Young Investigators tailored to children’s interests

Story courtesy of Brandon Hurley, Dickinson County News

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Does a turkey fly? Why does that millipede have so many legs? How do seeds turn into plants?

Nature has its share of mysteries and many of them can be solved through the Young Investigators program.

The new curriculum approach is led locally by Lakeside Lab in conjunction with funding from Friends of Lakeside Lab. It is designed for early childhood educators and dozens of teachers from northwest Iowa have been through the program.

Educators draw on a student’s sense of curiosity by allowing them to help develop lesson plans and steer their learning. The program stresses the importance of getting kids out-and-about through hands-on learning.

“The Young Investigators program was created (three years ago) to provide teacher development for early childhood educators,” said Lisa Roti, executive director for Friends of Lakeside Lab.

The three year program is meant to have the teachers continually implement what they have learned in their everyday teachings.

“High quality development is something that needs to be repeated and developed over time, it needs to be practiced,” Roti added.

The teachers participating in Young Investigators are taught to heavily rely on the students. Past projects local teachers have incorporated include the life of a turkey and how they survive or holes and which animals use them for shelter. Students also investigate seeds, trees, water and insects. To further nature learning, Roti said it is vital to call on outside resources.

“We really encourage the use of experts, such as Jane Shuttleworth at Lakeside, Charles Vigdal or Karess Knudtson — the naturalists at the Dickinson County Nature Center,” Roti said. “One of the topics a teacher used was birds. And their school janitor happened to be a wood worker so he came in and taught the students how to build birdhouses.”

The Young Investigators program is a significant commitment, but Roti has been impressed by the response from teachers. On average 70 people attend the sessions — including faculty members from schools including Okoboji, Spirit Lake, Algona and even Humboldt.

During the first year of the three-year program, teachers, administrators and assistants attend four different training sessions at Lakeside Lab. The second year they return to Lakeside Lab for two more sessions and in year three they come back for one more refresher course. They learn about the curriculum and what advantages there are in changing their approach. To make sure the educators are using what they learned from Lakeside, they are required to produce two nature units a year and journal their successes. Young Investigators pushes teachers away from relying on the course plan they have created.

“The educators really perfect the project approach (during the program), which is child-centered, not teacher-centered,” Roti said. “The project approach focusses on the children’s perspective. It’s a way for children’s interest to drive the curriculum. A lot of the common cores are still accomplished through this training but it’s not created all by the teacher.”

Roti, who is a former teacher in the Spirit Lake School District, understands the challenge of keeping students engaged. She believes practice makes perfect.

“It’s an amazing program, (as a teacher) I can truly appreciate how effective it is, but you’re are not going to be proficient in it if you aren’t practicing it,” she said. “Because it is kid-driven, the projects will come from them. A lot of the times as teachers, we automatically teach the four seasons, and it’s usually teacher-directed and sometimes that’s OK. But at least two times a year they should take an idea that comes from the kids themselves.”

Nature is the main focus of the training. Roti tries to get kids outside the four walls of the classroom — a concept she feels is escaping the younger generations.

“Educators will go outside and sometimes they aren’t all comfortable teaching outside of the classrooms,” Roti said. “The Young Investigators program helps them get over their discomfort and get outside. Even in a day when its snowing, there are so many things to learn about and the kids are tickled about it.”

The faculty teams draw from the teachings of national speaker, Judy Helm, who was one of the originators of the Young Investigators. Young Investigators operates under the umbrella of the Nature Connections program at Lakeside Lab. A group of faculty members and local educators work together to improve nature education. Nature Connections is funded by the Friends of Lakeside Lab and a REAP-CEP grant that has provided $40,000 in funding.

At the moment, the Young Investigators program is primarily focused on Pre-K educators but the future of the program is bright, Roti said. The more success they see as a result of the training the better they can adapt it. Roti has been pleased by the response of the area educators.

The next step is to take the training even further and expanding its reach, Roti said.

“Now our question is, do we go further out of Iowa to continue this training? Do we go into kindergarten?” the Friends director said. “We’ve been contacted by the University of Iowa and ISU so there is a lot of interest there. It keeps growing.”

Young Investigators is something that Roti has seen make an immediate impact in just three short years. The input from children helps it succeed.

“There’s a great deal of research that shows kids now have a nature deficit,” she said. “Some children may never go outside, we have a whole generation that may not know nature and here is a way for them to learn the value of it.”