An innovative approach to environmental education

by Stephanie DAlessio and David Wheeler

The eager fifth-graders step off the field trip bus on a warm June morning, ready to see the place called Island Beach State Park along the New Jersey coast. The students will soon enjoy a day finding marine creatures in their seining net, exploring the saltmarsh and maritime forest, and watching with rapt attention through binoculars as a biologist introduces them to a nesting pair of ospreys, or “fish hawks.”

Yet for some of these public school students, one moment stands out. They will never forget that feeling when they first walk across the dunes on the trail to the beach.

“Wow, the ocean…I can’t believe I’m really here!” says an 11-year old girl in a wavering voice filled with equal parts glee and reverence.

It is her first time seeing the ocean.

The nonprofit Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey (CWF) developed these field trips over a decade ago to bring students to some of the state’s incredible nature destinations.

And while a hands-on and memorable experience such as a great field trip leaves an indelible impression for many students, others respond to learning through technology and, obviously, computers and tablets are more readily available than field trip buses. Thankfully, our free live-streaming webcams bring the wildlife right to the classroom.

It shouldn’t be a question of either getting outdoors or going online. Let’s do both.

A New Jersey third-grader holds a fish caught in a seining net, along with shrimp, crabs and other marine life. Photo by CWF.

Why we need environmental education

A personal connection with nature provides irreplaceable benefits to our quality of life. Spending time outdoors recharges our minds and spirits while also lowering our stress and anxiety levels. Fresh air and Vitamin D from sunlight can help limit risks to various medical conditions. And exercise and outdoor recreation provide a host of major health benefits.

These benefits extend even further for children. From helping fight obesity, diabetes and attention-deficit disorder to strengthening a child’s sense of well-being and self-confidence, connecting with nature can make a lasting difference in a child’s life.

CWF’s education programs reintroduce nature to the classroom, particularly in communities with minimal open space and parks. Our nature-based curriculum, hands-on activities, live wildlife visits, teacher trainings, field trips, and creative art and music projects have traveled to classrooms across the state, from Camden to Cape May, and Ocean City to Oakland.

“You can’t overestimate the joy that a visit by a live animal brings to a class,” said Colleen Babore, a public school teacher in Trenton. “It also becomes more meaningful since they just learned all about it, so the students feel a little like experts.”

One of her third-grade students concurs. “My favorite part was when the box turtle was crawling across the floor. It was amazing to feel the shell and watch how it was moving around right in front of us.”

The visceral thrills of these wildlife experiences awaken connections to nature that can last a lifetime. The programs also develop leadership and teamwork, whether in a determined high school student coordinating the rescue of diamondback terrapins or a Girl Scout troop hanging a bat house that they built together.

Those kinds of experiences can change lives. And who knows, perhaps they can even inspire the next generation of biologists!

Aligning our programs with school needs

Districts, schools, and teachers face demanding challenges on a daily basis. Implementing newly mandated standards, benchmark exams, timing and pacing schedules, and differentiated lessons are formidable tasks that we know all too well.

The last thing teachers need is another challenge in trying to figure out how a wildlife program fits their own plan, so we align our programs with what teachers are actually teaching in the classroom.

We conduct a needs assessment and benchmark data analysis with teachers and administrators to identify areas of nonproficiency, so we can customize our programs to address that school’s needs. For instance, chronic absenteeism is a growing problem in many underserved districts, but the incentives of experiencing fun wildlife programs or enjoying a field trip to the beach can truly motivate some students to attend school.

STEAM and wildlife webcams

The introduction of Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) not only provided a comprehensive guideline for what teachers must teach during the school year, it also provided a detailed blueprint for expanding our in-school and out-of-school programs. The skills, concepts, and educational benchmarks expected of students became our own goals and objectives.

The result was our “Soaring with STEAM” program—with art now added to the STEM focus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. This approach emphasizes hands-on, cross-curricular learning, with the added professional benefit of strengthening subjects in high demand as careers.

Our live wildlife webcams proved to be the ideal vehicle to deliver STEAM to the classroom, yielding intimate, close-up views of nesting peregrine falcons, bald eagles, ospreys and big brown bats, often accompanied by multiple cameras and sound. The viewer is immersed in the daily lives of these at-risk birds and bats, since the cameras are live-streamed 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Best of all for schools, our wildlife cams are free!

Children become apprentice biologists while observing, identifying and hypothesizing about the behaviors of each species, just as a real-life scientist does. Students are fascinated to discover the nesting behaviors of a peregrine falcon—the fastest animal in the world—atop a Jersey City skyscraper, or how discarded plastic bags and other marine debris affect a nesting pair of ospreys in Atlantic County.

“The presentations support both our curriculum and the new state science standards by emphasizing the practices that scientists utilize in their work,” said Cindy Apalinski, elementary science specialist for Linden Public Schools. “Our students were adeptly guided to ask questions, make observations, and provide explanations based on evidence around the peregrine falcon pair located right in our own backyard. Learning is always strengthened when students can make personal connections.”

