, Newburyport, MA

January 28, 2014

Place-based education brings students into nature

By Lori Day

---- — NEWBURYPORT — An exciting initiative going on in the Newburyport schools these days is called place-based education. It involves a simple, but often overlooked strategy: getting students out of their classrooms and into nature, where science is happening all around them.

Ask the children in Lauren Eramo’s fifth-grade classroom, who recently compared the ecosystems of Mosley Woods and the Great Salt Marsh, what this hands-on learning experience meant to them and they don’t hesitate.

“We got to learn things I never would have learned by staying in the classroom,” said Shannon Harrington, 11.

When asked which discovery in the field interested her most, Shannon’s eyes lit up. “I didn’t know about springs. They just shoot up, right out of the ground! The water was so cold. It was really awesome!”

Peter King, 10, agreed. “Being in nature is more fun than being in a man-made learning place and just looking at pictures. I got to experience things that really surprised me, like phragmites that were much taller than my head, and mud that smelled like sulfur.”

Eramo began with a summer course offered by the Gulf of Maine Institute. She and her colleagues spent several days being instructed on how children learn in the field, and then researching local resources. They created units of study incorporating both ongoing and new curriculum.

Next, Eramo contacted Kate Yeomans at the Boat Camp Nature School in Newburyport to collaborate on the field education portion of the science unit. Finally, she wrote a partnership grant and submitted it to the Newburyport Education Foundation for funding.

In the early fall, students prepared by studying the life cycle and structure of plants, as well as the adaptations organisms need to survive. Then, in mid-October, they spent a morning in the maritime forest of Moseley Woods. Yeomans and fellow Boat Camp educators taught students about tree coring. They gathered leaves to identify later in the classroom. Water samples from the pond were taken, as were various soil samples demonstrating stages of decomposition.

After lunch, students headed to the rail trail in Salisbury where they sketched the marsh. Minnow traps — set the night before in Town Creek — were hauled up, revealing sticklebacks, mummichogs and other small fish. Students measured and compared the temperature, salinity and presence of organisms on both sides of the culvert. The afternoon ended with an off-trail marsh walk that gave students an eye-level view of the estuarine habitat’s plants and animals, and helped them understand how fresh water, salt water and brackish water interact within a wetlands ecosystem.

Students then did further research on the samples they had brought back to the classroom. They created visual and written displays of what they had learned.

The unit inspired Tyler Clements, 10, to become more interested in science. “I got to find out about how plants grow, I got to observe salamanders and frogs, and we made bridges with logs,” he said.

“The point of it all,” Eramo said, “is for students to understand that all plants and animals need adaptations to survive in their unique ecosystems. It’s a really big idea for them.”