Environment Initiative Takes Students to Wildlife

Seventh grade students, along with their teacher Ms. Kemp, were gathered in the woods of Staten Island, finding and inspecting salamanders. The same students also went on a field trip to Black Rock Forest in the Hudson Highlands, 50 miles north of the city, in September to document salamanders there, as part of a drive to get children outdoors and practically learning about their environment, writes Lisa W. Foderaro at the New York Times.

In addition to the red-backed salamander, Ms. Kemp’s students uncovered the eastern newt, while other school groups found salamanders of different species. The groups will now return to the classroom and enter their data on computers, giving the city’s scientists fresh comparisons between urban salamanders and their country cousins.

This comes after Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced plans for a program to encourage schools and communities to commit to healthier and more sustainable facilities and to provide environmental awareness education to their students.

The program, which is being developed with the Environmental Protection Agency and the White House Council for Environmental Quality, is meant to identify and praise schools for reducing environmental impact of schools, building a healthy environment for staff and students, and have an education component that supports those goals.

“You can do labs all day in the classroom, but it’s not the same as getting out there and seeing how research actually happens,” said Ms. Kemp, who graduated from Columbia University with a degree in environmental biology. “It reinforces the scientific method.”

For some students, like Savanah Hernandez, this trip was their first visit to the woods. Sarah Aucoin, director of the parks department’s Urban Park Rangers, said she was struck by the students’ receptiveness:

“For many of the students, it was their first time looking under a rock,” she said. “I walked up on plenty of children with millipedes crawling on their arms. Young people have a natural affinity for nature, particularly for wildlife. People learn to become squeamish. But if we can get them out there early enough and turn that curiosity into scientific inquiry, then we’re getting them on the right path.”

Along with studying salamanders and insects, the students were asked to do other things, such as measuring the depth of the leaf litter and to estimate the size of the tree canopy overhead.

The big idea that the students were hoped to take away is the “web of life” and how even things like downed trees and leaf litter enhance that web. That message seemed to get across to Melanie Smith, 11, an aspiring marine biologist who found a red-backed salamander (with stripe) under a log.

“Each animal has a job,” she said as she walked back through fallen leaves to a waiting bus. “It’s like a little community.”