Stalking Science

(This column was first published in the July 27, 1998 Buffalo News.)

    Good news on the education front.

    For years I have been concerned about school and college science instruction. It has seemed to me that we have focused too much of our attention on the extremes of science -- the things that are, to put it mildly, "out of sight" -- microbes, viruses and DNA, all too small to be seen through ordinary microscopes; galaxies whose light started toward us before the earth was formed and that require a powerful telescope to be seen. Those are important objects of study, but I think that they claim a disproportionate amount of our time when our science instruction too seldom addresses problems of human scale: the natural history of the immediate world around us. Educators seem oblivious to the coyotes in our woodlands, the insects inhabiting the school yard, the fish and frogs of our streams, the trees that line our streets.

    Even the environmental science course now taught in many high schools does not respond to my concerns when it is solely centered on textbook instruction and fails to explore the world outside the classroom.

    The good news is that some teachers -- not many yet, but some -- are directing the attention of their students to the environment in which they live.

    Early in July I joined twenty of these teachers for a week-long program in the Adirondacks oddly titled Stalking Science Education in the Adirondacks and led by D. Andrew Saunders of Syracuse University's College of Environmental Science and Forestry. Some of my classmates are high school teachers of that environmental science course; a few teach biology, one even chemistry. Still others have elementary and middle school and even pre-school appointments. And several work with children having special needs.

    There was a synergy operating in this program that I have not seen before in education. Saunders' own commitment and enthusiasm was infectious as was that of his graduate and undergraduate student assistants (including Jason Myers of Niagara Falls) and visiting experts (like Syracuse University botanist Don Leopold) who joined our classroom and field activities. We students couldn't help but respond.

    Field activities indeed. We slogged through knee-deep -- and for a few of us occasionally hip-deep -- mire to reach an isolated bog; we explored old growth and recently clear-cut forests; bird and herp expeditions took us to a tree-bordered marsh where an otter family frolicked.

    The questions raised were not easy. What are the differences between these forest communities? How can you determine population changes? How can we uncover useful evidence about forest mammals like deermice that we so seldom see? We gathered quantitative and equally important qualitative evidence about such questions.

    I learned a great deal, just as much from my classmates as from the staff. (Activities like journal keeping I will describe in future columns.) But best of all I came away from that week knowing that these teachers were prepared to involve their students in the kind of inquiry and of hypothesis generation and testing that should be major parts of all science instruction.

    This was the important point of what we were doing: these thoughtful teachers could take these exciting experiences and these techniques home and into their classrooms. To underscore this, several who had attended previous sessions -- like Brenda Travis of Penn Yan -- reported on how they modified program tasks for the quite different settings of their own schools.

    Unfortunately, the reality is that these wonderful activities have to be sneaked into our bloated science curricula (especially that taught to college-bound students.) Our courses of study too often reflect Jack Webb's injunction, "Just the facts, ma'am."

Note: For more information about this program visit the Stalking Science website.