Early in my teaching career, a local naturalist told me something on a second grade field trip that stuck with me through the rest of my teaching years. She said many classrooms teach about faraway places like the rainforest or polar regions, but many forget to emphasize the local habitats and environment. Through an understanding of their own backyard, children build the concepts and background knowledge required to really attain global awareness and understand global issues. There is, perhaps, no better way for students to learn than to actually experience learning in the real world around them. Authentic projects tied to the world they see everyday are invaluable, especially for young children. Add in experts as teachers beyond the typical classroom and the learning multiplies as children begin to understand point of view, critical thinking, problem solving, and the need for collaboration. Local environmental problems present valuable opportunities for students to not only learn, but to engage in solving real world problems. In 2010, my second graders took on a local problem with great success! Their work was the result of two timely events. The first was a growing debate in our community over how to manage the growing population of deer living in our city limits. The deer were causing destruction to yards and the local people were asking for something to be done about the problem. The second event was a live online webcast from Shout Learning, a collaboration between the Smithsonian, Microsoft, and TakingITglobal. My students joined the webcast called "Forests and Deer: Requirements for Conservation" hosted by Dr. Bill McShea, wildlife ecologist for the Smithsonian. Although the webcast addressed the negative impact of too many deer in the eastern forests, as the children listened to the speaker online, they began to make connections to what was happening in our town. From the connections came questions and a project was born. Could they actually develop a solution for our community?
The answer to the problem could not be found in a textbook and I, as their teacher, could not supply the information they needed. Instead, we turned to other resources. Experts representing the two sides of the issue were invited to class. The mayor spoke about community concerns and decisions. A Division of Wildlife officer spoke to the class about conservation and protection of wildlife. In addition, the kids researched the problem and discovered that our small town problem was a growing issue in towns across the country. The class used Twitter to seek help from other locations. Using the hashtag #comments4kids, we posted links to our blog video requests for help. Answers came from as far away as England offering suggestions.
Ultimately, the class arrived at a solution that might help our community. They published their advice in a brochure that was distributed throughout our town. We posted the project on both the Shout Learning website and the ePals website. As a result, the children's work was featured in a Smithsonian in Your Classroom publication. You can access and download the publication by clicking on the link.
The publication contains step by step suggestions for recreating a similar project with your students. The process always begins, however, with identifying an environmental problem in your own backyard. What is the problem? What are the causes? What are possible solutions?
- Organize your thoughts
- Turn to the experts
- Turn to the community
- Listen to the children and help them see that this world belongs to them!
Shout Learning is no longer active, but you can still watch the archived webcasts. There are many websites that provide information about environmental issues for students. TakingITglobal and Design for Change are two possibilities. The Smithsonian is about to unveil its new learning resource called the Smithsonian Learning Lab as well. The possibilities are endless. Engage your students in learning with a real world problem! You never know what might happen!