Adventures in a Bottomland Hardwood Forest
In New Orleans, bottomland hardwood forests lined the Mississippi River before European settlement, agriculture and levees changed the hydrology. This is the case for A Studio in the Woods (ASITW), which is located in a New Orleans bottomland hardwood forest created by past sediment-laden flood waters rising over Mississippi River banks. From about 10,000 years ago until the mid 1700s, the land was untouched by human interference. However, in the 1750s the forest was logged and by the 1800s the land had become part of a sugarcane plantation. Since 1920 the land has remained fallow allowing nature to recreate its original bottomland hardwood forest system. With help from its wetland botanist, ASITW has been actively supporting and researching this forest revitalization since 2004.
Coinciding with continued forest restoration is the renewal of our city’s education system, which has included incorporating alternative methods for students to learn science concepts, use language arts skills and experience culture and history. ASITW provides an ideal outdoor setting to implement these alternative teaching methods combining science, language arts, history and art, and the realization of the interdependence on all life. An education program was piloted in this recovering wetland ecosystem in the Spring of 2007 and 2008 with 8th and 6th grade Algiers Charter School students. Still in a pilot phase, the program and associated Educator Guide and Student Field Book, Nature’s Classroom: Adventures in a Bottomland Hardwood Forest, focuses on the subject of ecology so that students may understand how our wetland environment works, why we all need to appreciate the wonders and benefits of wetland flora and fauna, and what we can do to protect them. The guide was written to be implemented at ASITW, by ASITW educators for upper elementary school students, however most of the activities can be implemented elsewhere and adapted for primary to high school students.
All activities are hands-on, experiential, and vital to developing problem solving techniques and critical thinking skills. To prepare teachers and students, each activity has a framework including a summary, background information, objectives, student preparation, the process, student assessment and extensions. Some activities offer vocabulary to acquaint teachers and students with activity topics (glossary at the end of guide). The Educator Guide is divided into three sets of activities: Outdoor Immersion, Wetland Ecology, and Art in Nature. Although most of the activities immerse students into the outdoor world, there are a few essential activities that specifically help students become more comfortable with the natural environment. Louisiana Benchmarks for Grade Level Expectations of 4th through 8th grade students are provided at the end of the guide to help teachers assess how the program improves academic achievement.
Based on pre and post testing assessments, this program has helped students improve their wetland ecology knowledge. Students physically experience nature, record observations, formulate questions, look for answers, make conclusions, and express themselves creatively, while advancing their understanding of how their lives are connected to the wetlands.
EDUCATOR GUIDE ACTIVITY SUMMARIES
“Sensory Walk” – Students quiet their voices in order to use their senses of sight, hearing and smell as they walk along a forested path. Students share the sights, sounds and smells they experience.
“Collect Your Senses” – Students heighten their sense of touch as they are temporarily relieved of their sense of sight. Each student will collect a variety of items from nature and share them with others.
“Wetlands Scramble” – Students become code breakers to figure out what type of wetland they are visiting. Secrets are revealed about the wetlands as they use their senses.
“Getting the Dirt on Wetlands” – Students see, touch and smell layers of soil that imply land building over time and the types of plants that can grow there. Answers to questions about soil types are sought by investigating several sites by digging holes, observing, touching and classifying soils found.
“Alluvial Pans” – Students are engineers creating different landscapes along a river and simulating flood events. Sedimentation, stormwater absorption and change due to natural events will be observed based on the height of levees and the amount of wetlands they have in their landscapes.
“Leaves Everywhere” – Students are plant ecologists collecting leaves and investigating leaf texture, shape and venation. Leaves then become subjects of colorful artistic expression.
“Life on the Line” – Students create transects and plots on the ground and identify plants living in each plot. This activity provides an understanding of plant community diversity. Students may study the plots over time.
“CSI: Dead or Alive?” – Students are on the job as Crime Scene Investigators answering: is this tree dead or alive? Students identify signs of life and death on fallen trees through a process of elimination.
“Water Vitals” – Using microscopes and hand lenses students measure vital signs of two water bodies by investigating water quality characteristics and identifying aquatic organisms.
“Bird Watch” – Students might not be able to see birdlife, but they can certainly many birds. Students track and map different bird songs inspiring a musical interpretation.
“Insect Superheros” – Students find themselves in the world of insects as they pick through decaying branches and stumps. Students translate what they see into comic strips.
Art in Nature
“Your Image of Nature” – Students learn how to draw images they see in nature and come to understand that science would be misunderstood if it were not for our interpretation of visual images.
“We Shape the Earth” – Students shape soil into a sculpture using clay collected directly from the earthen ground. They are introduced to how humans first discovered the usefulness of clay to their lives. Students collect the clay, form and fire it in a bonfire, much as earliest peoples did.
“Poetry Slam” – Students brainstorm, use imagery, metaphors and similes in nature to inspire written poetry. Similar to poetry slam events, students orally express their creative writing.