Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Not Your Typical Classroom

By Bridget Prescott, Director or Education

Dressed in layers and armed with water bottles, sunscreen and bug spray, 20 Providence fourth-grade teachers head out on Narragansett Bay aboard the M/V Elizabeth Morris. They’re joined by Save The Bay educators, as well as Brown University scientists Dave Murray and Joe Orchardo, who provide a full-day, hands-on lesson on water quality. Tomorrow, the Providence teachers will head to Prudence Island for an in-depth look at the salt marsh and its functions and features. And on two additional days, they’ll develop lesson plans for their students based on their experiences. 

Teachers from Carl G. Lauro Elementary
School in Providence doing watershed
activities they can take back to their classrooms.
“In all my years in Providence, this was the best professional development I’ve ever been involved in,” said Bridget Richardson, a fourth-grade teacher at Young/Woods Elementary School. “It is difficult to put into words exactly how much I learned during this experience. The instruction we received has given me the confidence to teach my students more about where we live and all of the amazing things going on around us.”

It’s all part of a Save The Bay program called Project Narragansett Teacher Academy, and this is the three-year Providence Schools edition. For the last two years, fourth-grade teachers from Providence Public Schools have been coming to Save The Bay’s Bay Center in Providence for four days of hands-on professional development focused on Narragansett Bay. In August, the third group of teachers joined us for our final year of the three-year program, which is funded by a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s B-Wet Program.

Working in close collaboration with Donna Casanova, the school district’s science coordinator, Save The Bay educators have developed a high quality, interdisciplinary curriculum consistent with the Providence Schools’ curriculum, Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards, which call for the use of outdoor classrooms and hands-on experiential learning in life science.

In addition to the four-day Teacher Academy, Project Narragansett includes field experiences and transportation for the teachers’ students’ hands-on exposure to Narragansett Bay. During field experiences that take place on land and aboard Save The Bay’s education vessels, students learn about life in the Narragansett Bay watershed, explore the rocky shore, and enjoy a shipboard “trawl” where critters are grabbed using a large net near the bottom of the Bay. They also learn about the zones of the Bay and water quality and view specimens gathered during the day under a microscope.

The interdisciplinary content isn’t just for science, but also spans the spectrum of fourth-grade subjects such as math, history and language arts. In late March, students and teachers return to Save The Bay for a “show and tell” with their families, excited to show them their extended classroom on the Bay. From science exhibits to art, poetry, history and more, students make presentations and showcase what they have learned.

Project Narragansett teachers learn from Save The
Bay Restoration Ecologist Robbie Hudson about the
life cycle of shellfish and how the bivalves aid in water filtration.
Save The Bay Education Director Bridget Kubis Prescott says that, because Save The Bay and Providence Public Schools share the same community, the partnership has been particularly special to her education team. “We want students to understand their connection to the Bay. Many don’t realize that they live within minutes from the Bay and, in some cases, right down the street.”

The experiences have been eye-opening for teachers as well, according to Casanova. “You can see their confidence, interest and vocabulary grow. By the end of the week, they have all these ideas for lessons,” she said. 

“I am excited to have been part of this experience. My knowledge of environmental science has been enhanced and 2015
deepened. I have been challenged both academically and in the field and can relay this fabulous information to our students. My students will be inspired to be scientists and advocates of their environment,” said Chris Mendonca of Vartan Gregorian Elementary School.

With the final year of the grant at hand, Casanova has applied for additional funds to continue the Teacher Academy at Save The Bay, and has been encouraging Providence teachers to apply for this unique professional development program as well. She recognizes that Save The Bay’s education staff are leaders in the field of experiential education, the product of a committed organizational focus on developing a professional education staff and strong programs in environmental and experiential education. 

“Created 11 years ago, Project Narragansett is a model for other programs,” says Casanova, “by partnering research organizations with schools to offer educational programs for both teachers and students and opening their facility to families.” 

“In addition to educating students,” says GrĂ¡inne Conley, Save The Bay’s school and group program manager, “hopefully we are creating future stewards for the Bay.”

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