Over the last several years, the Environmental Volunteers Education Committee has taken on the somewhat daunting task of updating all of our curriculum to better support the new “Next Generation Science Standards.” This process has not only included updating the basic information that we teach, but the very fundamentals of how we teach. Instead of focusing on a fact-based educational program, where an expert stands in front of a group of students and rattles off interesting information, our programs are being redesigned to allow students’ natural curiosity and instincts for discovery to take center stage. Some of the programs ask the students to carry out an engineering design challenge, others ask them to design an experiment to test a hypothesis, and others allow time for unfettered exploration without any preconceived ideas. The process has been complex and at times, frustrating, but we’ve seen some amazing results!
One program that was recently launched as an NGSS redesign is our “Biodiversity” program for 2nd graders. Developed around the concept that there is an amazing array of animal life in every habitat on earth, the students are asked to act as scientists, seeking out clues and evidence, to help them identify an unknown species that they’ve never encountered before. After exploring a particular aspect of that species’ lifestyle and natural history at each of several stations, the students are able to gather data on habitat, physical characteristics, preferred prey, taxonomic grouping, and even sound. Altogether, the data they collect helps them identify the “mystery” with a big reveal at the very end.
Having recently observed and participated in a couple of “Biodiversity” programs, I was pleasantly amazed at just how well received this program was with 2nd graders at Oak Knoll Elementary in Menlo Park. Throughout the 90-minute programs, the students were engaged, excited, enthusiastic, interested, and fully invested in gathering each clue – they couldn’t wait to uncover the mystery! Environmental Volunteer docents led discussions about how to identify specific clues, for example using a dichotomous key to identify a feather, and allowed the students’ innate curiosity to drive the exploration of different types of clues animals leave behind. Without anyone actually telling them the answer, all of the students were able to successfully guess the identity of the mystery animal, and the big reveal at the end was greeted with cheers and “wows”.
Throughout the program, the teachers also had a continual expression of awe and amazement – these were students they had been working with for the last several months, but hadn’t ever seen them so completely and thoroughly engaged. Even students who were normally a little squeamish about “yucky” things were fully embracing the opportunity to be both hands-and-minds-on (spoiler: they dissected pellets, containing bones and fur, but weren’t told what they were until after they started the dissection process). Watching those “Aha!” moments and exclamations of delight as something new was discovered was a truly priceless experience.