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In early June, a group of educators from Louisiana spent a week in floating cabins on the west bank of the Mississippi River in scorching heat.
“Summer camp for teachers,” Aimee Hollander, assistant professor and director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Nicholls State University, jokingly called it. “Because that’s what it looked like,” Hollander said. “Every day we would go on a new field trip and we could meet all these cool scientists and do and see the scientific phenomena in real life.”
Hollander is co-principal investigator of a project in Louisiana that seeks to fill a gap in the state’s science teacher training. The Nicholls State Teacher Education Department, in partnership with the Louisiana State University School of Education and the university-based Louisiana Sea Grant Program, received a two-year grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for the project.
The project will use place-based learning to provide professional development for teachers across the state by partnering science researchers and educators to create lessons about Louisiana’s environmental issues, educate teachers about the state’s coastal challenges and unique ecosystems, and teach them how to collect, analyze, and contribute to a database of environmental samples.
“Any time we can connect our learning in the classroom to the real world, especially our real world, it really engages the kids and so for me, that’s been a motivator.”
Ali McMillan, educational coach and intervention specialist at West Feliciana Middle School, Louisiana
Hollander said the project, which is structured as a fellowship, is set up to examine both aquatic and terrestrial science phenomena in the state, as well as elements of social studies because “there is a lot of story around this changing landscape of Louisiana and the cultural groups that are also affected.
Ali McMillan, an instructional coach and intervention specialist at West Feliciana Middle School in West Feliciana Parish, is one of 20 educators participating in the program. McMillan, who teaches in a rural southeast part of the state, said her school’s geography was one of the reasons she applied for the scholarship.
“A large number of [my students], being rural, spend a lot of their free time outdoors,” she said. “Any time we can connect our learning in the classroom to the real world, especially our real world, it really engages the kids and so for me, that’s been a motivator.”
Related: Teaching about global warming in a charged political climate
McMillan said getting out of the classroom and gaining experience on the court was a step out of his comfort zone. The most meaningful part of summer camp, she said, was learning that the Mississippi Delta faces similar challenges to other regions experiencing land loss, but that “ our delta region is so unique and experiences it in a much broader way. .”
Each morning of summer camp, teachers went out into the field to learn about Louisiana’s wetlands and the changing Mississippi Delta. Researchers and scientists explained how different economic, infrastructural, and environmental factors are changing Louisiana’s coastline. Often the group would return with artifacts like tree core samples to share with their students when school starts in the fall.
After the fieldwork, teachers were placed in small groups – based on the grade level they were teaching at – to learn how to develop lesson plans for their students and other educators based on what they had learned. . They were guided in this effort by educators like Hollander, his co-principal investigators Pam Blanchard and Danielle DiIullo, and Blake Touchet, a specialist in teacher support partnerships with the nonprofit National Center for Science Education (NCSE). .
During summer camp, Touchet’s lessons on “climate change and adaptation” were the most popular, according to Hollander. “We have been stuck with so many storms during the Covid pandemic so this was the most interesting topic for our teachers as no one is immune to hurricanes and tropical storms in our state.”
Fellowship teachers will work with Hollander, Touchet and others this year to create and implement the lesson plans in their classrooms. The goal is to make them available as open resources for educators not only throughout Louisiana, but also in other states affected by climate disasters, Hollander said.
Related: Climate change: are we ready?
Hollander said climate and environmental education is still considered a controversial topic in Louisiana, with an economy that revolves around oil and gas. Controversial or not, many teachers across the country feel ill-equipped to teach the subject, according to a 2016 national survey of science teachers by the NCSE and Penn State.
“What we want to do is, first, educate our teachers on various examples that they can bring to the classroom that are meaningful to their students,” Hollander said. She said this can be done by looking at tree cores, climate-related disasters such as the major hurricanes that hit the Louisiana coastline, or looking at changes in various species and the intrusion of salts caused by rising ocean levels that have already claimed some of the state’s wetlands.
“Being able to get our science teachers educated on these different things in an objective way and understand the science behind it and create lesson plans around it will be very helpful for our students,” Hollander said.
McMillan, in West Feliciana Parish, is in a unique position: She will not only teach students, but also show teachers at her middle school how to integrate some of the new lessons into the existing curriculum, particularly for eighth grade.
“Advancing these connections with these researchers and other educators I’ve met along the way is going to provide a wealth of resources that I can bring back to class,” McMillan said.
This story about Louisiana science teachers was produced by The Hechinger Report, an independent, nonprofit news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Register for Hechinger’s newsletter