Unlocking mysteries
Teachers learn how to use school yards for science

OXFORD - This month, some elementary school teachers and science instructors are becoming the students for a couple of weeks.

Seventeen teachers from Georgia and Florida, including three from the Newton County School System, participated in Oxford College's annual Institute for Environmental Education, which is a two-week workshop held at the school's Oxhouse Estate and in various locations in and around Newton County.

"(The workshop is) designed to assist teachers in learning to use their school yards or neighboring habitats to teach using an investigative, inquiry-based approach," said Steve Baker, a biology professor at Oxford College who helped lead this summer's program along with three other Oxford staff members and an Oxford student intern. "We help teachers learn how to use this (inquiry-based learning) approach, how to be comfortable in taking their students outside and the basic skills and techniques they may need to teach ecological principles using this approach in their school yard."

During the workshop, the teachers develop Schoolyard Investigation Plans for the school yards at their home schools so they will be ready to implement the plan once school begins again in the fall.

"We want them to be able to use their school yard regularly instead of having to travel far away to do their field work," Baker said.

He said the workshop, which started in 1992, is "very hands on" with little lecture time, but rather working in lake ecosystems and streams. In addition to using the Oxhouse Property, this year, the group visited some Newton County school property to conduct research and also plans to visit the Alcovy River Swamp at the Georgia Wildlife Federation's headquarters to conduct wetland investigations.

"Our participants learn how to teach using inquiry-based approaches that lead to the strongest student engagement, best behavior and excellent learning result," Baker said. "They gain an increased knowledge of ecological principles and appreciation for their environment."

He said the group being so diverse in levels of teaching and school location helps them make new contacts and friends and lets them learn from one another.

"Everyone has their own thing they are good at," said Julie Bare, a Porterdale resident and teacher at Harbour Oaks Montessori School in Grayson. "Like me, I'm not so good at trees, so I got (fellow teacher Melissa Weeks) to help me; but bugs I can do."

Anita Forester, who teaches at the Outdoor Classroom for Desota County School in Arcadia, Fla., said the trip to Georgia was worth taking the workshop.

"I've been a teacher for 10 years, and this is the best workshop I've ever been to," she said. "They keep you busy, everything we do will apply back to our classrooms, and it's interesting."

The college accepts applications to the program from various grade levels and areas in Georgia and Florida.

"Beginning last year, we began a new initiative that was sponsored by the Arthur Vinings Davis Foundation, the Live Oak Initiative. This program allowed us to branch out and recruit teachers from Florida and outside metro Atlanta in Georgia," Baker said.

He said the college, as well as other sponsors like the Georgia Power Foundation, the Chevron Foundation, the Georgia Wildlife Federation and Wal-Mart, give grants to the program so the teachers get a small stipend. Also, the Newton County School System provides a small stipend to its teachers in the program and applies six hours of professional development to their records.

The Institute plans to open up the application process for next summer's camp in the spring.

Michelle Floyd can be reached at michelle.floyd@newtoncitizen.com.