By Lane Klassen and Jonathan Ismail
Making connections with local schools in South Phoenix is an important step to increase community engagement while educating about the Sonoran Desert environment. For the past two years, our South Mountain Environmental Education Center (SMEEC) team has led a 16-week long program at Southwest, Jorgensen and T.G. Barr elementary schools, respectively, in the Roosevelt Elementary School District.
At the beginning of the semester, each student is provided a journal to document their thoughts and reflections. The journals allow students to be able to reflect in ways that best suit their learning style. There is space to write, draw, or both. Sometimes they are given a specific topic to write about and sometimes they are told to write about what was most interesting or what they want to learn more about. We have two completely different groups of students. At one school (Southwest), students are in 5th or 6th grade, while at the other school (C.J. Jorgensen) is only 3rd graders. The 5th and 6th graders prefer to write, and the 3rd graders prefer to reflect through drawings.
On the first day, students were asked to write what they know or think about the environment. This broad, open-ended reflection helps us as educators learn about what they know or associate with the word environment.
“When I hear the word environment, I think of population.”
“It is beautiful, very different types and many different animals”
“An environment is a safe place were animals and plants can live for their lives”
“Water and grass and animal environments”
This month, we took some of our animal and plant biofacts to the schools. After showing students various animal skull replicas, pelts, pieces of saguaro, and more, they were asked to write about what they found was the most interesting. We looked at some of the biofacts under microscopes (both digital and “old school”). Our learners loved taking a closer, open-ended look at artifacts of animal and plant life in the desert:
“I learned how cacti protects itself. I like it because it was a cool figure”
“The most interesting thing was the skeleton of the bat because its so cool how he’s made and all the bones in his body”
Some chose to draw what they thought was most interesting. One of the students drew herself looking through one of the microscopes; an important part of reaffirming self-identity that all students are capable of pursuing careers and avenues for empowerment in the sciences. Another student drew the grey fox pelt because he thought that was most interesting, and loved looking at it through the microscope.
Every person is different. There is something that can connect every person to the environment. We are proud of our after-school partnership with the Roosevelt Public School District as one way that SMEEC is helping forge those connects for all people be stewards of nature in their own unique way.