NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

October 8, 2012

A natural classroom

Students learn the place-based way

By Lynne Hendricks Correspondent
Newburyport Daily News

---- — With competition from smartphones, video games, unlimited texting plans and 24-hour-a- day television programming, it’s not always easy for a seventh-grade science teacher to convince kids that the study of plants and marine biology is cool.

But John Reynolds and Jess DeLacey found that on the place-based education trips they’ve been taking with their students this fall, technology can’t compete with nature.

Residents might have seen their classes around town, a line of 12- and 13-year-olds hugging the bike lanes on High Street en route to Maudslay State Park for a field expedition to study native plant and tree life. Or perhaps they were seen at Sandy Point, exploring the off-season shoreline and shallows, making observations and providing data that will eventually be used by the National Audubon Society in a much larger study of intertidal zones within the Gulf of Maine.

One recent trip even had students gliding across the still surface of Joppa Flats in their own kayaks, close enough to their unit of study — the Gulf of Maine — to reach out and touch it with their fingertips.

Reynolds described the scene as one that started with students unsure of their ability to guide their own kayak in and around the flats and ended with their complete mastery of their vessel.

And he marveled at an experience they shared on the first morning out on the crafts this year, when a curious harbor seal poked its head up between the kids’ boats, then disappeared again beneath the water’s surface. The Gulf of Maine, he said, had their complete attention. And it was cool.

“If you’re on a party boat looking at a seal, that’s one thing, but when one surfaces next to you on a kayak, that’s a different experience,” said Reynolds.

DeLacey said kids get more knowledge about their natural world seeing and feeling it up close. It’s gratifying, she said, to see them so engaged as they glide along the Newburyport coastline.

“They’re their own pilots,” she exclaimed.

The trips were the brainchild of DeLacey and Reynolds, who obtained mini-grants last year from the Gulf of Maine Institute and the Newburyport Education Business Coalition to start the place-based learning program. And with enthusiastic sign-off from the administration, the entire seventh-grade teaching team has come together to create space in the schedule for the day-long trips.

“It’s a district-wide initiative to get place-based education into the curriculum to enhance learning,” said Reynolds. “It’s supported by the Gulf of Maine Institute, and financially supported with grants from the Education Business Coalition.”

The first trip was an introductory one, and had students setting out on bikes to Maudslay where they learned to be present in nature, exploring uses of native plant life, and identifying trees by its trunk, leaves and other identifying features.

The second trip was to Sandy Point, where students accompanied a team of Audubon scientists into the intertidal areas to collect data in their respective quadrant and learn about the dune plant ecology and history of Plum Island. There was also a portion of the day dedicated solely to the birds — shore birds like the endangered piping plover.

“It’s not the tidepooling you do in the fourth grade,” said Reynolds.

A half-day trip that followed took kids out to Cooper Pasture on Hale Street to collect pill bugs for a lab Reynolds has been conducting with them for years.

The kayak trip came next, focusing students’ learning on the effects of tide, and specifically on the flow of fresh and salt water at the mouth of the Merrimack River and how that serves to define the habitat.

“There’s learning about evolution and species habitat, characteristics of living things, and the effect of pollution,” said Reynolds. “They also learn about invasive species like phragmites and how they can take over a place.”

An eco-tour with the city’s recycling coordinator, Molly Ettenborough, is on tap for October, along with one more bike trip to the Parker River Wildlife Refuge, where students will contribute to a 12-year study on the salinity of the water, vegetation and fish species in hopes of eradicating phragmites.

By the time the first snow falls and the trips come to an end, DeLacey said students will have a better understanding of scientific concepts her class will be studying throughout the year.

“All of these trips are a common experience for them,” said DeLacey, who said last year’s pilot experience proved the trips work when it comes to providing context to scientific studies. “They’re brought up at least once a week throughout the year. It was unbelievable how much they remembered throughout the year.”

Reynolds and DeLacey give credit to the NEF, school administration, fellow teachers and parents who tag along as chaperones for helping make the trips happen. The two are hoping to find a sponsor to fund the program annually to ensure its longevity, and they point to middle and high school civics and math teachers who are planning interdisciplinary teaching projects around the kids who participated in the place-based trips. Those efforts, they say, provide proof that the place-based learning possibilities are endless.

“I think the big aim is to get kids to see their community in a different way and think of it as a scientist would,” said Reynolds. “I’m a native of this place and I think kids ought to know how beautiful it is. Talk to a kid for 10 minutes and you’ve lost them. Get them in a kayak and they’re just warming up.”