare how people and animals adapt to the environment. Monarch butterfly

Migration is a lighter topic for fall. Nothing like a road trip!

As I enjoyed my morning run I noticed a Monarch butterfly fluttering along next to me. Besides their magnificent colors, Monarchs are capable of a journey that would be nearly impossible for a human without a car or airplane, flying from the northern United States and Canada to California and Mexico.

Take your class outside to appreciate the fact that the Monarch is about to embark on a perilous journey. Spark a conversation about cycles and patterns. Have students write a letter to a butterfly explaining what it can expect on its journey and wishing it well; older students can research areas the Monarchs will travel through.

Have students create a map showing the Monarchs’ route. Students can demonstrate their understanding of migratory patterns , as well as the lifecycle of the Monarch. Extend the lesson by adding migrations for different birds that fly through your area.

Especially at Halloween, there are certain animals we love to hate. We decorate our yards and homes with animals that typically scare us–spiders, bats and snakes, oh my! It’s the perfect time to get kids to talk about their fears, and the un-scary, even helpful things these animals do.
Vulture Verses cover

Initiate critical thinking through the book Vulture Verses: Love Poems for the Unloved by Diane Lang; it focuses on the creepy crawly animals. Lang opens conversation about the crucial role every animal plays in the environment. We don’t have to love these animals but we can respect what they do for us!

Happy Autumn!

Our Sunflower Fort

My children love forts. But a sunflower fort? It exceeded every expectation.Sunflower fort closeup

Inspired by Eve Bunting’s Sunflower House, we planted sunflower seeds in a circle last spring. My nine-year-old couldn’t decide on just one variety of sunflowers at the garden store, so we planted two circles of seeds – an inner ring of mammoths and an outer ring of a smaller variety. He left a small gap for the door.

My only experience with sunflowers was when I was as a summer camp counselor in North Dakota during college. One morning we came upon a field of sunflowers. This was no tiny circle, but an expanse of sunflowers, much like cornfields in Iowa. I insisted they stop the car immediately. I marveled at these vibrant sunflowers, all facing the morning sun!

Planting the seeds with my kids, I tried to set realistic expectations. This is our first year!  We’re just trying it out! It can be a science experiment – even if nothing grows we’ll learn from experience. 

That conversation was unnecessary.

My three-year-old daughter diligently watered the sunflowers, and before long they sprouted. At first we thought they were growing at an angle. With closer investigation, it became clear even their leaves were tilting to face the sun.

Sunflower Fort GrowingAnd were they ever growing!  My son started taking measurements each Wednesday.  When they surpassed the reach of his arms, I helped out. Eventually, we needed a step stool and an extended measuring tape. Our plants grew on average an inch a day. In no time, the kids piled into their fort, surrounded by towering plants, hidden from view.

Watching the flowers open, and bloom a little brighter each day was pretty special. We all cheered the day the first bloom opened.

Soon the wildlife arrived. Bees and hummingbirds inspired conversations about pollination and pollinator habitat. Until the sunflower fort, I had never seen goldfinches in our suburban yard. But the sunflower fort attracted them daily. Watching them perch upside down eating seeds became a favorite pastime for my daughter and me. My son pointed out that we watched through the window like we were watching TV. I agreed.Sunflower Fort with Kids

The talk of the neighborhood, the ultimate hide-and-seek location, our very own wildlife viewing station, the perfect summer view: this is our sunflower fort! What can we expect as we head into fall and winter?I’m not sure. I think we’ll just wait and watch closely, soaking in whatever happens. After all, it’s better than TV!


Alone on the Prairie

Last week I packed my bags and headed on a vacation with my parents and siblings. Our destination was Lake Florida in Minnesota.

While we were there we volunteered at Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center! One of my projects was clearing trails around the prairie. Early in the morning, a little grumpy and weary from such an early start, I set off to complete my task.

But it did not take long for the beauty and simplicity of the prairie to engulf me and completely change my mood.Prairie flower

As I walked the trails the different prairie grasses and flowers began to capture my attention. The grasses were purple, orange, brown, and green. The flowers yellow, pink, blue, and white. The colors were iridescent as they danced in the wind and sun. I strolled along marshland rich with forest green vegetation and songs of birds.

The views took my breath away. The beauty of the prairie made me curious. I was alone but I had questions I wanted and I wanted answers. As I strolled I read the plaques provided and pondered my background knowledge of prairies.

I got lost in my thoughts and almost forgot to clean the trails! This curiosity attack made me think of how much I need time to be in the outdoors alone. It stimulates my curiosity. Curiosity is essential when you take students outside.

Rachel holding a prairie blossomKids have an innate ability to detect when someone is not being genuine. As the instructor I need to shine with wonder and eagerness so they can see that I am genuinely happy to be outside with them!

I write this story to say “take some time to be alone outside!” Find trails to saunter down or a place to volunteer. Get in touch with your wonder and curiosity. Then take them to your classroom, friends, and children!

If you are ever in Northern Minnesota I recommend you stop by the learning center!

Experiencing the solar eclipse

Monday, August 21, 2017 will be a memorable day.  Not since 1918 has a solar eclipse crossed the United States from the Pacific to Atlantic Oceans, giving us a rare opportunity to observe one of nature’s biggest coincidences.

A few tips as the big day nears…NASA photo, eclipse20170811

  • Never look directly at the sun. Solar eclipse glasses block out everything except for the actual sun itself. My kids were surprised how small the sun looks when using eclipse glasses.  Beware of price gouging online.  The Science Center of Iowa is currently selling eclipse glasses for $2.50 per pair. Indirect viewing is an option, too.
  • Watch something. NASA’s YouTube channel is pretty fantastic. Try downloading the NASA app, too.
  • Read something. Wendy Mass’s Every Soul a Star is a favorite young adult novel about three kids whose paths unexpectedly cross in the days leading up to a solar eclipse. As the story opens, Allie’s family is preparing a campground that is the only US viewing area of an eclipse. Bree’s only goal is landing a modeling contract, and Jack tries to remain invisible. A story of self-discovery, transformation, and life change – the themes cross generations and connect us all.
  • For other reading: NASA’s website has lots of details. If you are looking for a book about the history and science of eclipses, check out Tyler Nordgren’s Sun Moon Earth.
  • Talk to someone. I have been a little disappointed how few people I know are excited about this natural phenomenon.  I’m just so excited to share with others my fascination with science, nature, and space.
  • Do something. Participate in NASA’s citizen science project. Collect temperature readings and cloud observations before, during, and after the eclipse.  Upload them on the free app and share your data with researchers.
  • Get out there and experience. Simply step outdoors around 1pm Central Daylight Time) to experience a partial eclipse.  The Science Center of Iowa will host an eclipse viewing party on the capitol steps at 11:45 – 2:30pm.  The sun will be 95% covered but we will not have complete darkness unless we travel to Nebraska or Missouri to the zone of totality when the moon’s shadow passes overhead.  This will be my first total solar eclipse, but I have read it is something that must be experienced – words cannot describe it.

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