Kids Learn Science In Rhode Island's Outdoor Classrooms

Jun 24, 2014

For most students, learning science happens in a classroom with textbooks and science kits. With tight school budgets and an emphasis on testing, there’s not always enough time to get outside and explore. But many groups across Rhode Island often take kids outdoors to poke around in nature. Rhode Island Public Radio’s environmental reporter Ambar Espinoza gives us a glimpse of some of the learning that happened outside this past school year. 

About two dozen fourth graders from Kent Heights Elementary School crowd the lobby of a building at the Narragansett Bay Commission (NBC) in Providence to learn about the relationship between humans and the water cycle.
Credit Ambar Espinoza / RIPR

About two dozen fourth graders from Kent Heights Elementary School crowd the lobby of a building at the Narragansett Bay Commission (NBC) in Providence. They’re going to take a tour of the Field’s Point Wastewater Treatment Facility. 

Leading kids through the wastewater treatment plant is what Cynthia Morissette does as education coordinator at the NBC. The agency offers this free program, the Woon Watershed Explorers, to nine schools in the neighborhoods serviced by its treatment plants. Morissette also visits these schools throughout the school year. 

After the tour, the students hop back into their bus to go to the Ten Mile River, just a few minutes away from their school. Morissette meets them there.

“This is the most fun part, right?” Morissette asks, as the kids cheer. “We’re going to get to look for critters to see how healthy the water is.”

The critters tell the students a lot about the water quality of the Ten Mile River. In small groups, the students crouch over large white dish bins set up on picnic tables and over the grass. They’re full of water collected from the river.

Credit Ambar Espinoza / RIPR

Wearing purple gloves, these fourth graders spoon out different types of bugs and sort them. Even just a spoonful of water has lots of aquatic macroinvertebrates, as they're known by their scientific name. The kids look at their journals and data sheets to identify what type of bugs they’re finding.

Morissette guides them.

These kids may not know it, but they’re using the scientific method of discovery. They're using their senses and different tools to make observations, track data, ask questions, and come up with ideas that make sense of those questions. 

Environmental education programs such as these are abundant in Rhode Island. They often use the city as a backdrop for learning about the natural world and set the stage for thinking about science in terms of our choices and behaviors in everyday life. 

Take this after school program for middle school students, for example. The Audubon Society of Rhode Island (ASRI) and the Providence After School Alliance (PASA) teamed up to take Roger Williams Middle School students exploring at Roger Williams Park. With AmeriCorps volunteer Tom Miller leading the way, students spot something floating in a pond. 

Credit Ambar Espinoza / RIPR

“Come! Come on, Tom! It’s a dead fish! A dead fish!” shout the kids.

“To live this fish needs food, water, air, shelter, and space. What one of those things do you think was affected that caused this fish die?” asks Miller. “So if the air is polluted, that air is passing through its gills—.”

“There’s something in its mouth,” a student points out.

“There’s something in its mouth? So it could have eaten something that it shouldn’t have eaten, right? I’ve seen a lot of litter today. Have you seen a lot of litter?” asks Miller.

Whether it’s about wastewater or what organisms need to survive, these programs share a few common goals. One is not only to inspire kids to take care of the environment, but also to improve their science learning in the classroom.

Kristen Swanberg heads up ASRI's education program and serves as the president of the Rhode Island Environmental Education Association (RIEEA).

"Ultimately, we want to make sure that we give kids these rich learning experiences and when you look at environmental education, it's a really hands-on, very experiential,” said Swanberg. “It addresses real world challenges and issues that you can give the opportunities to engage in some science lessons, incorporating math, talking about some language arts and really making it more multidisciplinary in that sense.”

Swanberg said Rhode Island was one of the first states to have an environmental literacy plan. RIEEA worked closely with the state Department of Education to develop it. Their report found that students perform lower in science inquiry on state science assessment tests. They also found science education needs to improve for underserved urban students. 

That’s why organizations offering these environmental education programs work closely with teachers, said Bridget Kubis Prescott, Save the Bay’s director of education. 

“We want to make sure that they [teachers] see our programming as complimentary and as a companion to what they are doing in the classroom, that [the programming] helps them achieve certain goals that they need to meet with their students,” said Prescott.

For the past 12 years, Save the Bay’s Narragansett Bay Field Studies program has taken high school students to freshwater and salt water marshes. On this day, Save the Bay instructors are on a boat to Prudence Island with an advanced science class from Central Falls High School, where Laura Stanish teaches biology and environmental science.

Credit Ambar Espinoza / RIPR

"And we are lucky that we have partnerships with Save the Bay, Norman Bird Sanctuary, Roger Williams Park Zoo,” said Stanish. “So these programs – it provides an invaluable resource that I couldn't do on my own, so to have these partnerships is amazing." 

On Prudence Island, her students learn about the impact rising sea levels have on salt marshes and the critters that live in it. They spread out across the salt marsh with nets and buckets. 

Stanish points to one of her students hunched over the edge of the marsh, looking for crabs and mussels.

“Here’s a great example of hands on learning,” she said. “Here’s a student that will usually have his head down [in class]. He’s paying attention, but not really into it. And he’s the first one [here] probably to get soaking wet. He’s knee deep in the muck. So this is exactly why we do these kinds of experiences for the kids.”

One of her seniors, 18-year-old Elser Colindres, said these outdoor learning experiences have opened up his world.

Elser Colindres, 18, and Agatha Vargas, 18, collect saltwater marsh organisms as part of the field studies portion of their advanced environmental science class. Save the Bay offers this program as part of a partnership with Central Falls High School.
Credit Ambar Espinoza / RIPR

“You’re not just reading books. You're out in nature, observing,” said Colindres. “You're learning new things, learning about new species, and it's just a better learning environment for students who aren't able to learn from notes and have a better understanding when they actually do stuff.”

Colindres said up until junior year, he never liked science. He’s never been to a salt marsh either.  

“It’s a new experience, and to me, it makes me want to study it more in college and hopefully have a master or bachelor in environmental science or something like that,” he said.

These experiences also inspired him to go fishing for the first time.  

The water bugs at the Ten Mile River, the dead fish at a Roger Williams Park pond, and crabs at the salt marsh in Prudence Island have sparked a curiosity about nature in these students that educators hope will set them up to become strong science learners and stewards of the state’s natural resources.