Fulton Elementary School – the recent recipient of 19 trees and more than 300 shrubs and perennials – turned its enhanced school grounds green space into an outdoor laboratory last month with the help of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy’s Scientists in Schools pilot project.
On one sunny day in the middle of May, a group of fifth graders gathered around WPC ecologists Chris Tracey and Pete Woods as they discussed the differences between wild plants and cultivated plants. Using wild onions and garlic mustard growing in the school’s green space as an example, scientists discussed with the class some of the techniques that they use to identify plants in the wild. The class then discussed the importance of native species and the impact of invasive plants.
This was just one many activities WPC staff coordinated for the Scientists in Schools participants in Fulton Elementary School’s Nature Yard. Conservancy staff coordinated and participated in the pilot project, a program that introduces Pittsburgh-area school students to ecologists, botanists and other scientists and encourages children to explore science through interactive activities.
The school, located in the Highland Park neighborhood of Pittsburgh, received trees and other enhancements to its pre-existing Nature Yard through WPC’s School Grounds Greening project. It was also the first school to respond when the Conservancy advertised the Scientists in Schools program in a quarterly e-newsletter.
WPC staff worked with teachers throughout the planning process to ensure that each activity was tailored and grade-level appropriate. These interactive activities used the greenery planted on the school grounds as examples, along with materials that scientists use in the field every day. The project leveraged the in-depth knowledge of WPC’s ecologists and botanists to bring outdoor learning to life.
At the event in early May, WPC field staff Lorelle Sherman and WPC intern Suzee King took fourth-grade students on a walk around the Nature Yard to identify plants such as star magnolias, creeping phlox, weeping cherry and paperbark maples. The students were studying the food chain in science class, so WPC staff discussed what adaptations plants might have in order to avoid becoming food. The thorned roses in the Nature Yard were used as a case study.
The day closed with a scavenger hunt, in which students were prompted to find a plant that was fragrant, listen to a sound made by nature and locate a spot that an animal or insect could use to hide.
At the second event, WPC ecologist Ephraim Zimmerman and King talked to a third-grade class about what plants and soil do for each other, what weeds are and how weeds can affect the soil quality for other plants. Students examined plants preserved in a plant press and talked about why scientists collect the type of plants they do. The activity ended with a nature-based scavenger hunt.
In addition to a discussion about wild and cultivated plants, the third Scientists in Schools session engaged fifth-grade students in a discussion about moss.
In all, Scientists in Schools gave about 150 students an opportunity to connect with WPC botanists, horticulturalist and ecologists, explore nature in a familiar setting and see the landscape at their school with new eyes. The pilot program also heightened students’ knowledge of the ecosystem in which they live and how they are connected to nature locally.