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Schoolyard Ecology for Elementary School Students (SYEFEST)

Schoolyards present a wealth of opportunities for exploring ecological concepts, and the Cary Institute has long been a pioneer in helping teachers develop authentic and worthwhile investigations for students. This project created a number protocols and lessons, most of them inquiry-based, for outdoor study.  

We believe that students should learn the science of ecology by doing it - by conducting research with organisms close to home.

Students should study ecology in their local environments so that they learn that a scientific understanding of the environment applies to human-influenced and human-managed ecosystems like urban, suburban and agricultural systems as well as to more pristine areas. Such ecosystems are most familiar and available to the majority of our students, and are critical for understanding the human role in the earth's ecology. In this way, schoolyard ecology education is distinguished from the traditional notion of nature study as just pertaining to the study of "pristine" environments, and is made accessible to the vast majority of our students.

This emphasis on the local environment applies to urban areas, where large populations of students in groups currently underrepresented in science in general and ecology in particular, live and learn.

The ultimate goal of Schoolyard Ecology is to help classroom teachers foster ecological literacy in their students. To do this:

  1. students must study real organisms in real environments - i.e., outside and local,
  2. outdoor study must be frequent and progressive, i.e., convenient and easily fit into changing schedules and curricula,
  3. students must be able to set up and re-visit manipulative and long-term studies, and
  4. learning should be inquiry-based, where students deepen their understanding of the environment and their place within it by pursuing their own questions and building on their prior knowledge and interests.

In summary, here are six simple arguments for Schoolyard Ecology:

  1. Ecology must be inquiry based with real organisms in real environments.
  2. Schoolyards are the most convenient places to do this.
  3. Schoolyard ecology conveys that ecology is everywhere, not just at "nature" centers and parks.
  4. Schoolyard ecology is a great vehicle for teaching science process skills and dispositions.
  5. Ecology and critical thinking are important for the citizens of tomorrow.
  6. Schoolyard ecology addresses established local, state and national goals.

Where does schoolyard ecology fit in? Everywhere in the curriculum!

Project Research

 In the Schoolyard Ecology for Elementary School Teachers (SYEFEST) project, our "students" were elementary teachers. This program, funded by the National Science Foundation and the Environmental Protection Agency, addressed the question, "What kinds of experiences, resources and support do teachers need in order to teach ecology 1) outdoors and 2) using student-centered, inquiry-based methods?"

The scientist/teacher teams that ran professional development programs at 17 sites around the country as part of SYEFEST were highly successful, showing that a combination of authentic research in schoolyards by teachers, reflection on teaching and learning, creation of practical teaching plans, and ongoing support were effective at stimulating outdoor teaching and fostering some growth in inquiry-based teaching.

Some of the incredible wealth of ideas, insights, strategies and resources from SYEFEST have been brought together into a first draft of a Schoolyard Ecology Leader's Handbook. Our research into teacher outcomes at 5 intensively studied sites revealed interesting syndromes of teacher practice and change as a result of SYEFEST, while also highlighting considerable constraints on outdoor, inquiry-based teaching (Hogan and Berkowitz 2000).

Project Participants:

Project Leaders:

Dr. Alan R. Berkowitz, Project Director, Head of Education, Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies (IES).
Dr. Kathleen Hogan, Project Co-Director, Educational Research and Development Specialist, Cary Institute. 
Ms. Catherine Corey, Project Coordinator, Cary Institute. 
Ms. Rachel Krusic, Project Coordinator, Cary Institute.

Project Advisors: 
Dr. Peter Feinsinger, Northern Arizona State Univ., Flagstaff, Ariz.
Ms. Karen Hollweg, National Research Council, Washington, D.C.

Project Evaluators: 
Dr. Sandra Mathison, SYEFEST Evaluation Consultant, State University of New York at Albany, and Case Study Evaluator, Schenectady, N.Y.
Ms. Wendy Kropid, Case Study Evaluator, Tucson, Ariz.
Ms. Marianne Lescher, Case Study Evaluator, Boston, Mass.
Ms. Katherine Grimes, Case Study Evaluator, Ferrum, Virg.

Lead Teachers: 
Mr. Steven Archibald, Ms. Val Barsevich, Ms. Ruth Bonn, Mr. Christopher Brown, Ms. Sallie Burn, Ms. Gail Van Genderen, Mr. Dennis Hahn, Mr. Tim Jarboe, Dr. Eric Johnson, Ms. Margaret Manning, Dr. Sarah Carrier Martin, Ms. Pat Miller, Ms. Cheryl Nickell, Ms. Linda Olsen, Ms. Lynn Dee Oyler, Dr. Alan Rossman, Ms. Julie Valin, Mr. Charles Voda 

Lead Ecologists: 
Dr. Steve Baker, Dr. Alan R. Berkowitz, Dr. Carol Brewer, Dr. Judith E. Bramble, Dr. Eloise Carter, Ms. Dana DeKoven, Dr. Betty Eidemiller, Dr. Donald W. Hall, Dr. Philip Hastings, Dr. Carol A. Hoffman, Dr. V.L. Holland, Dr. Donald Kaufman, Dr. Frank T. Kuserk, Dr. Chris Myers, Dr. Sharon Ohlhorst, Dr. Bob Pohlad, Dr. Robert D. Stevenson, Dr. Peter Tobiessen, Dr. Kathy Winnett-Murray.