By Don Corrigan (South County Times)
It’s not exactly a dog-eat-dog world out there, but it certainly is competitive. Plants compete for sunlight. Songbirds compete for nesting sites. Predators compete for prey. And teachers compete to be the best educators they can be.
Recently, some highly-motivated teachers from across the St. Louis region convened on Powder Valley Nature Conservation Center to sharpen their skills and knowledge for teaching ecology.
The Discover Nature Schools Workshop was led by David Bruns, conservation education consultant with the Missouri Department of Conservation. Bruns encouraged teachers to get outside with their students and become familiar with the natural world.
“This is a fabulous opportunity to help teachers enable their students to experience authentic conservation practices first hand within a Missouri context,” explained Bruns, prior to the workshop on Jan. 6.
True to his word, Bruns took advantage of the “Missouri context” by having teachers conduct data-gathering exercises in the outdoors area bordering Kirkwood and Sunset Hills at Powder Valley. The site provides a small sampling of ecosystems in Missouri that can be found in the state’s prairies, glades, woodlands, forests, caves, wetlands, rivers and streams.
Data-gathering exercises can involve taking a census of wildlife diversity at different outdoor sites. Before starting such a project, it’s essential to have precise information on exact location, time, air temperature, weather conditions pertaining to wind direction and atmospheric conditions.
“You can’t just be using your cell phones for outside temperature,” Bruns told the teachers. “It’s not going to be exact if it has been near your body. And you need a thermometer that reads in Celsius. Scientists use Celsius rather than Fahrenheit.”
Bruns also noted that most of the world uses the metric system, so field measurements need to use the metric system. That makes data comparisons easier on a global basis.
Turning the Tables
Back indoors at Powder Valley, Bruns turned the tables on the teachers by giving them a test. High school students may take some comfort knowing that most of the teachers did not score perfectly. Some even questioned whether the right answers were actually correct.
“This is what should happen with a test,” said Bruns. “There should be some skepticism and questioning about assumptions that are made. That really is part of the scientific approach and getting a good discussion going on different topics is always valuable.”
The test itself was focused on gathering prior knowledge of the outdoors and ecology. It was meant to assess misconceptions before teaching from the text, “Nature Unbound.”
Among topics discussed in the class as a result of the test questions were:
•Do ecologists primarily study and save endangered animals? No, ecology studies help us understand how natural systems work and can provide many ideas on finding solutions to problems.
•Do organisms only reproduce sexually? No, and ecologists do study asexual reproduction, which can occur very quickly. A few bacteria can multiply to millions literally overnight. Remember that next time you eat a doughnut that dropped on the floor.
•Does Missouri have a number of endangered species? Yes, there are numerous birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish on Missouri’s endangered list, including the Ozark Hellbender which has received local attention.
The “Nature Unbound” book and course are correlated with Missouri Learning Standards and Next Generation Science Standards. The emphasis is put on student-centered and collaborative investigations of ecosystem dynamics, cycles of matter and energy transfer, interdependent relationships, and human impacts on biodiversity.
Discover Nature Schools is a Missouri Department of Conservation program that provides no-cost curriculum units to teachers and schools. Units are available for preschool through 12th grade and help teachers and students meet required state learning standards.
The MDC program has proven popular with students and teachers, and is being used within every school district in Missouri.