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Environment, education connect in service-learning project

UGA class connects with local school to assist in expanding science curriculum

 

As the group worked its way down the forested pathway, a few members stopped, mulling over some logs rolled off to the side.

Kris Irwin knelt down and rolled one toward him—exposing the underside away from his feet, which is key, he noted—and also highlighted a teaching moment right at their fingertips.

“Look at that root system for fungi,” he said, then pulled up a small brown slug now unearthed by the decaying log. “See all that? See all that?”

The revelation was one of many made by Irwin, associate dean for outreach at the University of Georgia Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, who was exploring the grounds of Westminster Christian Academy with members of his class, Foundations of Environmental Education (FANR 4444S/6444S). Their goal was to identify ways the wooded area could be incorporated into more lessons, drawing students into the natural world to not only learn about science but also incorporate mathematics, literacy and the arts.

For a project like this, a site visit is essential. By walking the grounds and talking with someone who is already familiar with the space and the curriculum—in this case, Westminster science teacher Dana Fairman—Irwin and his students get a sense of how the outdoor elements can be used. Some ideas could be implemented the very next day, such as gathering samples from along the trail or reading books that relate to a planned butterfly garden.

Others, though, require a bit more effort.

Take the small deck and area of tables near the school’s main building. It’s shaded but also near the main road, so any teachers using the space would have to compete with traffic noise. As the group contemplated possible noise screens, Irwin suddenly stopped, took a step back, and pointed toward the sky.

“Don’t forget to look up, guys,” he said, challenging the students to identify dead or dying tree limbs. It’s something to watch out for with any outdoor project, just as it’s important to understand the various ways people might interact with a site. “You’re trying to take in the setting when you’re doing a site visit, so your creativity can flow when you’re back setting up the plans. You also need to think about what exists and how to use it.”

As Fairman led them around the property, the students discussed how the school’s plans dovetailed with their own ideas for the property. For example, an area behind the playground where water pooled could become a certified pollinator garden, and the fence around the playground could hold interpretive signs about the space. Another area near the start of the wooded trail could be an opportunity for a community or scout project, where rain runoff had washed out some infrastructure.

But so many options come at low or no cost, added Irwin. Students could come out to the woods with small containers—or, older students could use the cameras on their phones—and gather samples. Then, take them inside and analyze what they found. As the water in the stream ebbed and flowed, students could talk about velocity and the effect that plants along the banks affect the water flow. With some binoculars, students could experience sitting quietly and watching for movement around them, be it a bird, squirrel or something else. With some sand and mineral oil, students can set out “track traps” to see what creatures walk across the forest floor.

Fairman originally reached out to Irwin to learn more about Project Learning Tree, an environmental education curriculum that Irwin and other Warnell outreach faculty support. But, in her quest to expand Westminster’s science program, she learned about Irwin’s environmental service-learning class and both thought it was a good opportunity to provide the students an opportunity to apply new knowledge and skills. “This seemed like the perfect merge of getting some support while also getting the students out here,” she added.

From here, Irwin’s students will take their notes and photos and head to the drawing board, putting together a master plan for the areas around the school that can be used to enhance learning at all grades, in a variety of subjects.

The exercise represents service-learning at its core, said Irwin. It connects UGA students to the community and allows the students to use their knowledge to solve a real-world problem. But there’s also an aspect of celebration.

“Service-learning involves the intentional connection between the academic material and a relevant service experience, and involves reciprocity, critical reflection through journaling and celebration,” he added. “The celebration comes at the end, when students and community members celebrate what they achieved together.”

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