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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
May 1, 1995
Vol. 52
No. 8

A Refuge for Real-World Learning

By forming partnerships with wildlife refuge managers, students apply their knowledge of biology, technology, and English skills in an authentic context.

Dear Mr. McFaden,I'm flipping through the cable stations and as usual with 120 channels to choose from, there is nothing worth watching. So I find myself watching C-SPAN.... Congressman Jim Moran was talking, and all of a sudden he is talking about deer hunts at Mason Neck [Wildlife Refuge].... He mentioned that managers there had given him data saying that the forest had been depleted seven-fold because of the deer overpopulation, and in doing so he referred to data collection done by students with the use of a deer exclosure....It occurred to me that this was the first time in 10 years of school that something I had done was used for more than the purpose of grading, but for something that actually made a difference. I want to thank you for the opportunity. It has given me more incentive to work than anything else that I have ever done in school.Sincerely,Jay Briar
Each year about 75 9th graders like Jay work as partners with the managers of Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge, an eastern deciduous forest about 40 minutes from the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in northern Virginia.
Our students have inventoried the biota of a pond, collected five years of deer browse preference data, and contributed natural resource data for a geographical information system for the refuge. A sight-impaired student used a computer-assisted drafting and design system to propose changes to the outdoor environmental center to make it more accessible to students with disabilities.
By doing this work, the students help the refuge managers educate the public about environmental issues, as well as inventory natural resources and solve the problems caused by encroaching land development and an overabundant deer population.

Redesigning the Model

Six years ago, during a one-day field trip to Mason Neck, we became aware of the wildlife refuge's potential for extended research and use as our “field station.” Our school had just redesigned the 9th grade curriculum, grouping the three core freshman courses—English, biology, and principles of technology—into an integrated program that enables us to provide our students with unique learning experiences. There are still three 45-minute class periods, but they are now team-taught, clustered back to back, and integrated with one another. Seventy-five students rotate, in groups of 25, through each class.
The change in curriculum required a change in mind-set. We had to go from thinking of three separate courses, each vying for its share of time, resources, and importance, to one course in which each subject is naturally integrated.
As we began to rethink and question what we taught and how we taught it, we developed a project model, culminating in this real-world, problem-solving partnership with the refuge managers. Strands from each course were fully interwoven in the Mason Neck project, so that students would draw upon biology, technology, and communication.
In one project, for example, a team of students interviewed a 94-year-old environmental activist, documenting his efforts to establish the area as a national refuge for the bald eagle. They learned from searching the county archives that the refuge was previously used as a dairy farm by Capt. J. A. Hull, a congressman from Nebraska who, in the early 1900s, failed in his attempt to make a profit selling milk to a District of Columbia hospital. The foundations of the old dairy buildings and much of the early equipment can still be found on the refuge. Students surveyed and mapped the location of the old farmhouse, barns, and other outbuildings.
Such projects enable students to see connections, not just among our courses, but throughout their learning. They search for ways to incorporate their research into other courses. It is not uncommon for students to come back to us for new data that they can use in their math courses or their directed senior thesis projects.

Authentic Projects

We originally selected Mason Neck for our class projects because it was not only accessible, but played to the strength of our teaching team—we are trained in forest ecology and documentation research. We now identify project areas in collaboration with the refuge personnel, then develop them more specifically with student input.
The projects must satisfy two criteria: They must be important to the refuge managers and be doable by our 9th graders. By choosing projects appropriate for 9th graders, we ensure that our students have the opportunity to succeed and develop confidence in their ability to undertake research. We also make sure we have the resources to support both the students and their projects.
In addition, projects are intentionally recursive in process and in skill development, with each one building on the skills learned previously. They allow students to make changes in their initial project design to better control variables, and to learn from their mistakes.
The projects provide the students with a unique opportunity to do important field work in collaboration with professionals. (We have capitalized on the professional expertise of their parents as well.) As a result, the redesigned curriculum has excited students like Jay, who get to apply their classroom experiences in the context of an authentic setting.

Emerging Student Ownership

Throughout the year, there is a transition from a teacher-directed and controlled program to one of increasing student independence and decision making.
The first semester, students work in the classrooms on traditional laboratory-based projects. It's not until the second semester that, in a departure from tradition, they go to Mason Neck to gain field study experience in science and technology.
To teach the fundamental skills necessary to work collaboratively at Mason Neck, we begin each year with greenhouse projects. Students, in teams of four, may choose from a menu of six plant projects, which are repeated in each of the three class periods. The first set of plant projects run for approximately three weeks; then they run again for approximately five weeks. Each project has predetermined steps and outcomes that guarantee success. And each project helps students develop skills in research design, reading and writing technical material, and working in groups.
During the second semester, as students work with the Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge managers, they get to apply these skills in a real-world setting. They face problems that are less clearly defined and have alternate solutions.
At Mason Neck, each teacher becomes the primary supervisor of some of the projects. But we function primarily as facilitators and coaches. Students are granted more choices in the kinds of projects that they can investigate, and they have greater control of their time, their project schedule, specific topic areas, and the team's division of labor. In addition, project configurations and team size are more flexible than in the first semester. And we redesign class schedules so that students interested in specific projects are teamed together. The students determine what information they need to know and how to access it.
It is partly because of this control that students find the projects so exciting. And the process changes students; they acquire an increased enthusiasm for scientific investigation and environmental vocations. Some students extended research into the summer months because they were frustrated at the limited amount of data they were able to collect during the school year. Several students have even returned to Mason Neck as seasonal employees.
Because we have worked at the wildlife refuge for six years, students can continue the work of previous students. Each year upperclassmen share their expertise with our new students, support our projects, and continue with their own research.

Not Only Kids Benefit

Our staff has discovered that the revamped curriculum and the project model provide considerable spin-off benefits for us as well. First, sharing teaching strategies and techniques has powerfully affected the way we teach and the way our students learn. Each of us has benefited from exposure to the vision and style of our teaching partners.
The integrated curriculum helps eliminate redundancy in our individual fields and instead reinforces and supports learning across the content areas. In addition, we, as well as our students, have discovered the tangible benefits of having control over time and the appropriate sequencing of content material.
By making integrated project work and community-based partnerships an equal component of our curriculums, we have shifted the paradigm of how we teach and what is taught. Problem solving is what the real world is about. And the workplace requires people who can integrate skills taught across the curriculum, people who are competent not only at reading and writing but at defining problems, analyzing, creating, evaluating, and making decisions. The Mason Neck project has, in fact, provided our students with the opportunity to practice workplace skills in real settings.
Although many public agencies have an outreach mission, they often don't know how to offer more than the standard field trips and orientation sessions. Their staff may be limited by their own educational experiences, as well as by agency guidelines that do not always address the needs of the local communities. Educators, however, can be creative in suggesting innovative departures from the traditional field trips and guiding these agencies into more productive and satisfying partnerships. We know kids, understand their curriculums, and are looking for ways to make learning more authentic.
Our work at the Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge has confirmed for us that skills and information taught out of context are not as interesting and easily learned as those that are meaningful, student-owned, and community-based.

Dennis McFaden has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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