Ask any scientist where their vocational path began, and you’re likely to hear childhood stories of exploring neighborhood woodlands or hunting for insects at night. In contemporary urban environments, contact with the natural world can prove more elusive both in and out of the classroom. With this in mind, the Arboretum began sending educators into Boston Public School classrooms in 2009 to enhance science education opportunities for students. When a three-year collaboration with the Louis Agassiz Elementary School ended in 2011 with the school’s closing, the Arboretum partnered with the Boston Teachers Union School (BTU School) in Jamaica Plain to coordinate science lessons for Kindergarten, first, and second grade classes. This fall the Arboretum’s science educator, Ana Maria Caballero, began working with BTU School teachers to enhance and expand student engagement with science.
Growing out of a longstanding commitment to sharing knowledge about the natural world, the Arnold Arboretum’s educational programming for children began in the 1980s with the introduction of field study opportunities in the historical landscape. While this programming continues to thrive today, the Arboretum’s BTU School collaboration is designed to provide science instruction as an integral part of student learning throughout the school year. Funded through the generous support of a private donor, the program includes lessons on plant and animal life but also nurtures a broader understanding of science in general, intending to spark curiosity through thought-provoking activities that promote observation, reasoning, and language skills.
At the BTU School, this work begins in the Kindergarten (K2) classroom, and Arboretum educators led instruction in the science of color through tactile experiments that extracted hues from plant materials. More recently, these students have been learning to compare and contrast pairings of similar animals: goldfish and guppies, land and pond snails, and red worms and night crawlers, among others. With the school’s first graders, educators introduced the science of air and weather. Various aspects of atmospheric science were explored through hands on activities like blowing bubbles, making kites, and—by artistically manipulating sandwich cookies—creating edible diagrams of the moon and its phases. In addition, students learned to use tools like thermometers, anemometers, and wind vanes.
In the second grade classrooms, educators helped students raise mealworms, waxworms, darkling beetles, milkweed bugs, and painted lady butterflies to learn about the anatomy and life cycles of these creatures. This winter, these students will delve into geology through the study of pebbles, sand, silt, and soil, and will continue to build on their observational skills and knowledge foundation. Arboretum educators will also assist instruction in the BTU School preschool classroom (K1), exploring water and its properties using hands on activities in small groups.
Across learning levels at the school, these experiences provide a great deal of fun for the students while helping them to form connections between science and everyday activities. Lessons also enable the children to acquire and internalize specific scientific vocabulary to enhance their future investigations this school year and beyond. By recording their observations through words and drawings in their own science journals, all of the students practice the art of documentation as an integral part of the scientific method. Journaling not only helps the students learn how to conduct their experiments like real scientists, it also instills a value for sharing knowledge that lies at the heart of the Arboretum’s mission.
Collaborating with the BTU School has opened avenues of discovery for both students and their instructors, and both teachers and parents have noticed a spike in the children’s enthusiasm for learning science. In addition to engaging students in the classroom, the Arboretum hosted the students for field studies in the landscape, creating opportunities for students to expand on their indoor experiments through an exploration of the Arboretum’s living collection of plants. Some of the students will learn elementary botany by growing plants in their classrooms this spring, and all will return to the landscape when the weather warms to continue to learn about science in the field. Whether in the classroom or on the Arboretum grounds, students and educators both look forward to the continued flowering of this unique educational partnership.