ELM – Environmental Learning Multiplied

By Mary Heuwinkel

Multiplication often results in ending up with more than you had at the start. That’s what happened with Environmental Learning Multiplied, or ELM, a program that took place at Sloan’s Lake Park in Denver on October 19 and 22, 2012.

ELM is a collaboration of Colfax Elementary School, Denver Parks and Recreation, Colorado PLT, the Colorado State Forest Service, and the education department at Metropolitan State University (MSU) of Denver, where I am an education professor. About 20 preservice teachers in MSU Denver science methods classes who attended a PLT workshop in September 2012 had the opportunity to plan and deliver PLT activities at Sloan’s Lake Park a month later. Fourth and fifth graders from Colfax Elementary walked to the park, only two blocks from their school, on a Friday afternoon; second and third graders participated the following Monday.

Here’s how the benefits multiplied:

  • MSU Denver preservice teachers planned and delivered hands-on science lessons to children;
  • Colfax Elementary students, many of whom are English language learners (ELL), learned about ecosystems and became more familiar with a neighborhood green space;
  • Colfax Elementary teachers were able to a) observe how their students behaved and learned in an outdoor environment, and b) to see how Project Learning Tree activities engaged the students with hands-on science activities involving collaboration, critical thinking, observing, and investigating.
  • Denver Parks and Recreation fulfilled their objective to promote local parks to the community for recreation and education;
  • Colorado PLT discovered how to provide this multi-level learning experience, so to repeat and possibly expand it in the future.

Adapting a Good Idea from Texas

Colorado PLT Coordinator Shawna Crocker brought back the idea for “multiplying” the learning from the 2012 PLT International Coordinators’ Conference.  She attended a presentation by Cheryl Boyette, Texas PLT Steering Committee, John Boyette, Texas Forest Service, and Alan Sowards, Stephen F. Austin State University, about a program in which preservice students plan and conduct PLT lessons at the university arboretum during an annual Bugs, Bees, Butterflies and Blossoms festival.

In our case, we took advantage of MSU Denver’s existing relationship with Colfax Elementary through our Center for Urban Education, as well as the close proximity of Sloane’s Lake Park to the school.

In fall 2012, MSU Denver offered five sections of methods classes—three undergraduate, one master’s, and one in early childhood—as one of the last courses taken before student teaching begins. One of the course requirements is to teach a science and a math lesson in the field, observed by a methods professor.

Finding time to teach a science lesson in the field experience classroom can be challenging, given the amount of time devoted to literacy and math in the elementary curriculum.  But PLT activities are a great way to incorporate teaching science with math and language arts. Thus, ELM provided a way for MSU students to fulfill a class assignment, and the opportunity to partner with a local elementary school and engage students in learning outside.

I contacted Joanna Martinez, Colfax Elementary principal, about the possibility. Always interested in finding new experiences for her students, she jumped at the idea. She asked us to involve second through fifth graders.

The Role for Preservice Teachers

The 20 preservice teachers who attended the September 2012 PLT workshop signed on for ELM and worked in pairs; each pair planned and delivered a PLT lesson to students in a given grade level.  With the agreement of Colfax Elementary’s principal, I set up a general agenda for two field days for two hours each day, from 12:30 to 2:30 pm.

MSU Denver students had three weeks to plan their lessons. They visited the site beforehand in order to become familiar with its location, layout, and resources. They were given the following broad guidelines, after which they told me which PLT activities they planned to teach (see box):

  • Each lesson would last about 50 minutes, and they would teach the lesson twice in the two hours;
  • Both of their classes would be the same grade;
  • They would need to supply their own materials;
  • Colfax Elementary students would have clipboards, but there would be no tables or seating available.

ELM Days

In addition to myself, other preservice faculty, and Parks and Recreation employees, Colorado PLT staff were on hand to assist with both field days. The preservice teachers attended only for the day they were assigned to teach. On Friday, the preservice teachers met the fourth and fifth grade classes at the edge of the park, but Colfax Elementary asked the preservice teachers to meet the younger children at the school on Monday and escort them to the field site. This allowed for a small orientation beforehand, and the children settled in more quickly once they got to the site.

We were fortunate that the beautiful autumn weather was warm and the golden leaves remained on the trees. Students rotated from station to station with excitement and purpose.

Some of the Colfax Elementary teachers, especially the ELL teachers, became quite involved in the lessons. We are hoping that they will all become more comfortable with PLT and outdoor learning as we repeat the program in the future. Similarly, if we continue to offer a multi-grade program, students will have multiple exposures from year to year.

All of our experience, of course, feeds into our Lessons Learned to keep in mind for our next ELM.

~ Mary Heuwinkel, Ed.D., is an assistant professor in the Teacher Education Department at Metropolitan State University of Denver. She is a PLT facilitator.