Note: This story appears in the Sunday, Nov. 5 newspaper on Page A1.
BURR OAK — Most think of traditional classrooms as having four walls and several rows of desks or tables facing a large chalkboard or smart board.
However, many schools and educators have expanded the classroom to the outdoors.
Several area schools have land labs specifically designed to take lesson plans outside. The outdoors is exactly where Rural Action wants students and educators to go.
“That’s where we want to make our classrooms,” said Joe Brehm, the environmental education program coordinator for Rural Action. “Out in forests and caves.”
Reverse of that, many educators try to bring the outdoors to the classroom. Although it can be beneficial to take a classroom to see a wetland, having students work with a small model in the classroom can help them to understand the inner workings of a wetland.
On Thursday and Friday, several teachers and educators traveled to Burr Oak State Park Lodge and Conference Center to garner ideas on how they can make their lessons more environmentally oriented and eco-friendly at the fourth annual Appalachian Green Teachers Conference.
Rural Action and Camp Oty’ Okwa put on the conference every year. The conference offers several sessions for educators to participate in that focus on different aspects of environmental education.
Several educators from various Athens County school districts were there, including Alexander Local Schools’ biology teacher Amrik Brar and Amy Braverman, an intervention specialist who primarily works in science classes.
Brar and Braverman have come to the conference in recent years and have taken ideas they learned at the conference back to their classrooms.
In one session, educators went on a daylong field trip that traveled to the area watersheds to test water quality. A large part of Rural Action’s environmental education focuses on local environmental issues such as acid mine drainage — acidic runoff from abandoned mines that pollutes rivers and streams and turns the water orange.
In another session, titled “Marsh Madness,” educators learned how to incorporate a wetland habitat model into a lesson plan. Educators were instructed to make a model wetland using a paint pan, sponges, water, dirt, clay and little sticker animals for decoration.
They were then instructed to test different scenarios on the wetland that modeled various environmental impacts that could disrupt the usual wetland process.
For example, the sponges served as the “land” that would soak up water from rain. If those sponges were removed, water would be free to collect at the bottom of the pan. This raised the water level, which mimicked a flood.
Sami Kahn and Sara Hartman, two education professors at Ohio University, taught the lesson. Their goal was to inspire “socioscientific thinking,” or a way of thinking that combines both social studies plans and science.
“Too many people think social studies is just history,” Kahn said.
Besides history, social studies also incorporate civics, geography, anthropology, economics, political science, religion, philosophy, sociology and psychology.
In many cases, social studies and science can overlap with one another, such as the problem of acid mine drainage.
In another session, educators learned how to incorporate climate change into their lessons. Ryan Fogt, an OU geography professor, taught that session.
Much of that session included advice on what textbooks to teach as well as how educators can reduce their personal footprints on the environment and advocate for their students to be proactive in addressing climate change as well.
“Avoid destructive thinking that nothing you can do will ever matter,” Fogt said.