Henry County Conservation fine-tunes their classroom program for fall 2018

When Henry County naturalists step into classrooms across the county, students will learn about conservation through hands-on activities that align with the Next Generation Science Standards.

The standards, implemented by the state for the 2019-2020 school year, inspired Henry County Conservation naturalist Cari Nicely to begin rolling out a new program last year in the classroom, which she has fine tuned for this fall.

Henry County Conservation is available for free presentations in all area classrooms. They have presented in all schools in the Mt. Pleasant and Winfield-Mt. Union school districts as well as New London Middle School. In 2018, Nicely averaged 80 programs a month at schools.

The NGSS standard came into play with kindergarten students and is implemented to all who go through the program. The major change to the program is in encouraging inquiry-based learning. The concept is meant to get students to think critically and ask questions that go beyond surface knowledge. Instead of telling students what they will learn, the new system gives the students a concept, asks them to think critically and ends with discussion. The practice is focused around three main ideas: crosscutting concepts, science practices and disciplinary core ideas.

The crosscutting concepts are used to bring multiple subjects to the lesson. Nicely may be teaching the students about science but could be using reading and social study skills in the lesson as well. For example, one lesson could be about the Mississippi River and the next week about Native Americans. The crosscutting concept being how the two are related and getting the students to connect those dots through the social studies and reading assignments they have completed in other classes.

By using multiple concepts and crosscutting paths, Nicely hopes it will teach students to think more broadly about what they are learning and help stimulate the mind to constantly be using concepts they learned in other subjects.

Creating a more hands-on approach was a challenge, but one Nicely welcomed because it allowed her to weed out programs that did not work as well in the classroom. ?I had programs that I did not feel were effective enough for the purpose given,? she said. ?But because I already had another one with that same standard that I thought was better, I?ve cut out the programs that I didn?t feel had a strong enough message.?

?The big changes for this year were cutting out some programs,? Nicely continued. ?The biggest changes I made last year were hands on and how I teach things.?

Gloria Schmitz is a first-grade teacher at Lincoln Elementary in Mt. Pleasant and has had Henry County Conservation come to her classroom for over a decade. Schmitz said that when the program first began, it was the only form of science curriculum she had to work with because the state did not have standards.

Now, bringing a naturalist into the classroom is a staple in Schmitz?s classroom planning because she sees how important it is to the students to have science in their lives.

?The world is just everything to them so when they know that Miss Cari is coming this week, they just jump up and down,? Schmitz said. ?A lot of kids don?t have a lot of real life experiences in the science realm so they grasp onto these little nuggets that they get and they can build some background knowledge.?

Suzan Harrison teaches third grade at Salem Elementary and says because her students have grown up in the country, they often know the concepts and having a naturalist in the classroom allows for them to dig deeper.

?I feel like she?s able to get through more because she doesn?t have to build up that prior knowledge,? Harrison said. ?They know what she?s talking about and she can expand even more with her lessons.?

Both teachers agreed that having an outside source come into the class helps the students retain more information and helps the teachers as well. Because of new teaching standards, it may be difficult to fit all subjects in but by having someone like Nicely in the classroom, the students are able to understand and retain the concepts.

?One benefit is the kids are seeing someone besides their teacher all da and its nose for her to be able to come in. It?s fun for the kids, but we?re still hitting standards,? Harrison said. ?It?s nice to have someone else come in and cover those standards when we may or may not have time to do so.?

Nicely feels that by involving the students in the teaching process they become better communicators and are more interested in what they are doing because they are tasked with helping instead of watching. She said participation and overall improvement depends on the age group, but as a whole, they are using the three main concepts to grasp new ideas and format a new way of thinking that improves their interest. ?I don?t always get to see the results of what we do because I?m not with them all day,? Nicely said. ?But when I see students say ?I remember that, I?m making the connection,? I know it?s working.?

Nicely, who considers herself an informal educator, says that by being in the classroom, students are not only getting more involved in science, but with their community. The interest they spark in science class encourages them to take their knowledge outside of the classroom.

Students come out to the Oakland Mills Nature Center on fieldstrips where they can see some of the things they discuss in class such as prairies, waterways and bugs. By getting them out of the classroom and into nature, students are able to visually connect things they?ve learned. ?Science is something kids are totally interested in,? she said. ?But because of the Iowa core standards and all of the heavy reading and math they have to do, science gets put by the wayside.?