Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Outdoor learning in Seattle: Brightwater Environmental Education and Community Center

I wrote all about IslandWood, a Seattle area outdoor education center with a four-day school overnight program, in a previous post. While in Seattle I also visited Brightwater, a pretty awesome wastewater treatment plant serving King and Snohomish Counties that offers educational day programs. The facilities are maintained by King County, but the programming and staff are IslandWood affiliates. 

Brightwater Treatment System opened in 2011 in Woodinville, WA on a site previously used for  smelly industrial purposes. Residents were not necessarily thrilled at the prospect of replacing the soup factory and auto junkyard with a sewage treatment plant, but someone over at King County's wastewater treatment division had a vision. The plant goes beyond simply minimizing negative impact to actually contributing positively to the region's environmental health and community. You can learn all about it on one of their public tours.

In addition to the plant, the complex contains paths, ponds, native flora and fauna, and an education center with exhibits and labs.

The treatment plant is in the background; the nearer building is part of the education center

The education center exists thanks to the cooperation of King County officials, environmental groups, local Native American groups, and a dedicated and tireless group of schoolteachers from the region called Friends of the Hidden River. These incredible teachers raised over a million dollars for the  center! The platinum LEED certified education center, designed by Mithun (who also designed IslandWood), has a smorgasbord of environmental and sustainable features, including renewable energy sources for heat and reclaimed wood for construction.

Not that it's all been Woodinville wine and Pike Place roses...the project, which ran behind schedule and overbudget, was a source of concern and frustration for residents prior to its opening. It appears, though, that with two years of excellent programming for schools and the public, a clean and attractive facility, and a positive contribution to the ecological health of the region, residents are coming around.

The day program is for kids grades 3–8 (about 4400 of them this school year). The programs are aligned with area schools' science curriculum; the older kids study human impact on the water cycle  at the treatment facility while the younger study landforms and ecosystems at the learning center and its nearby ponds and trails. The day I was there, I shadowed a group of third-graders.

We began the day in one of the classrooms, a spacious lab with a U-shaped desk arrangement, tables for lab work, and sinks, microscopes, and cabinets full of instruments. Our teacher for the day, Bonnie, talked with the group about food webs (a more accurate term than "food chains"), biodiversity, and the scientific method.

The kids' task was to count the types of water bugs in two different ponds to determine which pond has greater biodiversity. Bonnie distibuted observation journals and kid-sized clipboards, and the group headed outside to observe weather conditions, flora and fauna, and natural and man-made features in each pond that could affect water bugs' survival.

They collected water bugs in nets and placed them in containers filled with pond water.

Stream-fed Otter Pond is naturally occurring, but has some man-made features, such as a culvert
Storm Pond is man-made, fed through pipes by rainwater funneled from buildings
Back at the lab, they used various tools to identify and log different types of bugs. Some bugs were the size of pinpoints and others were as large as my fingernail.

Our group found that Storm pond had more types of water bugs, but the adjacent classroom found more diversity in Otter Pond. I was expecting Bonnie to allow that one or the other was correct and to lead us in a reasoning out where the incorrect group might have gone wrong--but, instead, she explained that neither she nor the rest of the staff know the answer, that this is an ongoing science investigation and that the students' data will be logged as part of it. The kids' work has a purpose!

Forgive my excitement. It's so rare that schoolkids are asked to contribute to answering an as-yet unanswered question. And here they are also experiencing important scientific practices such as withholding conclusions while sufficient data is collected and staying open to unexpected results.

(The investigation isn't perfect: There are many variables that are not controlled, such as collection locations along the shore and students' netting technique; and, while the students are indeed  contributing to answering a scientific question, it is not clear to me how much value, outside of educational, this particular question has. But I was still happily struck that students' results are logged and discussed as input toward unanswered question.)

After the kids had left for the day, the Brightwater staff--four classroom educators, the lead educator, Derek, and the program manager, Kate--gathered for their daily afternoon check-in. They compared  the day's findings with each other, and then those findings with previous days; they swapped bug-container placement techniques and marveled over bug sizes. These adults were as engaged with the experience as the kids were.

Then the group turned to the teaching and learning. They traded tips about activities and pacing, shared challenges and solutions, and helped each other build or reinforce subject-matter knowledge. Kate asked about some journal pages that had just been added to help kids clear a stumbling block the staff had identified at earlier check-ins. The new pages got a unanimous thumbs-up--they provided just the scaffolding needed. If they hadn't, the staff would have tweaked and tested them until they were effective.

If you've ever been a part of any human organization at all, be it a marriage or a corporate office, you know that having regular, brief, informal check-ins to shore up strengths, identify trouble spots, and remain properly oriented is vital--and rare, and difficult to do consistently, and tricky to steer down the middle between kvetch session and social event. But the check-in I saw was an inspired check-in. It seemed to me that this unassuming and mostly hidden component of the Brightwater day was key to the success of the center. I could tick off ten helpful things that each staff member learned, either as a group or for his or her individual practice, in those twenty minutes. And each day the tips, lessons, and tweaking and testing are repeated. Imagine if the expectations and budgets for schools and teachers allowed for twenty minutes at the end of each day for staff to connect and check-in, trade tips and tweaks, identify strengths and challenges. Imagine if student teachers had this level of support.

At Brightwater, there is no pre- or post-visit classroom component. That is, it is hoped that teachers and principals have the time, will, and know-how to effectively integrate the Brightwater experience into academic units. Bonnie, who was a middle-school classroom teacher before coming to IslandWood and Brightwater as part the University of Washington's graduate program, credits her    experience through the grad program with changing how she thinks about the classroom. Experiential learning seems so integral--and doable--now, whereas it wasn't so much on the radar before. Imagine if all teacher education programs fostered the kind of change in thinking that Bonnie experienced. Outdoor and experiential learning would be natural and expected, a a part of formal education...and, as teachers moved into decision-making and leadership positions, increasingly feasible structurally and financially.

In the next blog we'll look at one K–8 school in Seattle that is making inroads toward this ideal, mostly because of its amazing curriculum director.

No comments:

Post a Comment