Lunder New Naturalists Program
Nature and technology meet in Gardens’
pilot state-wide school program
Photo taken in Maine (l to r): William Wingate Sewall, Wilmot Dow, Theodore Roosevelt – Included courtesy of the Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University
Children are enthralled with technology on tablets, smart phones, and other electronic devices. At the same time, and in part because they’re indoors using these devices, many are suffering from what author Richard Louv describes as “nature-deficit disorder.” Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens plans to transform this seeming dichotomy into a win-win combo. In the summer of 2012, the Gardens applied for – and then received – a substantial grant from the Lunder Foundation in Portland to pilot an innovative program that connects Maine seventh graders with nature, while capitalizing on the knowledge that we live in a digital world.
Gardens Director of Education and Staff Botanist Melissa Cullina explains that inspiration for the project came when “I was completely struck by an editorial in The Nature Conservancy magazine questioning whether ‘unplugging’ children from devices in nature was always practical. Worse, was it a recipe for irrelevance in the eyes of young people? The author challenged readers to ‘create a new paradigm, encouraging people to use technology to share their wonder of nature… in modes they’re most comfortable with.’ It really changed my own thinking about portable devices such as iPods from an educational detriment to a very real resource – in terms of both documenting or sharing discoveries and accessing a wealth of information. I began to think of ways to connect students with nature using technology they love, experimenting with my own kids first. The app “iBird” has been a huge success in getting everyone in our house hooked on birding for the first time.”
Also drawing inspiration from a young Theodore Roosevelt, whose Maine woods adventures with Cullina’s own great-great grandfather and his uncle fostered a lifelong commitment to nature and conservation, the Lunder New Naturalists program will encourage students to explore Maine’s natural history, as Roosevelt did, but in a new way. Participating teachers, through the introduction of specific nature-related topics and hands-on experience in science and social studies classes, will have the opportunity to enrich their curriculum within the parameters of current standards and goals. The benefits for students are far reaching; the sum of natural science study plus current technology will be even greater than the individual parts.
Seventh graders are ideal participants because they study the state’s history in social studies class and each has a laptop computer through the Maine Learning Technology Initiative. “This project focuses on connecting geographically distant classrooms to work on projects together using Maine’s natural and cultural history as a lens,” explains Gardens staff member Amity Beane, an experienced educator who coordinates the Lunder New Naturalists program. “The program leverages the laptop initiative to cultivate digital citizenship,” says Beane. “The collaborative nature of connecting teachers and learners with common curricular goals in science and social studies will help prepare the students for more-global collaborations in the future.”
The Gardens provides a secure website through which students and teachers can interact, sharing and presenting data in a variety of ways. The students create and compare virtual herbaria based on their scientific observations. In tandem with classrooms at other schools, they create a timeline of Roosevelt’s conservation achievements, from his exploration of Maine’s wilderness as a boy to his far-reaching initiatives as the nation’s 26th president, and create a conservation problem-solving proposal.
The Gardens also prepares Outdoor Laboratory Kits and provides them to each of the teachers involved in the program. These kits contain an iPad; and several student iPods pre-programmed with learning apps, such as digital field identification guides, GPS navigation tools, and the means to create audio-visual presentations. Students use these tools to explore and report on natural areas at their schools and nearby sites.
Beane explains, “The outdoor component embraces the idea that learning is local and doesn’t always have to be inside a classroom to be transformative. In fact, time outdoors collecting data drives this project. Students might ask, how do the plants in a schoolyard in Fort Fairfield differ from those in Waldoboro or Dixfield? Did Theodore Roosevelt explore areas near our school? What did he find there, and how has it changed? How did his Maine experiences shape his life’s work?”
In June, 2013, nine seventh grade science and social studies teachers, each from a different Maine school, came to the Gardens for training and to receive their Outdoor Learning Kits. In September, the nine teachers initiated the program’s units with their seventh graders and made connections with other participants via the website. Then, in January of 2014, new teachers will pilot the second cycle of the initiative; and the first group will remain involved. The goal is to have a total of 36 teachers trained to implement the program and to create a strong core group of schools and teachers.
By the end of this second cycle, approximately 650 students will be actively engaged in the program. The Gardens’ five-year projection is for 36 schools to participate, with a potential for 1,200 students to be involved at any given time.
To ensure that the program will be successful, Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens is training and supporting teachers and students every step of the way as they learn and employ the skills necessary to build a lasting bridge connecting nature and 21st century technology. The Lunder New Naturalists program furthers Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens’ commitment to education, horticulture, and research. The non-profit organization strives to inform all ages about the botanical heritage of Maine and the need to preserve, protect, and enhance the natural landscape.
For more information about Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens or the program, call 207-633-4333, ext. 152.