Emory Report
June 25, 2007
Volume 59, Number 33

Emory Report homepage  

June 25, 2007
Oxford institute is fertile ground for environmental education

by beverly clark

Down in the backwoods of Newton County, the pristine waters of Bear Creek are yielding a treasure trove of critters for teachers Lindsay Wyczalkowski and Missy Snyder. Armed with nets, tweezers and glass jars, the teachers are on the hunt for hellgrammites, darters, fly larvae and the like. When they land the big prize — a massive crayfish — their whoops echo around the creek.

It’s all in a beautiful morning at the Oxford Institute for Environmental Education, an intensive yet fun program designed to help teachers — regardless of background or grade level — develop lesson plans using their own schoolyards for scientific investigation.

“We both teach in a hands-on way — the dirtier the better,” said Snyder, a science teacher at Mary Lin Elementary School in Atlanta, who was attending the OIEE with her colleague and friend, Wyczalkowski. “We’re always looking for ways to enhance the experience of our students, and empower them, even as little kids, to know that they are part of the greater world around them and can make a difference,” she said
They took part in OIEE with 20 teachers from across metro Atlanta, South Georgia and Florida who headed to Oxford College earlier this month for the two-week institute. The program, named the “Educator of the Year” by the Georgia Wildlife Federation in 2001, has brought the gospel of inquiry-driven learning through outdoor education to more than 250 teachers since it was founded in 1991. The program is run by an enthusiastic trio of ecologists ­— Oxford biology professors Steve Baker, Eloise Carter and Theodosia Wade. Sallie Burn, a teacher in Decatur City Schools, also is an instructor in the program.

“What teachers have found when they return to their own schoolyards and use what they have learned, is that students are more interested in their work,” said Baker, OIEE director. “Teaching through inquiry-based methods is one of the best ways to teach kids about the sciences. They’re not just learning things out of a book. The students get excited about science and about doing science, and that makes it all worthwhile.”

OIEE is housed at the Oxhouse Science Center near the Oxford campus. The 47-acre ecology laboratory includes a small lake and 40 acres of forest, grassland and easy access to both pristine and polluted streams in the area. In addition to the field trip to collect samples in Bear Creek, the educators learned the basic principles of ecology in terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, how to apply this knowledge to lesson plans, and how to develop their schoolyards for environmental education.

“Science materials can be limited, so it’s been great to learn how to work with what you have. It’s been amazing to learn how many investigations you can do right in your own schoolyard,” said Lynn Jones, a science teacher at Havana Elementary School in Gaston County, Fla., near Tallahassee.

Jones is a beneficiary of the OIEE’s new Live Oak Initiative, funded by a $150,000 grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations to extend OIEE recruitment to teachers in South Georgia and North Florida. The funding also is providing online schoolyard ecology lesson plans for teachers and a science education symposium where OIEE veterans can demonstrate how they have implemented concepts in their schools.

Past teachers report that the program has a profound impact on how they teach science — and how their students learn it — while improving math and reading skills in the process. Some OIEE veterans have gone on to secure grants and volunteers to build outdoor classrooms and nature trails, Baker said.

“We get teachers with every level of experience in science and ecology, and every one of them leaves with renewed confidence and enthusiasm for teaching environmental education,” said Baker, who attributes the program’s success to its emphasis on investigation.

“This has been the best teacher education program I have ever participated in. It’s like summer camp,” said Wyczalkowski. “The instruction has been incredibly relevant and is helping us to focus on ways to teach children to understand that, while the urban areas we live in are human-made, we are all part of — and need to have a respect for — the bigger picture.”

The institute is free for educators accepted to the program, plus each receives a $369 stipend and six professional learning units required for their certification. Once teachers complete the program, they also receive $100 to use for classroom supplies provided by a grant from Chevron Texaco Corporation. The program is funded annually through the Improving Teacher Quality Grants Program, the Georgia Power Foundation, the Georgia Wildlife Foundation and Oxford College.

For more information, go to www.emory.edu/OXFORD/Academics/oiee/.