Combine Learning with Action
The five principles of an Audubon Education Experience will inform all of your decisions and planning. The syllabus provides a supportive environment in which students learn, gain confidence and have fun discovering nature in an exciting way. Activities relate to the surrounding community, leaving participants with skills they can use after the completion of the project. The program benefits a local conservation concern. The outcome includes an education component in which participants can share their project with others in the community.
The syllabus has two major segments. In the first half, students focus on skill development, observation and exploration. In the second half, students design and carry out a conservation project.
Phase I: Observation and exploration
- Nurture and develop the students' skills through hands-on activities in the outdoors.
- Teach club members how to collect data, keep a journal, use a field guide, take notes, and identify species.
- Introduce John James Audubon, the 19th century naturalist, and other well-known conservation leaders (e.g., Rachel Carson, John Muir, and Al Gore) and local conservation leaders from your community.
- Expose club members to environmental issues near and far.
- Keep the process creative and fun with stimulating games and activities.
Phase II: Conservation Outcomes
A good conservation outcome will be service-oriented and worthwhile for your club members, your center, and the community. It must also:
- Support Audubon's mission
- Benefit the local community
- Be scientifically-driven and involve critical thinking and problem-solving skills
- Include hands-on activities in the outdoors
- Incorporate, if possible, Audubon volunteers and other community members
- Be evaluated by an end result
Examples of conservation outcomes
- A habitat restoration project
- Replacing invasive non-native plants with native plants
- Publishing a newsletter to share information about healthy habitats with the community
- Construct bird feeders from recycled materials
- Undertake a school solid waste audit and design a presentation about solutions for improvements.
- Arrange for the collection and proper disposal of unwanted computers, cell phones, batteries, etc.
- A neighborhood litter pick-up.
Strategies for creating a worthwhile project
- Help participants choose a manageable project. Generally, younger children need projects that are quick, tangible, and highly interactive, such as picking up trash at a local park. Older children, like middle school age, can handle longer-term projects that involve more planning and critical thinking skills, such as planting a garden or creating a compost program. These longer-term projects also offer opportunities for participants to get to know more about their community and the subject matter while engaging in decision-making and applying their new skills to real-life circumstances.
- Stick to the basics. Even with long-term projects, make sure to keep things simple. Be mindful of your goal and the time you have to complete the project. It would be disheartening for the group to undertake something they cannot finish. Make sure the group can walk away with a completed project they feel good about.
- Brainstorm. Brainstorming promotes creativity and draws input from every participant.
- Facilitate the process. Let your group take the lead in creating and implementing the project. Encourage participants to analyze available resources and assess the needs of the community and natural environment. Provide advice and counsel and keep club members on track, but allow them to direct the project. They will be more committed if they feel ownership of the project.
- Choose a project that is inclusive and utilizes the participants' skills. Each participant should feel that he/she is making a significant contribution to the project. Encourage each student to use his/her talents.
- Act local. Make sure the conservation project relates to the community. The more tangible and local the project, the more real it becomes to the participants. They will be able to see the difference they can make right in their own backyard.
- Engage students in the activities or initiatives already under way at your center or chapter. In this way, they become part of the solution. Here are some ideas:
- Participate in citizen science projects such as the Christmas Bird Count and the Great Backyard Bird Count.
- Utilize the Audubon At Home materials to demonstrate pesticide reduction at home.
- Catalog the biodiversity at your center or sanctuary and develop a field guide.
- Restore habitat, create a compost station, or plant a native bird and butterfly garden at your center or sanctuary.
- Teach students to lead nature walks for center visitors.
- Work on a local environmental issue.
- Allow students to use Audubon Adventures activities to instruct younger children.
- Conduct bird counts at local Important Bird Areas.
- Expect roadblocks and be flexible. Any chosen project is going to have its share of roadblocks; accept that this is part of the learning process for the students. Encourage club members to approach difficulties with a keen eye and to brainstorm to find creative, flexible ways around their problems.
- Create a timeline and assign jobs. Have the students design their own timeline and job descriptions. Planning can save time and teach students the steps necessary to complete a project successfully.
- Include a community education component in the conservation outcome. One of the most effective ways to learn is to teach. A community education element within the conservation outcome will allow students to gain even more knowledge through teaching the public, while bringing the project full circle. This also provides an opportunity for student-to-student mentoring, expanding your audience to new age groups and new communities.
- Let the students evaluate the project. Evaluation is also a part of the learning process. Give students time to reflect on their successes and failures, allowing club members to develop their critical thinking skills and to consider how they would do similar projects in the future.
- Keep nature journals. Have the students continually document their project. This gives club members a complete accounting of all ideas and the project's history, reminds them of what worked and what didn't work, and produces a record of information so that they can reproduce their work.
- Provide participants with continued opportunities for learning. Provide students with a way to continue participating in environmental activities so that the learning doesn't stop at the end of the program.
- Celebrate success. Emphasize the positive. These students are budding environmentalists and need encouragement. Water what you want to see grow!
Working with Middle Schoolers
Middle schoolers are students in grades six through eight. At this age, from 11 to 14, children are going through rapid physical, emotional, and social changes. Many are experimenting, trying to find new ways to express themselves and to shape their image and personality. Levels of confidence can rise and plummet over the course of a day. They are interested in peers, and socializing is a top priority. They are starting to assert their independence. They are curious and interested in exploring the world around them, and they are old enough to start formulating opinions about the environment and the role people play. At this time of floundering self esteem but growing self-expression, performance-based work is valuable.
