INSIGHT: A Recipe for Engagement in Environmental Science

By Dr. Krissy Russell, Science Discipline Lead

On October 18, I had the pleasure of taking 15 seniors on a field trip as part of the Upper School’s new Environmental Science class. The purpose was to meet with a forester who (I hoped) would impart all sorts of knowledge to us about why and how 21st century forests need to be carefully managed to prevent explosive wildfires, minimize disease from invasive species, and provide the most and best habitat for wildlife. The forester did, in fact, share this information, and our extremely capable EPS students unsurprisingly absorbed it, but the field trip proved to be so much more than that—it was engagement like I had never seen before.

The presence of the trees, mountains, and sunny blue sky certainly contributed to heightened engagement. Those natural elements were palpable the moment we emerged from the vehicles. Students were energetic and spirited and full of smiles while they:

  • Located and pointed out a pair of downy woodpeckers
  • Wandered off to explore a patch of mushrooms
  • Videoed a snake near a pond
  • Whooped and hollered while trying to find the driest path across a wetland
  • Identified and called out invasive species such as common mullein and Canadian thistle

The confidence of the students themselves, each with 4+ years at EPS, also contributed to enhanced engagement. During the one-and-a-half-hour forest walk, they had no trouble collectively asking the forester, not two, not 10, but 39(!) unique questions. They started with several direct process questions such as: How do you pick which trees to cut? Where do they go when you cut them down? How do you know the trees’ ages without cutting them down? These soon transitioned to deeper questions about the ethics of hunting, the shortcomings of U.S. environmental policy, and how local Tribes are involved forest planning.

The final contributor to this truly engaging day had to have been the students’ need for a break in their routine. At the time of the trip, all 15 seniors were knee deep in college applications, classwork, and after school activities. They needed some rejuvenation time to reset, reflect, and contemplate the big picture. Throughout the day, I heard comments like: “this is good for the soul,” “I can apply what I’m learning outside of school,” and “it’s so refreshing to see how what we learn translates to the real world.” Taking a break allowed them to see things with new eyes and truly engage with the present.

I think I will try this again next year.