The month of October means fall colors, changing weather and – if you’re an elementary school student –  an annual visit to the pumpkin patch. While such outings are fun, teachers realized that they needed a way to incorporate more educational components. “They want it to be a deeper learning experience,” says Denise Buck, Program Director at the Pacific Education Institute (PEI), an award-winning statewide organization that helps teachers, schools and districts integrate place-based STEM education into their curriculum. “After they added some key pieces, they were all really excited because they were extending their teaching outside of the classroom.”

PEI was brought in by Heather Sisson, an instructional specialist for North Thurston Public Schools who wanted to support her teachers in making a change. Buck helped Sisson work with her team to develop science journals for the students and a template so they could create interview questions for the farmer. “We asked the pumpkin patch folks to leave a few plants where the stem and root system was still attached so they could see what the whole system looked like,” says Buck. “The teachers told us later that it was amazing for the kids because usually pumpkins are just lying on the ground.”

Heather Sisson is an instructional specialist in North Thurston Public Schools. Photo courtesy: Heather Sisson

That experience changed the way Sisson thought about working with teachers around field trips. As part of her master’s degree, she’d worked with Project Learning Tree, an award-winning environmental education program, and loved it. “That was probably my first exposure with taking learning outside the walls of a classroom,” she says. But as an elementary school teacher, she found it difficult to get students outdoors within the parameters of what the school and district were asking her to do.

When she became an instructional coach, her role was to increase engagement with science in elementary schools and help to integrate it with other subjects. “That’s where I really saw the power of PEI,” says Sisson. She became a FieldSTEM® Facilitator for PEI, helping teachers develop place-based STEM lesson plans that include local community partners and integrate with other subjects. PEI also works with districts to embed STEM at every grade level.

Since the initial pumpkin patch experience, Sisson has continued to work with teachers to strengthen and deepen STEM connections. “Right now, I’m using the guidance that Denise gave me last year when our kindergarten team was developing a FieldSTEM project with a local farm,” she says. “We’re adding other layers and reflecting on our work with the leadership team.”

The approach is benefitting both students and teachers, she notes. “We’re really focused on using science and engineering practices in the early grades. We’re asking students to be curious and ask questions about what they’re seeing. We want to foster a sense of wonder so they’ll continue being curious.”

PEI trains teachers at all grade levels to integrate STEM into their curriculum.

What once were field trips have become field experiences, with students observing and recording evidence about questions they’re investigating. “They’re so proud to come back and talk like scientists,” says Sisson “They have something concrete they can share with their team and a sense of ownership whether they can report that they saw 15 different species of wildflowers or drew a picture of a bird.”

For teachers, using a fall field experience as a springboard for science has been effective. “They teach with more depth and power about what students saw on the trip,” she says. “I’m hearing that they love seeing the engagement of their students. Some of the students who are most challenging change when they’re engaged in something they’re interested in.”

Teachers in North Thurston School District have been actively seeking leadership roles focused on science, she says. “They want to lead Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) around leading kids in science, integrating it with language arts and creating deeper meaning with students. A lot of them are saying, ‘If there are any new lessons to try out, I’m happy to do that.’ They’re offering feedback and taking on extra roles because they’re inspired.”

NTPS science
Students are proud to gain scientific skills like inquiry, observation and analytical thinking.

Science can be a challenge to teach, particularly at the elementary school level. “There’s an idea that elementary school teachers are not the biggest fans of science because they haven’t had enough training in it or it’s not their passion,” says Buck. “The other side of that is when they do teach it, it tends to be from a textbook or some examples that don’t have any local relevance. We know from our own experience and from talking with teachers that it starts to make sense to kids when it’s not this separate thing. Science is part of what we do and where we live.’’

STEM learning
Place-based learning helps to make science both relevant and engaging for students.

Having facilitators like Sisson makes a difference when it comes to PEI’s professional development trainings. “It’s a big impact when one of the people doing the facilitation is an actual teacher,” says Buck. “Teachers pay more attention because it’s somebody they can relate to, and the facilitator knows how to communicate that this is something they can integrate that will make what they do easier. That can be a hard message to get across.”

For her part, Sisson is intent on helping teachers support kids in maintaining their curiosity about nature. “I grew up in a simpler time when you spent time outdoors,” she says. “There’s an innocence to that and I want to make sure kids have that opportunity.”

For more information about PEI visit www.pacificeducationinstitute.org or call 360-705-9291.

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