BY PHIL POTENZIANO, The Coastal Journal
Mary Poppins had the right idea. A spoonful of sugar does make the medicine go down, and the Brunswick School Department has found a way to sweeten the learning experience in our science-based programs.
Brunswick schools have been working with the Cathance River Education Alliance to bring kids outdoors to learn in a hands-on environment, something that offers a long list of benefits. And the program is a hit with our students, who tell us it’s so much fun learning outdoors.
CREA, a program of the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust, promotes ecological awareness and stewardship through nature-based learning. In addition to the beautiful 235-acre Cathance River Preserve in Topsham – which is also open to the public – the CREA team offers a wealth of expertise in the area of science education.
In recent years, the school department has partnered with CREA as we continue to revise our science programs and strengthen our alignment with the state’s Next Generation Science Standards. A central theme of the program is bringing students outdoors and adding more hands-on investigations into science class, something teachers of all grades have practiced. So, instead of just studying frogs from a book, second-graders search for them near a pond and listen to their different croaking sounds. Fifth-graders, meanwhile, are taking soil samples and learning about ecosystems in the nearby forest.
Why is science so important? The knowledge you acquire goes beyond the ability to identify an amoeba under a microscope or the understanding that the blue whale is a mammal. In the same way that math teaches us how to think logically, the study of science builds essential life skills, including observation, hypothesis, collaboration, inquiry, problem-solving and flexibility.
Our partnership with CREA covers kindergarten through fifth grade. The learning units are consistent across all the grade levels to ensure that every student has access to the same experience based on Next Generation Science Standards.
After elementary school, Brunswick junior high and high school classes continue to offer plenty of hands-on, outdoor learning opportunities through field trips, extended learning opportunities and on-campus activities, including in our BHS garden.
The K-5 grade modules, created by CREA and Brunswick staff, also take a load off teachers, who can now focus on students and instruction without the need to develop their own curriculum. This is particularly beneficial for new teachers and those in the lower grades who teach multiple subjects.
“Feedback has been great,” says Suellyn Santiago, chief academic officer. “Teachers have everything at their fingertips. This gives them the resources they need to focus on the kids and what the students need.”
Students progress as they move through the grades. Second-graders identify turtles and quietly observe robins nesting. Third graders look at larvae under a microscope. Students in fourth grade study more abstract, longer-term processes, such as how the moving water of a river smooths rocks.
An especially exciting outcome we’ve seen comes from students who may lack confidence in the classroom – those who sit in the back and rarely participate. I’ve heard several stories that these quiet students often become some of the most connected and engaged learners in the outdoor education setting.
Certainly, there will always be an emphasis on books, lectures and even hands-on classroom activities. But bringing students outdoors for experiential learning is fun, effective and here to stay. A favorite story came from Sarah Rodgers, school program coordinator at CREA, who was told by a young learner, “This is so awesome – we’re learning so much new stuff, but I don’t even feel like I’m learning.”
Mary Poppins would be proud.
If you want to learn about the Brunswick School Department and CREA, look no further than the October Brunswick Buzz podcast.