On a path along the bay, six students are standing in a row, peering intently through binoculars. They watch as an avocet careens over the marsh. They are captivated by the bird’s quick, smooth flight. Lowering their binoculars, the students chime together in a long chorus: “Cooool!”
These moments make field trips so special at the Environmental Volunteers.
For students and teachers at L.P. Collins Elementary School in Cupertino, a visit from the Environmental Volunteers is a special experience.
For students, it means they can touch soft feathers, taste salty pickleweed, and get their hands nice and muddy—right in their classroom. A follow-up field trip means they can see these plants and birds in their natural habitat. For teachers, it means that students are participating in hands-on learning and making connections to their science curriculum. For Volunteers, it means having a role in nurturing a child’s love of nature.
At the beginning of a field trip in March, Volunteer Jeff Englander hands out binoculars to the students in his small group. Within moments, discovery is taking place.
“Do you see any plants that look like pickles?”
“Yes! Right there!”
“What would tell you that it’s pickleweed?”
“It looks like little pickles!”
“Whose going to be brave enough to taste it?” Every hand goes up.
“What do you think it tastes like?”
“It tastes like salt!”
“Why does it taste like salt?”
“Because it soaks up the salt water.”
Through pickleweed and other plants like salt grass, students are learning about marsh plant adaptations. And Teachers Harumi Gong and Shawn Davis love seeing how excited their second graders are to learn science concepts from the volunteers.
“The kids love the EVs,” says Ms. Gong, 2nd grade teacher at Collins School. “The classroom visits set them up, and it allows them to get really close up to what they’re learning about. The mud is always a big hit. Their hands are muddy, and they see the plants and animals up close. What’s special is that the EV brings the Baylands into the classroom. “
The EV has been visiting Mr. Davis’ and Ms. Gong’s classrooms for over five years.
“The students are excited when they see the birds and plants in real life. It is fun for them to be outdoors,” says Mr. Davis.
“With the help of the EV, my students start to make connections,” Ms. Gong says. “We’ve learned about salt water and fresh water. They’ve learned that the marsh is special because it has both. When I asked them, “Do you think there is more fresh water or salt water in the world?” they said fresh water. Then they found out that the world’s water is mostly in the ocean, which they’ve learned is salty. They are starting to talk about water and why it is important to conserve it.”
What the students learn with the EV also ties into the classroom’s science unit.
In Ms. Gong’s classroom, the students are growing Brassica, a genus of plants in the mustard family. There is plenty of wild mustard growing in the Baylands, and the students identify it immediately by the crowns of yellow flowers.
Back on the trail, Jeff’s students run up to a mustard plant and yell “BRASSICA!”
“They can tell you a lot about Brassica,” Ms. Gong says with a smile.
Debbie, a second grader, is watching a group of ducks through her binoculars. They are learning about the differences between dabbling and diving ducks. Volunteer Jeff coaxes her to share with the group what she sees.
“What can you see about the bird’s beak?” he asks.
“The beak I see right now is a triangle, but flatter,” Debbie says. All her friends are looking to see what she is describing.
“Why do you think its beak is like that?”
“So it can scoop food out of the water,” Debbie says.
Debbie lowers her binoculars and a smile creeps across her face. “Dabbling duck, diving duck! They sound like my name! I could be dabbling Debbie duck!”
“Out here, the students have tons of questions for the volunteers,” Mr. Davis says when commenting on his students’ growth. “The vocabulary alone – they are naming things like isopod and dodder. They come out to the Baylands and they know the names of plants, insects, and birds. They are so stimulated by what they see.” And for teachers, stimulation is a sign of engagement.
“Can we touch the water?” A students begs, and Jeff gives in. “It’s not what we usually do, but okay.” The students lie flat so they can reach both hands into the bay water. The students comment on how the sun glistens on the little waves, how cool the water is, and how the algae and mud float on the surface of the water. Minutes later, six pairs of muddy hands come out of the water. There are “Ew’s” and crinkled noses, and requests for soap and water.
But the field trip must go on, muddy hands and all.
Groups of students pass by each other as they leave the dock. They yell out: “We made a new discovery!” “I saw a hundred snails!” “We got to touch the water!” The students can hardly wait to tell their friends what they had seen, tasted, and touched.
At the end of the field trip, Jeff asks his students to share about their field trip. “What was your favorite thing today?” Hands fly into the air. Surprisingly, many of the students say their favorite thing was the yuckiest thing: “I liked sticking my hands into the muddy water!”
Jeff beams. “At first, I was hesitant to let them touch the water,” he says. “But the students really wanted to. So I let them. And I’m glad I did.”
by Kristi Wilson, Marketing and Communications Director