Art and creativity

CWF’s programs follow the constructivist approach to learning by using the five E’s of science: engage, explore, explain, elaborate, and evaluate. Our fifth-grade program incorporates the Species on the Edge Art and Essay Contest, where students select one of more than 80 endangered New Jersey species, then paint or draw a portrait complemented by a well-researched, first-person essay creatively advocating for that animal.

Depending on the teacher’s schedule, students can complete their essay and accompanying art piece as part of a weeklong NGSS-aligned unit or with a quick one-day introduction. All educator materials, including handouts, PowerPoint slides, and detailed lesson plans, are included within the contest kit, making it a simple addition to any curriculum.

More than 2,800 fifth-graders from across the state enter the Species on the Edge contest each year. NJEA hosts an awards ceremony honoring the winners each June in Trenton, with the students’ artwork and essay excerpts illustrating a beautiful calendar. Best of all, the winners are invited to biologist-led field trips.

“I had always grown up loving the outdoors, but being in the contest exposed me to a variety of endangered species in my own backyard,” said Kelly Glenn, who won in 2010 for her art and essay about the black skimmer, and now attends Colgate University. “Entering the contest and being able to take the trip to Sedge Island really got me more involved in the environment, and even influenced me in choosing environmental studies as my college major.”

The “Soaring with STEAM” program also incorporates art, while other CWF programs utilize music, film and poetry. CWF is working with a music teacher in Newark to lead students in playing songs on keyboards incorporating the sounds of wildlife—from the haunting songs of whales to the beautiful varieties of birdsong. Our programs have also brought in renowned artists and filmmakers to discuss their crafts and further inspire the students.

Teachers get outdoors

Professional development for teachers has proven to be an invaluable component of our educational outreach. Though our classroom programs engage students when we are in the schools—and our webcams supply ongoing content for further study—the impact goes much deeper when the teachers themselves lead the way.

“As we paddled our kayaks through the water, we observed nesting peregrine falcons and osprey, and tasted the edible plants growing in the shallows,” said Diane Cook, a computer literacy teacher in Flemington who attended a CWF Professional Development workshop at Sedge Island Natural Resource Education Center. “We even got to see osprey chicks in a Nearby nest, guided by Ben Wurst, the biologist who heads up the project!”

That hands-on experiential professional development course is offered in partnership with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. Late each spring, teachers are invited to explore the scenic Sedge Island Marine Conservation Zone by kayak while building a food web from the ground up. Arrivals can only take place by boat, as the island’s salt marsh, cedars, and incredible estuarine wildlife oasis is located in the heart of Barnegat Bay.

“You learn best by doing, and this workshop had us busy,” said Cook.

CWF also offers “Cams in the Classroom” professional development courses at diverse locations such as Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, Trailside Nature Center in Mountainside, and Cedar Run Wildlife Refuge in Medford. Teachers experience cross-curricular teaching through our wildlife webcams, supplemented by biologist-led scientific insights and the exciting presence of live wildlife, such as bald eagles, screech owls, red-tailed hawks and big brown bats. 

Making it personal

By developing activities based on proven educational concepts like Bloom’s Taxonomy, Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences, and Piaget’s Constructivist Theory of Learning, we address challenges such as differentiated learning. Student-based inquiry allows children to speak with CWF educators and scientists about how their observations help illustrate the program’s concepts and develop a deeper understanding of natural phenomena.

Learning about their wildlife neighbors inspires children to consider how their everyday actions have an impact the natural world around them. Many at-risk wildlife species thrive in the same neighborhoods as the schools, with raptors and bats often nesting or flying nearby, yielding the added possibility of students and teachers sighting the actual animal in their day-to-day lives.

“It was surprising to know that a nest rests just a mile or two away on a county building and it is visible to the public,” said Anthony Cataline, principal of Linden School No. 4.

While empowering students to be environmental stewards, we seek to build their self-confidence and help them become advocates for themselves, their communities, and the world around them. Students are encouraged to pursue conservation-related post-secondary education and careers, carrying on the mission of protecting wildlife long after our programs are complete.

Cataline adds, “By retaining access to the webcam link and related STEAM lesson plans, we can extend our students’ learning even beyond the program’s conclusion.”

Getting outdoors

At the end of many programs, particularly those in underserved areas, we bring students on a culminating field trip to one of New Jersey’s top nature destinations, such as Island Beach State Park or Leonardo State Marina, where they see firsthand many of the species they studied throughout the year.

The culminating field trip allows students to build on their in-class learning by learning experientially about wildlife and directly engaging with nature. Students construct new ideas and hypotheses through the use of all of their senses: touch, sight, smell, taste, and sound. After all, nothing brings our five senses to life like nature.

Walking back to the bus, a sharp squawk resounds overhead, and many students’ heads lift upward.

“There’s an osprey!” says one girl.

A boy nods his head and adds, “Yeah, just like on the webcam!”

Stephanie DAlessio M.A. Ed. is the education director of Conserve Wildlife Foundation and a Trustee at the Alliance for New Jersey Environmental Education.

David Wheeler is the executive director of Conserve Wildlife Foundation and the author of Wild New Jersey: Nature Adventures in the Garden State.

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