Program Brings Nature Into Classrooms

05/16/11 12:50PM By Nina Keck
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(Host)    With teachers expected to fit more and more into their curricula - natural science can sometimes fall by the wayside.   But a unique Vermont based program trains volunteers to bring the mysteries of nature to students in more than 100 public and private elementary schools.   

VPR's Nina Keck tells us more.

(sound of her hooting)  

(Keck)    When it comes to making science fun, Lisa Purcell is a pro.

(Purcell)  "I like to say it sort of comes from down here -- laughter.

(Keck) Mimicking an owl or a foraging squirrel is all part of a days work for Purcell, who's Director of the Four Winds Nature Institute.   On this particular morning, she's training parent volunteers from Shrewsbury, Chittenden and Mendon to teach an elementary school workshop on owls.    

(Purcell)  "What would some of the challenges be of being an owl?  Thinking of owls as nocturnal predators."

(Keck)  Purcell and several colleagues founded the Four Winds Nature Institute in 2006.   Their school workshops evolved from a similar program created back in the 1970s by the Vermont Institute of Natural Science.   Purcell worked for VINS for years as a science educator.   But she says as VINS focused more of its energy on building its headquarters in Queechee, Purcell and others spun off Four Winds to ensure the community based science education program remained strong.    Nearly six years later, Four Winds has 1,500 volunteers in four states - people like Shrewsbury resident Connie Youngstrom.

(Youngstrom)   " We've had visits to the stream in the back of our school.  Kids always get soaking wet, but they love it their eyes light up when they get into the stream and turn over rocks to find little crustaceans and little critters under the stones."

(Keck)   The Four Winds curriculum is designed around Vermont's Science standards.     Four Winds charges schools 32-hundred dollars to participate.  That covers eight volunteer training sessions and the accompanying teaching materials.    Lisa Purcell says their staff works hard to tie lessons to things that kids might already be somewhat familiar with.

(Purcell)   "We know that we want kids to be learning hands on and make discoveries in their own backyard.  We'd love it to be something that they've walked by it for years without noticing it.    And then we start thinking about how will get kids excited about that.   What will the puppet show need to include for students to understand the life of a goldenrod gallfly for example?"

(Keck)  Kelli Bates, a teacher at Barstow Memorial School in Chittenden, says that creative approach is what makes Four Winds so popular with students.

(Bates)  "One year we were doing something with trees and the kids were actually parts of the tree - some would be the trunk and kids were actually laying on the floor being the roots - and things like that just connect these science theories in a way that they can understand."

(Classroom)    "Sound of kids making owls noises"

(Keck)  Four Winds director Lisa Purcell not only trains volunteers, she is one.   One afternoon a month, she puts her organization's science activities to the test in front of first graders.

(Sounds of kids and Lisa Purcell Hooting)

(Keck)   Mimicking owls is a hoot - but Purcell really hits it out of the park with these six and seven year olds when she explains how owls eat things whole and then cough up pellets filled with what they couldn't digest.

(Purcell)   "So we're going to do is we'll have one pellet at each table - then in teams of two we're going to break them apart (ewwwww) no they're very clean.    They don't smell or anything. . . .  

(Keck)   She's right they don't.    All Four Winds pellets are sanitized and come from, would you believe,   Owlpellets.com? 

(Purcell)   "We're just very carefully pull these apart - because we're collecting data.  We're collecting information on what the owl ate.  (fade under)  

(Keck)   At first some of these young scientists are a bit hesitant.   But within minutes, they're riveted to their task.

(kids)  "Oh, my gosh.  Look it has teeth! Oh, I have a tooth!   Here's the other part of its lower jaw.   Do you see it?   Oh my gosh!"

(Keck)   7 year-olds Gracie Stahura and Sophia Husack lean over their prize - the tiny skeletal remains of a vole.

(Stahura and Husack)  " Do you see those teeth?  It's so cool.    I never knew about the pellets.    We have a big yard and there's woods all around us and I'm going to look under the trees - so if I find them I'm going to get some toothpicks and open it."

(Keck)   Lisa Purcell looks over at the girls' table and beams.   Mission accomplished.  

For VPR news, I'm Nina Keck in Chittenden.

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