Colleen Ryan tests water quality as part of the Keystone Center’s Key Issues: Bringing Environmental Issues to the Classroom program.
People in a small Colorado town have been getting violently ill, and local officials need help stopping the epidemic.
It’s no secret that one of the three entities upstream from the town — a chicken farm, a restaurant and a chemical plant — might be responsible for the crisis.
To expedite restoring the town to good health, a team consisting of economists, scientists, historians, mathematicians and artists is cobbled together to search for answers.
This might sound like a science fiction movie in the making, but the scenario, at least the part about the townspeople getting sick, is based on an incident that occurred about five years ago.
That unfortunate incident was the focus of the Keystone Center’s Key Issues: Bringing Environmental Issues to the Classroom program, which brought teachers from throughout the U.S. and Canada, including three from the North Country, together in Keystone, Colo. for a week of learning about learning.
The teachers were sponsored by Georgia-Pacific, a company that has paid for approximately 140 teachers, six total from the North Country, to attend the program since 1996.
“The focus is on environmental education, and giving that opportunity to teachers in our local communities,” said Karen Cole, communications manager for Georgia-Pacific.
Attendees of the immersive five-day program didn’t spend their time sitting in lectures or buried in books, though.
Instead, they became active participants in a role-playing scenario, which tasked them with determining the source of water pollution in the town.
Scientific analysis of different locations had to be done, but the program was only partly about research methods.
Different stakeholders, such as business owners, town board members and citizens, complete with wigs, costumes and fake moustaches, were portrayed by Keystone Center staff and by the program’s participants, forcing the teachers to examine different biases and interests within the scenario.
“I had to play the role of a land developer, and look at things from an economic point of view, which is completely foreign to me,” said John Oliver, a science teacher at Willsboro Central School who attended the program.
The multiple disciplines represented, like math and art, also provided different points of view in the problem-solving process.
But as the participants uncovered more about the water’s source of contamination, they also began uncovering something about their own methods — bias.
“The conference focus was recognizing bias in research, but they didn’t teach us about bias,” Oliver said. “It took about two-and-a-half days before we realized it, but as we did our research, our own biases started to pop up.”
For Oliver, the realization shined a light on a bigger problem.
“I think bias is huge in science right now; doing research to bring you to an answer instead of doing research and discovering an answer,” Oliver said.
Oliver found the realization useful, and applicable to his own teaching methods.
“I’d like to open up the minds of the kids,” he said. “People can be wrong, and you just have to go where the evidence leads you, even if you don’t like where it leads.”
Colleen Ryan, a math teacher at AuSable Valley Middle School, said the program made her feel recharged, and ready for the new school year.
“I am going to be promoting this wherever I go,” Ryan said.
It also gave her ideas on how to engage students in math by incorporating real-world issues, and research, into the lesson plan.
One of Ryan’s favorite aspects of the program was the water quality testing, something she hopes to bring into her classroom.
“This was a new experience,” she said. “I’m a math teacher, but I will be tapping into knowledge from science teachers now. Ultimately, when I learn my students learn, and that makes them better citizens.”
The multi-disciplinary framework of the program received resounding praise from all three local teachers who attended it this summer, including Kathleen Sciole, a science teacher from Stafford Middle School in Plattsburgh.
She said the learning approach was important because it revealed ways to not only take in scientific data, but to share the results with a community, too.
“One of the biggest things I’m taking away is looking at scientific studies from different disciplines,” Sciole said. “Instead of doing a summary, I’ll now ask how this issue affects things like the economic community, the scientific community and the environmental community. This taught us how to have students do that, too.”
The three attending teachers also said they’d like to share what they’ve learned with other teachers at their schools, with hopes of incorporating some of the discipline-crossing teaching methods, something Sciole called “21st Century skills.”
“It is definitely on my docket to share and discuss this with my colleagues,” she said. “There are numerous ways to teach and relate to kids. We can’t give them all of the answers, but we can teach them how to navigate to find those answers themselves.”