Branching out with tree planting

From the Spencer Daily Reporter – Monday, Oct. 24, 2016

A Spencer Early Head Start classroom, together with volunteers, planted a tree at the program’s playground last week. Laura Bussel, of Busy B’s Cupcakes, donated an Autumn Blaze Maple. “I was happy to jump at the opportunity to present the children at Head Start with a Maple Tree they could plant and watch grow,” she said. The classrooms of Kaelah Balmer and Valerie Lowe were doing a project approach connected with nature driven by the children’s interest in the world around them. The project began when a child noticed pods on a tree this fall. This led to the children’s interest in other trees and what is growing on them. This hands on approach gives children the opportunity to find and collect interesting objects. The children and their parents have collected pinecones, acorns, leaves, bark and much more. These items are then used in the classroom. They have been sorted, counted and classified contributing to observational and inquiry skills used every day by the children. The tree was planted on the playground at Jefferson school. Volunteers and children were involved in all aspects from digging, planting and watering. (Photos submitted)

2702183-L 2702182-L

Young Investigators Program Connects Nature and Students

Saturday, November 28, 2015


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.”


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.

Pre-Schoolers Visit Secondary Road Department

Story courtesy of Dan Voigt Emmetsburg News

Project Approach Brings Students Out Into Community


In a time when talk about education revolves around topics such as the Iowa Core and Minimum Standards, a new concept in education is providing our youngest students with a new way to learn about their world. But what makes this even more exciting is that these students are learning a lot more at the same time.

The new method goes by the name of “Project Approach” which describes a new melding of teaching and learning styles for younger students. Sherry Bredehoeft is the teacher of the four-year-old pre school class at Emmetsburg Catholic School, and implementing the program has provided new and exciting opportunities for her young charges.

“Project Approach came about when several Nature Centers all got together and wrote a federal grant for what they call the Young Investigators program,”?Bredehoeft explained. “Through the program, learning opportunities are designed to be very hands-on and interactive for the students. They actually decide what subject it is that they want to explore and then we do just that. We’ve been studying snow, and one student wondered what happened to snow when it would get loaded into a dump truck – snow removal.”

Through the study of snow in the classroom, the pre-schoolers had chances to see what happened when snow would melt or freeze, but one thing they’ve been cheated on so far is building a snowman.

“I have a little snowman kit hanging here in the classroom,”?Bredehoeft said, displaying a carrot nose, corncob pipe, and a black hat and scarf for the creation to wear. “Now, if it would just snow!”

Irregardless, the question about snow removal got Bredehoeft thinking. She made contact with Pat Corley, Foreman of the Emmetsburg Secondary Road Department shed, and went out to visit the facility to talk to Corley.

“I went out there and was just floored by the equipment and how interested Pat and the workers were in doing something. So, I took some pictures of some of the equipment when I?was there and brought those back to the classroom.”

The reason for taking the pictures was simple.

“It’s called Teacher Provocation – with the photos of those machines, it sparked their interests and made them want to learn more about how those machines removed snow,” Bredehoeft explained.

In preparation for the class visit to the County Shed, the students came up with a list of questions about snow removal, The questions were varied: “How does the snowblower move without wheels?” “How did you learn to drive a snowplow?” “Do you sometimes knock over things like mailboxes? What do you do if that happens?”

Those questions, among others, were answered Thursday morning when the 16 members of the pre-school traveled to the County Shed. All of the Secondary Road Department employees based in Emmetsburg were on hand to greet the visitors, with Pat Corley and Larry Joyce welcoming the group.

The student’s questions were answered through their visit, with the various county workers providing the answers – “Very carefully!” was the response on how one learns to drive a snowplow.

An acknowledgement that once in awhile, a plow will knock a mailbox down, was followed with an explanation by Corley. “If we do, we go out and put it back up for you.”

Corely led the group to the large snowblower mounted on a front-end loader, answering the question of how it moved without wheels. When the question of how it started and stopped was asked, Corley pulled the remote control for the unit from a pocket and started the machine, drawing squeals of delight from the children.”

In the course of their visit, the students were able to climb inside the large front-end loader, watched a motor grader start and saw how the blade and wing blade operate, and then were able to climb into the grader’s cab. The wing blade and snow plow on a tandem dump truck were demonstrated, and the students got to sit behind the wheel of the big truck and honk the horn.

The students also saw the sign truck and ventured into the mechanic’s shop, where Pat Madsen demonstrated the large hoist by lifting a dump truck as the class watched.

But after seeing the various pieces of equipment, each student was given a clipboard to draw a piece of equipment they’d seen – all part of the educational aspect of the trip.

“Drawing is the way four and five-year olds write,” Bredehoeft explained. “They use shapes, draw in perspective and they will eventually use these drawings to help them build a model of the snowblower they saw at the shed, out of cardboard boxes back in our classroom. It’s all about developing problem solving skills – they have to figure out their drawings to build their model, and it also teaches them perseverance, too.”

According to Bredehoeft, the concept behind Project Approach is to get kids out of the classroom and into their communities, where they can learn from their environment.

“Studies have shown that nature studies are an excellen learning tool for students might be autistic or hyperactive,”?Bredehoeft explained. “There’s something about getting them out and they become much more enganged because it makes them think.”

The program has been a three-year process, according to Bredehoeft, who noted that it has been funded through the Voluntary State Pre School Program, in colloboration with Head Start and the Emmetsburg Community School District.

So what did the students think of their visit?

“I liked the snow blower. It was loud!”

“I liked the yellow truck I?got to sit in. The guy honked the horn!”

“I liked the snow blower because I know my dad would love to have one just like that!”

“I liked the thing that made the truck go up.”

Needless to say, the students were impressed, and surprised with the cookies and juice boxes the Secondary Road workers provided to the youngsters before they left.

“The men at the shed were so accomodating and so welcoming to the students,”? Bredehoeft said. “They kept the answers very simple for the students, went out of their way to make sure the students got to see things and how they worked. Their hospitality was incredible!”


Young Investigators tailored to children’s interests

Story courtesy of Brandon Hurley, Dickinson County News


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.”