By Michilea Patterson, The Mercury
A $150,000 grant from PECO is making it possible for Pottstown students to learn science by stepping outside the indoor classroom and into the world of nature.
The three-year grant is being used to conduct a program called Powered by Nature which teaches children important environmental lessons such as water quality by having them visit local green spaces. The outdoor education instruction is available to students because of a partnership between the Pottstown School District, the Maryland-based nature center NorthBay, PECO and Natural Lands which is a nonprofit organization that connects people to the outdoors throughout eastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey.
Representative of each organization along with a group of fourth-grade students attended an announcement about the grant last month at Rupert Elementary School. Liz Murphy, senior vice president of regulatory and external affairs at PECO, said Natural Lands came to the company about a year ago to talk about the exciting program and the partnerships that would make it possible.
“I can’t even begin to tell you how quickly we started to embrace it,” Murphy said adding that PECO appreciated that Powered by Nature gave students a hands-on approach to environmental education.
“Every day at PECO, we are about empowering the communities that we serve not just about delivering gas and electricity but making sure that we are leaving our mark from both an educational and community perspective,” she said.
The nature center NorthBay is providing the instruction for the Powered by Nature program which will be available to all the fourth, fifth and sixth grade students in the district. The program launched last fall with fourth graders.
“We have seen firsthand how learning outdoors can inspire and excite students and hopefully help them to appreciate and fall in love with nature,” said Molly Morrison, president of Natural Lands.
After the announcement of the grant, a group of Rupert Elementary fourth-grade students sang a song about natural resources and then went outside on the school yard to showcase some of the environmental lessons they’ve learned throughout the year.
“We’ve been learning about turbidity and the turbidity tells how clear or how dirty water is,” said 10-year-old Nyel Thompson.
Camryn Frisco, 9, said they use a clear tube to find out the turbidity measurement and that grassy areas help prevent sentiments from getting into the tube.
“So near the grass is where most of the clear water is,” Frisco said.
Thompson said learning outdoors is an adventure.
“We get to smell the fresh air and we get to see all the pretty birds and sights outside,” she said.
Rupert Elementary School Principal Matt Moyer said by going outdoors, the students are able to put real science into practice instead of only learning by sitting inside.
“In 10 to 15 years, they are going to remember that experience so much more than if they were just in a classroom,” he said.
Morrison said Powered by Nature gives students the opportunity to learn critical science tools with more than a textbook as a reference. She said with the nature program, students are learning that the environment is also a classroom and they can learn by visiting local parks and nature preserves.
“It’s the twist in STEM education. It emphasizes exploration in nature, authentic scientific investigation and character development in order to improve essential academic skills and to help students understand the choices that they have to power and to transform the planet, their community and themselves, she said.
Morrison said it’s great to be able to celebrate the unique program in the Pottstown School District. Stephen Rodriguez, the district’s superintendent, said he is excited as well to have the program available to students. He said the program is invaluable because students are learning how to work with others, how to make good decisions and a “21st century skill of understanding the world around them.”
Next school year, both fourth and fifth grade students will be participating in the program. The following year, grades fourth through sixth will be learning environmental lessons through outdoor education as part of the grant.
Oliver Bass, vice president of communication and engagement at Natural Lands, said the grant is allowing the student to learn from NorthBay instructors as well as provide transportation to green spaces.
“Most importantly, when these kids … get to sixth grade, they’ll be spending a week at the NorthBay nature center on the Chesapeake Bay,” he said.
Rick Garber, NorthBay director of education, said the trip to the bay will be a five-day field science investigation program that’s connected to social and emotional learning as well as character building. Garber said all of lessons taught through the Powered by Nature program are related to the human impacts on water quality.
“It will have a positive, cultural shift in the school and connection with each other and the environment,” he said.
NorthBay Executive Director Keith Williams said the nature center is about helping students realize the choices that they make now will affect their future, the people around them and the environment. Williams said outside education is often thought of as a one-time occurrence which is what makes the Powered by Nature program so unique.
“This (outdoor lessons) is going to happen multiple times a year over multiple years,” he said. “The program we’ve developed in partnerships with Natural Lands Trust, the Pottstown school system and PECO is unheard of nation-wide.”
Morrison said the hope is that through the nature program, students learn more than environmental lessons but also how to become productive members of their community.
“As a result of the outdoor learning experience provided by Powered by Nature, we hope students in Pottstown will learn not just science but they will become passionate stewards of their parks and streams, their nearby forests and fields, and empowered students of their community and their own lives,” she said.
To learn more about the Natural Lands organization and the Powered by Nature program, visit the website natlands.org/what-we-do/connecting-people-to-nature/powered-by-nature.