By Jeff Cantrell, Missouri Prairie Foundation Technical Advisor
Educators prove to be academic and mentoring champions when they have a passion for their mission to educate and inform, and added ingenuity to make lessons especially meaningful. A Missouri prairie provides students with numerous subjects for in-depth study. Biologists and educators are finding an increasing number of lesson possibilities on Missouri Prairie Foundation (MPF) prairies.
For example, MPF prairies provide habitat for many species of conservation concern—many plants and animals that are largely unknown to the general public and young scholars—as well as declining species like northern bobwhite. These unknowns are keys to student engagement and the “hook” to captivate them with a science lesson for days. Student investigations at ground-level, of the marvels of vegetation structure that quail need to survive, for example, or the array of color patterns on beetles, are the kinds of hands-on inquiries that are very appealing to a young learner. These types of investigative exercises are ones that an extraordinary teacher has in his or her skill set. Previous decades of mainstream science curricula consisted of worksheet handouts or cookie cutter lesson plans—the latter often targeting an investigation of which the teacher and sometimes the students already knew the conclusion.
However, Project Based Learning and an instructional model called the 5Es are restructuring the methods by which many Missouri school districts teach science. The traditional field trip is being renamed the “field experience,” and the venture is being honed to extend classroom learning instead of serving as a day off. Although the outings offer a fun break from routine, more and more educators also see their value in enriching core study in the classroom. The school grounds themselves, and especially a developed outdoor classroom learning station, are progressively becoming essential to transforming instructional models. Classes are fortunate if they are able to organize and fund two field experiences during the school year. Therefore, outdoor field experiences in the schoolyard provide low or no cost, convenient alternatives, and have the added benefit, since no travel is involved, of repeatable investigations and lessons. In addition, online resources available from MPF’s Grow Native! Program fortify schoolyard learning stations.
The 5 Es Approach
The Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCCS) conceived the 5Es model and has discarded the notion of cookbook instruction. The model is based on a rotation of Engaging, Exploring, Explaining, Elaborating, and Evaluating learning steps. The “engage” process with the students starts with active investigations and dynamic activities. This step gives field experiences at a natural community like an MPF prairie tremendous educational value. The students then explore new ideas in the field (or schoolyard) and work in peer partnerships for their inquiry-based investigations. The next “E” involves the students explaining the natural phenomena and marvels they have investigated, with some teacher leadership to encourage students to expand their investigations. The 5E learning cycle continues with the students elaborating within their teams to develop a deeper understanding of investigations, leading to new frameworks of instruction and deduction. Evaluation is the last procedure—the students evaluate what they have learned and the teacher evaluates their progress toward learning goals. The 5 Es instructional model is innovative and coming to Missouri school districts. Many educators need a jumping off point to initiate the 5E process, and MPF and its Grow Native! program provide those platforms.
Jeff Cantrell is an education consultant, working from the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Neosho office. Jeff is available for prairie and outdoor classroom correlations to 5E strategies and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.