Environmental Education -The Museum’s Program by Robert Lucas, Educational Assistant

The Cape Naturalist: Vol 1 No 1

June, 1972

Environmental Education -The Museum’s Program

by Robert Lucas, Educational Assistant

Our Environmental Science Program now in its second year, is by no means polished and perfected, but we are proud of our endeavors and we believe that we are making accomplishments in developing an environmental awareness in the young people with whom we work. The program reaches a total of more than 1000 children in attendance at the following elementary schools: Ezra Baker in Dennis, Brewster Elementary, Eastham Elementary, Orleans Elementary, Trinity School of Cape Cod in Yarmouth, Truro Central, and Wellfleet Elementary. We hope to keep you informed of the aims of the program, the principles upon which we are operating, and what we believe have been successes and failures and why.

The term environmental education probably has as many interpretations as there are people who use the words. To some it means nature study, to others it connotes a sophisticated experimental approach to science, and to many it is the instant panacea to our environmental problems. Even the educators currently involved in environmental education would not be in unanimous agreement on a definition of the term, but the majority would probably subscribe to the following: environmental science should be taught outdoors, should involve exploration, and should impart a sense of awareness to the student. The Museum’s program embodies, to varying degrees, the above three principles.

Donald Schall, the director, and Robert Lucas, the educational assistant present a series of 30 weekly lessons, the majority of which are planned for outdoors or have at least an outdoor involvement following a short classroom introduction. Mother Nature, herself, can be the weak point here -inclement weather keeps us inside when we should be out. Not that a nature hike in the rain or snow is a bad thought; it is just that there is always a sizeable number of children who are ill-prepared for wet weather.

We use the school grounds rather than take costly bus trips to parks and sanctuaries. The school grounds, no matter how scant or seemingly devoid of subject material, are available on a day-to-day basis, thus are the best location for an outdoor learning area. We, on the Cape, are somewhat luckier than our fellow teachers in the inner-city because we have an exciting abundance of natural material to discover around each of the seven elementary schools. When busing can be arranged, we do take 2 field trips: one to the visitor center and Coast Guard Beach at the National Seashore and the other to our Museum to expose the children to the facilities available for their use.

The lessons we develop, geared for grades 1 through 5, allow for some individual and team exploration of the outdoors. The exploration needs a degree of structure because the outdoor lesson is still too new to the children and going outdoors means recess (freedom and playtime) to many children. For this reason we are bringing some of the formality of the classroom outdoors with us, but we are also making a conscious effort to provide an informal learning experience. We find that an introduction to explain the purposes of the lesson is essential and that a review, when time allows, is beneficial. The children become more involved when given specific assignments either on a team or individual basis. “Find who lives in this block of soil”, “how old do you think that tree is”, “how many plants and animals can you find in one square foot of lawn”, “what happens to fallen leaves” elicits interest and response from most children.

Awareness rather than knowledge is the key word. The awareness a child develops through constant exposure to the things around him is more important than any amount of factual knowledge he is able to imbibe. We do not look for regurgitation of facts following a lesson, but rather, hope for development of lifetime interests in natural sciences which help a person have an appreciation of his environment and its importance to him.

The teachers are asked to accompany the class outdoors, in fact, most teachers express a desire to do just that. Teacher involvement is very important; there is no such animal as a teacher who knows too little about science to venture, with class, on an outdoor lesson in the absence of the Museum instructor. A child quickly learns respect for a teacher who can say “I don’t know, but let’s return to the library or classroom and try to find the answer.” We work with a total of 27 teachers (many of whom are very capable in science) and all could be and should be bringing their class outdoors for environmental learning experiences. We hope that we are helping to build the teachers’ confidence in their own abilities outdoors, as well as provide them with ideas for lessons. We also suggest that the teacher, when time allows, follow up the lesson, especially by returning outdoors with the class. In the long run the success of any environmental science program, such as ours, will be measured by the total number of classes (regardless of subject or discipline) being taught both outdoors and in the classroom.

Far too often children are taught, by example if not directly, to think of themselves as managers or trustees of our natural heritage and living in a world which they control and from which they stand apart. If children can develop an awareness of themselves as a part of their environment; and as being as critically dependent on it for survival as any other living creature, then their world will become more meaningful and valuable to them.

As a brief example of one of our outdoor lessons and also as a suggestion to teachers looking for ideas we present the following:

THE SENSORY NATURE TRAIL SETUP -Scout the area near your school for a section of land about 75 feet in length with the greatest variety of plants, soil, logs, rocks, etc. Be sure that you can recognize poison ivy! Rub or bruise a few leaves, smell them; if there is bare soil or fallen leaves, grab a handful -feel and smell it. Now you are ready to mark the trail. Start by placing a heavy string or rope about 150 feet long, winding it from one plant to another to a rock to a tree to a fallen log, etc. Use paper baggage tags, with string attached, and a marking pen to label your trail. Choose features about 6 to 10 feet apart on the trail: if the leaves on a plant are rough, hairy, or smooth mark the label “feel”; if you encounter plants like wintergreen, cherry, juniper, bayberry, pine or any plant with a distinctive odor, mark the label “smell”. Where bare soil exists, ask the students to bend down and pick up a handful-let your imagination run wild and label as many items as practical.

LESSON -After discussing the importance of the 5 tools (senses) and explaining why no tasting will be allowed, divide the class into pairs. Blindfold one child in each pair and start the first pair on the trail. As each pair walks the nature trail, the child who can see, acts as the eyes for the blindfolded one and interprets the labels, helping the other. At the halfway mark along the trail the blindfold is exchanged and the previously blind becomes the eyes for the other child. Stress the importance of slow and careful sensing.

REMARKS -The set-up should not take more than 1 hour of your time and the lesson can be done with a minimum of scientific knowledge (the only identification which is essential is that of poison ivy). This can be a good first lesson because it not only emphasizes the use of the senses and exploration but also shows the child that knowing the names of various rocks, plants, etc. is nonessential to learning -that much can be learned by just using his own senses.


1 Comment

  1. Shamsha Emanuel said,

    December 17, 2009 at 5:19 pm

    The description of the outdoor activity is good .

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