Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Soft Opening-

The first afternoon of the fall term at Coastal Studies for Girls, 15 girls walk down to the shore of Casco Bay a couple hours before high tide. On arrival an adolescent osprey stands strangely on the shore. Slightly disheveled, girls wonder if it’s hurt and unable to return to the nest where its sister cries as if  scolding her sibling. Osprey parents abandon the young (the park ranger later tells us) leaving them to learn to hunt and to migrate to South America by experience. The 15 girls who arrived a day earlier at CSG draw curiously close but keep a wary distance from this wild sister.

Soon the osprey flies back to the nest, and students begin casually poking around the shore doing what we all do on a bright August day in Maine, picking up shells and looking under rocks. As they do so, CSG marine scientist, Dr. Elizabeth Halliday starts naming them, identifying quahogs and periwinkles and defining gastropods and bivalves. Soon girls on the perimeter gather closer.

Discoveries continue and turn to questions, “I found a crab!” “Hey, I think there’s a clam under here.” Then, “I used to pop those seaweed pods. What are they?”  “Are these edible?” Soon, everyone gathers observing and listening as Dr. Halliday leads the conversation toward intertidal relationships and adaptations. The shell identified as a smooth periwinkle is colored the exact shade of the nearby knotted wrack on which it lives and feeds.  The perfect circle in a mussel shell is sign of the dog whelk that bores holes in the shells of its prey with a specialized tooth-like radula and shell-dissolving acid.

What appears a first day orientation walk becomes an experiential, place-based marine science lesson.  Later, students build on this experience learning scientific nomenclature, adopting a sister species, and memorizing taxonomic names. What starts with an experience of place, familiar to some girls and new to others, leads to inquiry and then to knowledge.  While Maria Montessori long ago advocated the power of inquiry, people like Grant Wiggins remind us, “understanding is dependent upon drawing inferences by oneself – as well as testing and justifying those inferences - if only to question or verify claims made by the teacher, other students, or authors. Otherwise, it is rote learning with no thinking behind it.” At CSG students start with inquiry, move to research questions and data collection, and finally present marine science research work in public presentations. A soft opening leads to hard science.  

Friday, October 31, 2014

Intentionally Interdisciplinary

Last spring, Kate Laemmle (CSG9) laid 17 pages of writing along the curved wall of the classroom yurt. She was wresting with two famous ideas- Mark Twain’s mocking advice, “Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.” and E. M. Forster’s more direct, “Always connect.” Her teachers, Dr. Elizabeth Halliday and Anne Bardaglio as well as her classmates were trying to help her decide what to cut out and how to connect what remained. Looking back Kate says that the essay ‘perfectly morphed’ her two teachers. It also connected her poetic appreciation of CSG’s solo field and her marine science research on micro plastics so well it won a special recognition prize.

Last week, From the Bowseat announced that Kate and three other CSG students, Katherine RIgney, Emma McGurren, and Spencer Wollan won awards for writing and video totaling $2500 with an additional $1500 for CSG. Since the competition began in 2011, Coastal Studies for Girls students have won 10 awards and last year Dr. Halliday won the “On Board Teacher” award.   Noting their success in the competition, Dr. Halliday, known as Liz in the farmhouse, said, “This didn’t just happen. We designed for it.” The following year, based the winning 2013 essay by Susan Bell (CSG8), From the Bowseat adopted microplastics topic as the contest theme and this year they made CSG a partner organization.

Like Kate’s essay, CSG ‘s Coastal Adventure, an interdisciplinary, place-based curriculum constantly wrestles with the same challenges- what to leave out and how to connect. It weaves four disciplines, English, history, leadership and marine science, around three ideas: observation, inquiry & action. This simple structure supports complex reading, research, and learning. On expedition last month, a student noted proof of its success exclaiming, “Wait! Hold on a second! How much time did you guys spend planning this?! Everything we do is so interconnected. The things we do in science, and history tie in to English, res life, and leadership. CSG redefines what it means to be intentional.”

Interdisciplinary work often favors one discipline over another. English literature follows historical timelines; math concepts are determined by science lessons. Initial interdisciplinary enthusiasm often gives way to tension. Conversely, Liz, Anne, and former leadership teacher Vanessa Jones saw their ideas limited by curricular boundaries and created Coastal Adventure. Now, the class moves from poetic appreciation of place, to a big history study of Freeport and the Maine Coast, to scientific research into the marine environment, and ends with Leadership driven affirmations of purpose and action.

Kate Laemmle’s essay merged her coffeehouse creative writing and her research because she wanted to use the beauty of the ocean to drive action to save it. For her, a daily solo in a field overlooking Casco Bay connected local appreciation to global commitment. As she said in her final reflection, “I know CSG has changed me, because I feel the need to go out and change the world.” Similarly, first place winner Katherine Rigney noted she has always had a passion for science, but CSG showed her the power of connecting science to the broader world. Looking forward, she wants to find a way to connect physical science with the law.

This week when Kate came in and shared her process with CSG semester 10 students who are starting their own marine research projects, she connected semesters and inspired even more action.  

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Crave the Data


Since seeking answers to our curious observations is the basis of scientific knowledge, the principle project and the majority of our time this unit was spent on original scientific research projects.

We began our projects five weeks ago, when we devoted an afternoon to asking questions. As we tromped and meandered on the mud flats overlooked by the field where we solo every morning, we recorded any and every curiosity that the natural world swayed our minds to wonder. Loaded with a list of inquiries, we came together as a group to brainstorm which questions were interesting and feasible to pursue as research projects. 

At the end of the day, four driving questions emerged as our four research projects:


1) What is the abundance and diversity of organisms living in the mud flats?

2) Where are mircoplastics concentrated in coastal Freeport, ME?

3) How does road noise affect bird calling behavior?

4) How do different water sources affect bioluminescence in dinoflagellates?

In preparation for our data collection week, we spent lots of in-class time researching relevant scientific literature found from on-line academic databases, writing a first draft of an introduction, preparing data collection materials, and discussing how to best function as a group. To practice and critically think about relational power, we prepared an AMT (Agreement of Management Timeline) with our group members, which detailed the logistics of our projects – from what our driving hypotheses were to what each group member would specifically contribute to the group.

We then spent every afternoon collecting data to answer our research questions. While each group was met with challenges ranging from collecting run-off water instead of water with varying salinity to hitting a steep learning curve to identify bird calls to wearing boots with troublesome new holes, every group collected a serious amount of data in four days.

 Data in hand, we worked with Excel and statistical programs to scientifically answer our curiosities through analyzing and graphically representing our data. We used the remaining week to write and revise individual scientific research papers and to create research presentations.

We celebrated our research and time creating new knowledge about the natural world by presenting our research presentations last Friday, April 25th at the Freeport Community Center. Thank you all for coming and for watching our presentations live on our first CSG video feed!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Widening Perspectives

As we wrapped up the “Observation” unit in Coastal Adventure class last week, the CSG girls widened their perspectives on all fronts, from interpreting the environment to interpreting a poem.