Jane Willis hadn't really expected to spend her summer vacation getting close to pillbugs and millipedes. But that's exactly what happened to her as a result of signing up for the Tiorati Workshop for Environmental Learning at Bank Street College's graduate school of education in New York.
"Previously my reaction to looking under a log or rock was simply: YUCK!" says Ms. Willis. But now, she says, she sees an entire world teeming in such places, and after studying some of the insects that lurk in the dark and damp, "I just developed a real feeling for the millipede."
The Bank Street College of Education prides itself on training teachers in the tradition of "hands-on" learning, and perhaps nowhere is that more true than at its Tiorati workshops. These intensive summer sessions are designed to inspire elementary- and middle-school teachers -particularly those without science backgrounds -to turn their environmental-science classes into hands-on adventures for their students.
"We try to let teachers engage themselves as learners of the natural environment," says Don Cook, director of the Tiorati Workshop program. "Suddenly they realize what it's like to learn when you're really excited about something."
The twenty or so participants who enrolled in the July session of the Tiorati class are all candidates for master's degrees in education at Bank Street. All are either already teaching, or hoping soon to find full-time teaching positions.
Brianna Sayers teaches third grade at a charter school in Jersey City, N.J., and specializes in reading. She jumped into the Tiorati course this summer to "round [herself] out with science." Sayers says science is probably the subject she's least drawn to naturally, but she loves the "inquiry" method used at Bank Street.
In the case of the Tiorati workshop, the inquiry method consists of a very open-ended process. Those attending are divided into four teams with broad categories (spiders; trees; rot and decay; and wilderness survival) and then let loose in nature to ask questions and learn what they can.
The class is based in a cabin-classroom area nestled in Harriman State Park, an hour north of New York City. Participants travel there by bus for each of the six sessions.
Although the teachers are encouraged to supplement their learning by outside reading and some library research, much of their work involves site visits. The trees group, for instance, marked off a 20-square-meter area and studied the 17 trees growing there.
Each group is encouraged to learn as much as it can through direct observation and the creation of simple experiments that could also be used by children in the classroom.
At the end of the six sessions, all four groups meet to present their findings to one another and to discuss how they felt about the process.
"Some come grudgingly to the [inquiry] method," says Professor Cook. "But they have to understand that this course has two focuses. One is what they learn about the environment, but the other is the process of inquiry."
The inquiry method is becoming increasingly popular with environmental science teachers and that's a good thing for science instruction in this country, says M. Patricia Morse, acting professor of zoology at the University of Washington at Seattle.
First of all, she says, it teaches students "to understand how scientists do science." But even more importantly, she adds, it allows them to exercise their curiosity. "And that's something kids don't have any problems doing."
The Spider group, however, was quick to agree that the inquiry method had been highly successful in terms of both stimulating interest in the subject and providing a vehicle for learning. They had quickly selected a fairly narrow focus -the structure of webs -and after a period of photographing and observing different webs, in addition to doing some library research, they designed a series of simple experiments.
The first round consisted of dropping buttons of different weights onto webs to see how well they withstood impact. They discovered that web strength varied greatly, with some webs remaining intact even after being bombarded by a 25-gram button, and others tearing at the touch of a 3-gram button.
They discovered through their reading, however, that webs are designed to withstand momentum rather than simply weight, so they modified their experiment and began measuring the height from which they dropped the buttons.
These experiments also allowed the team to fulfill another course requirement, which was to link environmental learning to other parts of the curriculum. In this case they were also able to devise a math lesson in weights and measurement.
Those in the spider group said in the end that they were left with more questions than answers about spiders and their habits, but that they had also acquired an abiding love of the subject, and a desire to research it further.
For Cook, that's the point of the course. "They're now excited about their own learning," he says. "That's what we want them to take back into the classroom."
But for some participants, the hands-on learning method had another benefit as well. "It's collaborative and also rewarding on a personal level," says Willis. She worked on the rot and decay team with Deb Taylor and Rachael Mayles.
The three found close bonds forming. "We call ourselves The Three Moms," says Ms. Taylor. When the lunch break comes and the students head outside to eat, this team of three finds a quiet rock to perch on and share conversation as well as sandwiches.
All three women decided to become elementary school teachers later in life after having children and pursuing other careers. Willis had been a college professor and Taylor a university administrator; and Dr. Mayles was an optometrist.
And as all three are dealing with the challenges of balancing motherhood and a new career, they found they learned as much from one another as they did from the class.
But in addition to the new friendships, Willis says she has also acquired a unique new interest. "Did you know pillbugs have gills?" she asks enthusiastically. "I can't wait to do a study to find out how they're related to sea creatures."
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(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society