Young Investigators Program Connects Nature and Students

Saturday, November 28, 2015

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PHOTO SUBMITTED / As children investigate they learn how to generate questions, conduct investigations, collect and study artifacts closely, generate more complex questions, represent what they learn by drawing, painting and construction, writing and even through play, and share their findings with others beyond the classroom.

How does water change into snow? Why do worms crawl out of the ground? Why do trees have so many branches? What helps a seed grow?These are but a sampling of student questions that develop into full scale nature investigations each year in nearly 100 classrooms in Dickinson County and across northwest Iowa, thanks to an Iowa Department of Natural Resources Conservation Education Program (REAP CEP) grant.

The grant is a major funding source behind Young Investigators, an innovative, nature-based early childhood teacher training program that began in 2012.

YI is provided by Nature Connections, a collaborative of early childhood professionals, teachers and naturalists made possible by Iowa Lakeside Laboratory and Regents Resource Center and the Friends of Lakeside Lab. The YI training is targeted at meeting two critical needs: “Nature Deficit Disorder” — or the growing concern about children’s disconnect with nature and its impact on their social, emotional and intellectual development — and the need for high quality professional development for early childhood teachers. The REAP CEP grant allows the Nature Connections team to address both needs by providing an affordable and high quality professional development for early childhood teachers that, in 2015, is impacting over 1500 students in nearly 25 northwest Iowa school districts.

The training location on the 140-acre Lakeside campus, also managed as nature preserve, provides teachers with the opportunity to practice using the outdoors and nature in their curriculum development.

Young Investigators uses the Project Approach, a child-centered teaching method that follows student interest and builds STEM and literacy readiness in young learners. The trainings are provided by Dr. Judy Harris Helm, an internationally recognized educator and expert on Project Approach, and author of numerous books and publications on the topic. While projects can be conducted on any topic children find interesting, Dr. Helm recommends teachers conduct at least one nature project a year because nature topics provide ample opportunity for children to conduct investigations, learn to ask questions, and represent what they are learning. “And,” she adds “if children learn to love nature at an early age, they will grow up to become good stewards.”

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PHOTO SUBMITTED / Research shows that teachers are more likely to adopt new teaching methods with administrator support and involvement. The Young Investigators training involves early childhood administrators and includes special breakout sessions to discuss challenges and successes.
Originally a three-year training program aimed at reaching as many northwest Iowa school districts as possible in a series of three cohorts in five years, the Nature Connections team added a fourth cohort and an optional fourth year in 2015 due to teacher request and program success. “I have found it really does take three years of implementing this approach before you really feel confident using it,” commented Julie Bates, a pre-school teacher at Estherville-Lincoln Central School. “The three years allowed me the time to focus on improving different aspects of project work each year.”

School districts apply as teams of teachers, associates and administrators to support implementation of project work. After each of the seven training sessions, participants immediately implement what they have learned and receive follow up coaching by the Nature Connections team. The on-going sessions allow them to share challenges and successes, deepen their understanding of project work, and learn about new neuroscience research on the relationship between project work and brain development in young children. In the optional fourth year, teachers develop leadership and strategies for sustaining and adding rigor to project work in their classrooms.