Lessons and Insight from the 2017 MEES Conference

On Wednesday, March 8, Cody Outdoor Classroom’s Director K and Program Assistant Ben attended the Massachusetts Environmental Education Society (MEES) conference in Worcester, MA. This was an opportunity for both formal and informal educators to gather together around the theme “Looking to the Past to Inform the Future” and celebrate the MEES’s 40th anniversary.

K and Ben had an opportunity to promote the Outdoor Classroom program, as well as attend workshops and connect with others in the field. Check out their personal accounts of the experience here:

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Ben

The MEES conference was a chance to gain new tools for teaching, as well as make connections with other science teachers in Massachusetts.  It was also a chance to network with organizations that could provide partnerships in the future, including the Encyclopedia of Life and Massachusetts Audubon.  

I attended four workshops during the day, and one in particular really stuck out to me. The session was entitled “Learning from the Land: Lessons from Aldo Leopold for the Modern Classroom”,  led by Sierra Munoz, a representative for the Aldo Leopold Foundation. Aldo Leopold was a conservationist and author who lived and worked throughout the US. His experiences in the American West, working for the forestry service and living in his cabin in Wisconsin, led him to write A Sand County Almanac, a seminal memoir about wilderness conservation. Leopold’s experiences and philosophies concerning the land, conservation, and ethics have inspired many educators to teach about the amazing hidden worlds found in nature. 

Munoz presented lesson plans inspired directly from the words of A Sand County Almanac that are intended to “connect students with nature.”  They included:

  • Recreating a dawn chorus of songbirds;
  • Observing and examining a winter scene; and
  • Exploring tree rings to understand the history of a tree. 

More lessons and activities were made available to us at the end of the seminar.  One of the challenges of teaching in-class programs for Cody Outdoor Classroom is finding ways to bring nature to the students inside a classroom. I now have a great resource for lessons and activities that can connect students to nature without leaving the classroom!


K

It is always exciting to be in a room full of individuals who share the same passion as I do – getting youth excited about science and engaging them in the outdoors. Throughout the day, I had the opportunity to visit with the exhibitors, connect with people during workshops, and chat with visitors who stopped by our booth. I was inspired by the similar, yet vastly different, ways these folks and organizations reach youth and connect with the outdoors using diverse natural resources found in Massachusetts. Programs are operating from bird observatories, to zoos, to state parks, to nature preserves, to watersheds, to camps.  

During a session called Advocating for Environmental Education, the speaker discussed ways to promote our program’s various environmental initiatives. She talked about the benefits of youth taking risks and facing fears in safe, supportive environments, along with the commonality that our programs are student-centered and are focused on helping students produce knowledge, not consume it.  Finally, she discussed how our programs benefit the “whole child” – their academic, social, and emotional well beings by helping them develop skills like communication, collaboration, problem-solving, patience, trust, and resiliency. 

We then broke up into smaller groups to continue this discussion. I connected with a representative from a wilderness school in Vermont, a director at Massachusetts Audubon, an education instructor at a zoo, and a graduate student. We had a productive discussion about the need to adjust our advocacy depending on whom we are addressing – teachers, parents, a school board, a representative from another program, and those who do not believe in the benefits of environmental education.

The discussion led to two general approaches: telling stories and sharing facts. Sharing facts about things like benefits of outdoor play, “brain breaks”, and the decreased amount of time available for science education. We all have stories to share of students succeeding, having that “ah ha!” moment, or starting off skeptical  and upon departure saying, “I thought nature was boring, but it’s really fun”.  The consensus was that we prefer to share those stories rather than share facts, but we recognize the importance of having both sets of tools available to most effectively promote our work.  And promoting the work we do is essential so New England students can participate in these programs that have lifelong impacts and benefits!