What happens when we involve young students in meaningful nature-based investigations? We spark curiosity, cultivate environmental literacy, and motivate youth to engage with their surroundings. This is the important work that ACES educators bring to four elementary schools in the Roaring Fork Valley.
Along with art, music, and other specials classes, local students learn about the environment with ACES’ in-school curriculum. Our curriculum aligns with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and focuses on cultivating wonder and care for the world around us. The NGSS framework finds common ground between environmental education (EE) and formal science education, encouraging ACES educators to coordinate with classroom teachers. Our interdisciplinary approach focuses on the nature of science inquiry, incorporating social sciences and art, too.
When schools went virtual in the spring of 2020, we adapted our programs. We taught EE classes online and led after-school EE clubs in local parks. We also started revising our in-school curriculum, aligning units and lessons with the new science standards and making them more student-driven.
“Ice Age fossils were found in Snowmass!” is a common phenomenon third grade students investigate in their ACES class at the start of the school year. At the beginning of the unit, students investigate pictures of the ordinary, but puzzling, local occurrence. When asked what they notice and wonder, students are eager to share what they think they know, exclaiming “I see fossils!” In response, educators ask students to describe what they are looking at instead of making assumptions: "I see bones dug up from muddy rock.” Students then reflect on their observations, and define fossil for themselves.
Naturally, the students’ observations spark wonder, prompting questions like, “Where are the best places to find fossils, and how may I dig them up?” and “Why could a mammoth live a long time ago, but not now?” Cultivating student curiosity, educators frame a mock dig for students, setting up their investigation with clues about what lived in Snowmass in the past, and why. In the school yard, students “excavate” scattered parts of a fossil skeleton. Once all fossil clues are “dug up,” students face the challenge of solving the mystery as a team. They practice analyzing the evidence and organizing it into categories. As they connect the puzzle-like pieces of the skeleton, students also learn different social skills. They share responsibility for who in their group leads, builds, and evaluates their progress.
A mammoth skeleton puzzle in the ACES Ed classroom at Basalt Elementary School
While working together, they make predictions like, “I think it is a wooly mammoth!” and support their claims with “large curved tusks” as evidence of what they are learning about. Educators provide infographics about a dozen different animals that currently live or used to live in Snowmass to help students assess their conclusions. After exploring the clarifying information, students revisit their arguments, realizing that the wooly mammoth never lived here. Still, they want to know why one kind of mammoth inhabited Snowmass in the past. Other times, students wonder about specific science vocabulary, asking questions like “What does ‘odon’ mean?”
A mammoth tooth (below) versus a mastodon tooth (above.)
When a coworker and I taught this revised unit at Basalt Elementary School for the first time after returning to in-person learning, we got an opportunity to learn something new, too. We learned with students that “-odon” means tooth, and we added a few examples: megalodon means “giant tooth,” smilodon means “knife tooth,” and mastodon means “cone-like tooth.” Spontaneously, our answer connected to the two similar — but not identical — teeth hidden in the schoolyard. Once discovered, the texture of the replica teeth reminded students of animals who grind and bite their food. They wondered, “Could these be the teeth of a mammoth and a mastodon? Knowing something about the function of teeth, students knew they needed to figure out what the animals ate.
Students in the ACES Ed classroom at Basalt Elementary School
Students use additional evidence, like artistic renditions of the past and present landscape of Snowmass, models of teeth, and drawings of mammoths and mastodons to explain environmental change. They apply their inquiry skills and logical reasoning and learn that fossil evidence may tell us which plants or animals adapt or go extinct as weather and climate change.
Anecdotally, ACES educators are learning that unit plans anticipate and scaffold student understanding of science practices, ideas, and concepts — but that local phenomena and student questions are what increase engagement and inspire future learning. When students drive and reflect on their own learning, they transfer these methods of learning to their everyday lives at home. They bring their inquiry skills on the trail with their families and friends, and give their community a deeper understanding and appreciation of the natural phenomena happening around them.
ACES School Programs Manager