“That’s a tufted titmouse,” says one of Sara Charbonnet’s students, looking through his binoculars at one of the bird-feeding stations in Loblolly Woods Nature Park in Gainesville, Florida. In the classroom, the sixth-grader has trouble staying focused, but that all changes when he is outside. “He considers himself a scientist now. Some of the kids who were not really hooked on school have really engaged with this project,” says Charbonnet, a sixth grade science teacher at Westwood Middle School.
The middle school has partnered with the U.S. Forest Service Southern Research Station science delivery center InterfaceSouth, the University of Florida, the City of Gainesville Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs, the Alachua County Environmental Protection Department, Westwood, and Camp Crystal Lake to develop a Kids in the Woods project.
Annie Hermansen-Báez, center manager of InterfaceSouth and the Kids in the Woods project lead, and Michael Andreu, a professor from the University of Florida’s School of Forest Resources and Conservation, initiated the project, eventually creating a team of natural resource professionals, environmental educators, researchers, and Westwood science teachers. “Our main objectives are for students to become more aware and connected to their local environment and exposed to careers in science and natural resources,” says Hermansen-Báez.
Over 320 sixth graders and three science teachers are participating in the project this school year. According to teachers at Westwood Middle School, many of the kids had limited experience with being in the woods. “On the first day, a lot of the students didn’t want to be outside,” says Elizabeth Burt, sixth grade science teacher at Westwood. “But, even on the first day out, you could see their confidence grow, and also their comfort level with working in the woods.” Christine Henderson, another 6th grade science teacher at Westwood agrees. “They were just so excited about the project. They wanted to go out every day.”
“We want kids to know that nature isn’t only found in some faraway place; it is right in their own backyard,” says Hermansen-Báez. While introducing kids to nature is one of the primary goals of the project, it is also about learning science in a way that fits within the existing curriculum. Consequently, the group designed projects that gave students first-hand experience with the scientific method— developing hypotheses, collecting data, doing analysis, and drawing conclusions.
In the first study in October 2013, the students observed birds at platform feeders to see whether location, time of day, and the presence of predators affected how the birds fed. The bird study was led by Sally Wazny, the coordinator of Environmental and Cultural History Programs for the City of Gainesville.
Students also studied creek erosion, deposition, and water flow in Hogtown Creek, which runs through Loblolly Woods. “Some of the kids were scared to go in the water before this study began, but now they see the creek as a place of enjoyment and are excited to learn more about it,” commented Wayne Zipperer, a research forester with the SRS Integrating Human and Natural Systems in Urban and Urbanizing Environments unit and the lead for the creek study. The final study, led by Andreu, focused on the identification and measurement of trees. Students used the National Tree Benefit calculator to calculate the benefits of the trees they studied based on several key ecosystem services that trees provide.
Taylor Stein, a professor with the University of Florida’s School of Forest Resources and Conservation, and graduate student Danielle Findlay have been studying potential changes in the kids’ enthusiasm toward nature as a result of the project. They found that although enthusiastic about nature, kids did not spend much time there. “The kids in our study like nature,” says Stein. “But some say they just have other priorities or that it is difficult to find natural areas.”
The project just completed its first year, but the partners are already thinking ahead and looking for ways to improve and expand the program. “Every kid benefits from being outside,” says Hermansen-Báez. “And I think we are learning that some kids even learn more while experiencing nature.”