Consider the following difficulties and effective methods in working with this age group.
Characteristics of this age group:
- Unpredictable, moody behaviors. Adolescence is a period of psychological and social transition between childhood and adulthood. Plan for unpredictable mood swings and intermittent wavering interest on the part of an individual student from week to week. Each day it can seem as if you have a completely different set of participants!
- Peer Pressure. Children of this age are highly concerned with being accepted by their peers. Therefore, they will approach many things with caution, trying to figure out the group’s opinion before deciding whether to show enthusiasm for an activity. If an activity is perceived as “uncool,” you are almost certain to have little or no participation.
- Distracted, social butterflies. It is hard enough to get this age group to focus completely in the classroom during school. It becomes even more challenging in the after school setting. Most of them want to socialize with their peers, and it can really be a challenge to get them to focus on the activity at hand.
- Overwhelmed students. Often you will see students who are overworked, involved in multiple extracurricular activities, and perhaps have a part-time job. Eighth graders are also beginning to stress about what will be expected of them in high school. All these sudden responsibilities can lead to poor attendance or forgetfulness. Their minds can only hold so much information.
Effective methods we found in working with this age group:
- Do not avoid or skirt controversial topics. Often, the topics that are controversial or uncomfortable for the educator are the ones students of this age most need to discuss to make good decisions.
- Provide the opportunity for adolescents to express ideas through their work. Avoid lecturing and structured worksheets. Instead, provide activities that allow students to think independently.
- Ensure that students feel useful and important. Encourage club members to take on responsibilities critical to the success of the activity, such as acting as the spokesperson for the work group or participating in role-playing. Student-created final projects or conservation outcomes, in particular, will be successful with this age group.
- Avoid asserting your own values and judgments. Encourage students to develop decision-making skills that they can apply when judging situations for themselves.
- Emphasize working in collaborative groups. This age group will want to be social any way. Encourage a fun, social environment where they can work together and be productive.
- Participate with the students in the activities. This will allow you to see if the assignment is realistic and if there are potential pitfalls. It also builds community.
- Remember that middle schoolers like a challenge. Often the key is not what is taught, but how it is taught. The process is just as important as the product, and they must always be involved.
- Incorporate physical and outdoor activities as often as possible. After school, children can be restless. Help club members burn off that excess energy and have fun. Exercise has been shown to reduce anxiety and depression, and to raise self-esteem. By removing such emotional barriers, the students may be able to focus better.
- Seek out and recognize each student’s contributions. Aim to reduce students’ insecurity by bolstering his or her positive self-image. This will aid the learning process as well.
- Provide opportunities for exploration, project-based learning, and artistic expression. Allow club members to define their relation to the world. They are just starting to discover new forms of expression; offer avenues that tap into this need while showing them the positive effect they can play in the protection of our environment.
- Encourage social interactions with peers and adults. Students need positive role models; in most cases, these will include the instructors.
- Give club members freedom, but guidance. They need structure to help them work efficiently and to keep them safe and comfortable. Establish the ground rules and expectations in early sessions; this will make it easier for students to take on leadership roles later in the project.
- Divide big concepts into small segments. This is especially important in an after school setting in which you will have only short periods together with week-long breaks. Long-lead assignments or conservation projects are fine, but be sure to acknowledge milestones along the way. Help students break down their overall goal into manageable steps.
- Use appropriate teaching strategies, such as cooperative work groups, individual activities, and one-on-one coaching, that meet the diverse needs of learners. Also, use multiple disciplines to show different perspectives on the same issue.
- Encourage exploration. Give students the opportunity to apply what they have learned to real-life situations.
- Challenge students to share and accept responsibility for their own learning.
The Audubon Experience
These are the five principles of the Audubon Education Experience:
Research shows that direct experiences in nature are the single most important factor in developing conservation values. Direct experiences in nature are one of the primary triggers than can stimulate people to become concerned and passionate about the environment.
Respect for Learner
Respect for the learner requires that effort be applied, in both program design and implementation, to address the experience, background and perspectives of the people who participate. This includes-but is not limited to-age, gender, race, ethnicity, culture, as well as issues related to their social structures, income levels and where they live.
All Audubon education programs are based on solid science, utilizing the most accurate and current information. Equally important is our commitment to making science relevant and fun.
Asking questions and finding out answers about the world around us, and how it works—and if it is not working, why—is critical to our ability to care for it.
Additionally, teaching the scientific process helps to teach critical thinking skills by using activities that gather the appropriate information, analyze that data with different viewpoints, make inferences, calculate likelihoods and solve problems. We want our participants to use critical thinking when they are making decisions about the environment—whether they are choosing their own lifestyle habits, making consumer choices or judging which way to vote on a local conservation issue.
Inquiry-based and Interactive
At Audubon, we believe in learning by doing, leading students to ask questions and make discoveries in the search for new understanding. The National Science Education Standards, the National Science Teachers Association, and the National Science Foundation support this inquiry approach.
The inquiry process requires the teacher to become a facilitator or guide for the learner's process of discovery and creating understanding of the world.
Leads to Conservation Action
Audubon programs provide opportunities for people to take action and to express their passion for nature in many ways. Personal actions that are beneficial to the environment might include gardening to increase biodiversity, community service, restoring habitats, reducing consumption of energy and water, retrofitting homes and structures for conservation purposes, reducing use of pesticides, supporting local native wildlife populations, and everyday consumer purchasing decisions.