The Gardens has received a substantial grant from the Lunder Foundation in Portland to pilot an innovative program that connects Maine seventh graders with nature, while capitalizing on the knowledge that we live in a digital world.
Gardens Director of Education and Staff Botanist Melissa Cullina explains that inspiration for the project came when, “I was completely struck by an editorial in The Nature Conservancy magazine questioning whether ‘unplugging’ children from devices in nature was always practical. The author challenged readers to ‘create a new paradigm, encouraging people to use technology to share their wonder of nature.’ It really changed my own thinking about portable devices such as iPods from an educational detriment to a very real resource. I began to think of ways to connect students with nature using technology they love, experimenting with my own kids first. The app “iBird” has been a huge success in getting everyone in our house hooked on birding for the first time.”
Also drawing inspiration from a young Theodore Roosevelt, whose Maine woods adventures with Cullina’s own great-great grandfather and his uncle fostered a lifelong commitment to nature and conservation, the Lunder New Naturalists program will encourage students to explore Maine’s natural history. Participating teachers, through the introduction of specific nature-related topics and hands-on experience in science and social studies classes, will have the opportunity to enrich their curriculum within the parameters of current standards and goals.
Seventh graders are ideal participants because they study the state’s history in social studies class and each has a laptop computer through the Maine Learning Technology Initiative. "This project focuses on connecting geographically distant classrooms to work on projects together using Maine’s natural and cultural history as a lens,” explains Gardens staff member Amity Beane, an experienced educator who will coordinate the Lunder New Naturalists program. “The program will leverage the laptop initiative to cultivate digital citizenship,” says Beane. “The collaborative nature of connecting teachers and learners with common curricular goals in science and social studies will help prepare the students for more-global collaborations in the future.”
The Gardens will provide a secure website through which students and teachers can interact, sharing and presenting data in a variety of ways. The students will create and compare virtual herbaria based on their scientific observations. In tandem with classrooms at other schools, they’ll create a timeline of Roosevelt’s conservation achievements, and will create a conservation problem-solving proposal.
The Gardens will also prepare Outdoor Laboratory Kits and provide them to each of the teachers involved in the program. These kits will contain an iPad and several iPods pre-programmed with learning apps, such as digital field identification guides, GPS navigation tools, and the means to create audio-visual presentations. Students will use these tools to explore and report on natural areas at their schools and nearby sites.
Beane said, “The outdoor component embraces the idea that learning is local and doesn't always have to be inside a classroom to be transformative. In fact, time outdoors collecting data will drive this project. Students will ask, how do the plants in a schoolyard in Fort Fairfield differ from those in Waldoboro or Dixfield? Did Theodore Roosevelt explore areas near our school? What did he find there, and how has it changed? How did his Maine experiences shape his life’s work?”
In June, nine seventh grade science and social studies teachers, each from a different Maine school, will come to the Gardens for training and to receive their Outdoor Learning Kits. In September, the nine teachers will run the program’s units with their seventh graders and make connections with other participants via the website. In January 2014, new teachers will pilot the second cycle of the initiative and the first group will remain involved. The goal is to have a total of 36 teachers trained to implement the program and to create a strong core group of schools and teachers.
By the end of this second cycle, approximately 650 students will be actively engaged in the program. The Gardens’ five-year projection is for 36 schools to participate, with a potential for 1,200 students to be involved at any given time.
To ensure that the program will be successful, Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens will train and support teachers and students every step of the way as they learn and employ the skills necessary to build a lasting bridge connecting nature and 21st century technology.
For more information about Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens or the program, call 207-633-4333, ext. 152; visit www.MaineGardens.org; or stop by the Gardens, located off Barters Island Road in Boothbay.