Using Environmental Science Program to
Support Transition to In-Person School
Along with my colleagues, I am awed by the work of our teachers and students as they have navigated the challenges of remote and hybrid instruction. Teachers and students have been forced to adapt to a new virtual format for instructional delivery and, as a result, our collective learning has far surpassed that of any professional development program in which we might have engaged. Once we return to a full in-person program, it will be important that we reflect on and utilize our newfound skills, strategies, and insights in creative ways. Many aspects of how we “do” school will be forever changed and in some cases will be vastly improved. However, I also believe that the transition back to full in-person learning will require a plan for helping our students shift from the multi-tasking, fast-paced, virtual environment and all-day screen time they have experienced to a more balanced and age-appropriate format. We need to think and plan ahead to the time when we can support our students in moving back into an in-person program. In addition to specific social-emotional support plans, we need to look to those district programs that can reduce screen time for students, or that complement students’ virtual interactions, and that can help to facilitate a smooth transition to a school format that students have not experienced for many months.
One area that can support students’ academic growth while at the same time allows for time away from computers, interaction with nature, and mindful awareness is environmental science. Neptune School District has, over many years, developed a student-centered, hands-on, district environmental science program for our K-12 students. Each of our eight schools has an environmental exploration area. There are swales through which to study water cycles, a roof-top garden that highlights natural grasses, courtyards with protected ecosystems, and more. One of our schools has an orchard and another provides all district students a “field trip” through a trail that highlights indigenous plants and ecosystems. At one point, all of our schools had outdoor gardens that were planted, maintained, and harvested by students. Our K-12 program culminates in both an environmental science club that provides for students experiences in real-world research and an environmental science “academy” that allows students the opportunity to interact with experts and explore careers in fields related to environmental science.
Students in all of Neptune’s elementary schools typically visit our “Summerwood Trail” to participate in a fall and spring outdoor lesson taught by a dedicated Environmental Science teacher. An in-class lesson is scheduled in the winter for students at their home schools. Each grade level has a different focus and all lessons support the classroom curriculum. For example, our fourth graders learn about soil erosion in the fall lesson, making observations along the trail. In the winter lesson, they conduct experiments on the impact of specific variables on soil erosion. During the period of remote learning, the teacher pre-recorded these lessons and students watched them from home. Once we return to in-person learning and we can safely resume these and other hands-on lessons, it will be important to highlight these opportunities as lessons that are critical to transitioning our students and to supporting their social-emotional wellbeing.
The K-12 environmental program in Neptune Schools was established several years ago. It has evolved over time, but continues to provide interesting and engaging lessons that our students love. When establishing this strong K-12 environmental science program, several steps were helpful.
Partnering with a University Program – Our district partnered with Rutgers University. Partnering with a university provides the district with not only resources, but also research that supports a district’s plans and provides direction. As a result of our partnership with Rutgers, we are now growing fig and hazelnut trees in an orchard that is located at one of our elementary schools. The trees are cared for and the fruit harvested by our students and staff.
Engaging Local Organizations – Local gardening associations and municipal organizations have provided resources to the district, including assemblies, field trips, advice, and even plants. Our students grow, care for, and harvest various berries in our orchard. The community is well aware and supportive of these programs. Students can volunteer in community gardens.
Hiring Dedicated Staff Member(s) to Facilitate the Program – Having dedicated staff members who teach the environmental science program provides not only consistency across the district, but also provides a specific and targeted level of expertise. It also sends a message to the community and to our staff and students that we value the environment and want our students to become future caretakers of the environment.
Being Responsive to the Unique Needs of Your Community – Neptune is for the most part an urban community. Very few of our students and families have experiences with growing their own gardens or with enjoying a nature hike through wooded areas as do many families in suburban and rural areas. We know that students everywhere are often surprised to learn the source of their food. Students in urban settings stand to benefit from gardening, hiking, and learning about environmental concepts.
When we return to full in-person learning, we must be mindful of our students’ social-emotional health and development. We need to retain those virtual practices that worked well and were good for students, but we also need to plan lessons that allow our students to take a step back from their computer screens. We need to provide students time to be off screens, outside, and connected to their environment.