National Grid Foundation Teachers
In the riparian canyons and coniferous forests of Arizona, a suite of small forest owls, many no bigger than your hand, find their homes in the cavities and hollow openings of aspen trees. However, climate change is wiping out aspen forests in these areas, threatening the routine of some of these species. Warmer temperatures could also affect the timing of when insects emerge from eggs or mice emerge from burrows, disturbing the food sources owls rely on during their breeding season. To help safeguard these species in the face of a changing world, scientists need to gather information on the owls’ habitats, breeding habits, and the ways that climate change is impacting both.
Thanks to support from the National Grid Foundation, four teachers were able to travel to this unique ecosystem and spend seven days working alongside scientists and other teachers to understand the impacts climate change will have on owls and other wildlife. During the day, the fellows trekked through the forest, locating tree cavities and recording their location. At night, they listened for the unique booping and tooting of Flammulated owls and Northern Saw-whet owls while they surveyed for, captured, and banded the owls flying through the forest. The data collected by these teachers will help researchers understand which strategies will best address the disturbances climate change will cause and protect owl habitats across their ranges.
During this hands-on field research experience, the teachers not only helped collect critical data on owl ecology in Arizona, but they also gained the knowledge and confidence necessary to teach immersive science in their own classrooms. They collaborated on lesson plans and will bring this experience back to the students in their classrooms, ultimately impacting hundreds of students each year. Below, each of the National Grid Teach Earth Fellows shares their experiences in the field and how they’ll bring their new knowledge back to their classrooms.
9th grade English Language Arts Teacher
I was originally attracted to the Teach Earth Fellowship because I love to travel and experience nature in new and unique ways. As a 9th grade ELA teacher, I have found numerous barriers towards collaborating with the science department, so I decided to apply to this fellowship in the hopes of bridging some of the gaps in my own scientific understanding that have been making meaningful collaboration difficult.
While the most interesting parts of the trip were definitely catching owls at night, finding scorpions on the road, and swimming in a waterfall on a hot midsummer Arizona afternoon, the most transformative part has been the growth of my own self-perception as a valuable and contributing member of the scientific research community. This shift in thinking about my own role in conservationism and newfound ability to apply the scientific process will make me a better, more well-rounded teacher. I haven’t just learned a new, very specific, skill set; I have reimagined who I am in relation to the natural world and what I can offer others in terms of discovering and preserving the wonders of this world.
I am so grateful for the opportunities this trip has provided me, and for the curiosity and drive towards inquiry and exploration that it has reawakened within me. I can’t wait to see how my experience in the field enhances my classroom this year, as I have excitedly started planning for the next school year with a focus on sustainability and environmental education. I have been imagining outdoor classes, trips to the arboretum, place-based writing opportunities, nature journaling and maybe even the creation of a classroom-based indoor vertical garden. The world is only as small as we allow it to be, and in one week it seems to have grown so much bigger, full of renewed possibility and intrigue.
Teacher Librarian, Grades K–3
Pauline Agassiz Shaw Elementary School
I applied for this fellowship because place-based learning opportunities have been the most memorable, influential experiences in my life. I wanted to continue building my own knowledge while surrounded by nature, studying how the human and natural worlds interact. I believe that the only way we can improve society and our environment is by recognizing the relationship between the two. By sparking my own curiosity, I hoped to inspire my students, letting them know that anyone can make a difference in an area they are passionate about and make lasting change.
The most transformative part of the expedition was getting to participate in actively catching and banding wild owls. There is nothing that can compare to looking into the eyes of a wild owl, feeling humbled and grateful for the opportunity to get a quick glimpse into their lives. It’s a reminder that we share this planet with many creatures and it’s up to us to help protect that incredible diversity.
I left this experience with a renewed appreciation and curiosity about the natural world. This experience has made me a better teacher by reminding me just how important it is to make time for meaningful work. Throughout this experience we were given lots of time to engage in conversations about ideas, build background knowledge and immerse ourselves in the topic, explore a wide range of resources, and make sense of information to reflect on questions that shaped the overall research process. Sharing photographs from the trip has allowed me to create a story that will connect people to the Chiricahua Mountains and the idea of protecting not just owls, but an entire biodiversity hotspot.
This expedition helped me create a unit about birds for my first-grade students. I now have enough resources to teach my students to understand the significance of birds in the world; more specifically, I will be teaching students how birds’ anatomical parts contribute to their survival. Then, students will study different bird species and identify ways in which we can protect these animals and their habitats.
K–5 Teacher, English Second Language
Philbrick Elementary School
I have been using our schoolyard and garden for many years now to teach second language learners about gardening and the natural world. I will be teaching science for kindergarten through grade 4 in the fall, and I wanted to experience a research project for myself, so I decided to apply for Teach Earth Fellowship. I was accepted into Following Forest Owls in the Western US, a research program that documents how climate change is disrupting the nesting sites of several species of small owls. During the day we mapped and searched for potential nesting sites along a riparian canyon at the Southwest Research Station in Portal Arizona in the Chiricahua Mountains.
It was transformative to sit on a deserted mountain road in the night listening for owl calls, then catching and banding the owls. It was also exciting to measure and identify trees and locations where the owls would be in the day time. I loved learning the elements of a field study— the knowledge gained by the careful observation, recording of data, the repetition and focus that leads to deep knowledge of a subject which can contribute to a larger good. This is what I want to bring back to my students; to slow down and focus on an animal or plant or phenomena of the natural world whether it is across the country or right here in our schoolyard. I want them to conduct their own studies and search for their own answers and connect what they learned to a larger understanding of the natural world. To do so is to not just gain knowledge but to gain knowledge with a sense of wonder, and I want that for them.
Kindergarten Classroom Teacher
Mattahunt Elementary School
Teaching during the COVID-19 crisis has been challenging in so many ways. As a kindergarten teacher in a city setting, I have seen how many of my students have not been able to build a connection with the outdoors. Pandemic fears and economic stresses related to the pandemic have kept families from many of the opportunities that would normally be available.
When I learned of the Earthwatch opportunity, I applied right away. I hoped that it would reinvigorate my passion for teaching by providing me an opportunity to learn something new amongst a cohort of people who had faced similar challenges, while also helping me build my capacity for helping students access nature in a way that supports their learning. The expedition blew past my expectations on the very first night, when principal investigator Dr. Dave Oleyar and his team guided us into our very first encounter with a Whiskered Screech-Owl.
The expedition taught me about the rigor and intensity required for scientific field work and research, while showing me the beautiful interconnectedness of animals, plants, and the environment. I was humbled by the scale and beauty of the Chiricahua Mountains, enchanted with the owls, and inspired by the generosity of each and every person at the Southwest Research Station. Every person at the station had something to share; a kind word of advice, a story, a piece of gear, and even an encounter with a king snake!
As I return to my kindergarten classroom this fall, I hope to not only create opportunities for my students to experience the wonder of the natural world, but also to foster an environment that values each and every student’s stories and experiences. As a class, we will work on an observation-based multimedia mural, cataloging the plants, animals, and seasonal environmental features of our school yard. Through this project, I hope to get my students excited about our local environment, build their familiarity with our animal neighbors, and help them understand concepts related to weather and seasons. I hope I can capture for my students the same feeling of excitement and optimism that the Earthwatch Teach Earth expedition brought me!
A special thank you to the National Grid Foundation for funding these teachers’ fellowships!