Monday, July 9, 2012

Teachers trek to the forest to study plant life

Margie Beedle of Juneau came to Fairbanks to attend the STEAM Institute and learn how to make illustrated botanical books.

On a warm July afternoon the UAF north campus trail was sprinkled with teachers intent on studying the flora in front of them. The participants in the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) Institute were so focused on their work that the forest echoed with silence except for the panting of occasional passing joggers.

“This will bring the real world into the classroom,” said Karen Stomberg, Fairbanks North Star Borough School District art educator. “This ignites or continues a passion for being outdoors and responding to beauty. It helps them understand what is happening in the ecosystem.

“This is a micro to macro way to look at plants.”

The 19 teachers or retired teachers in the workshop, sponsored by SNRAS, OneTree and Boreal House, spent July 9 in the woods at UAF. Each had been assigned a particular plant to observe, study, draw, preserve and get up close and personal with. By the end of the week the result will be illustrated botanical books and a mini-species distribution map of the area's plant life.

“We are drawing from observation, not from symbols,” said instructor Mareca Guthrie, curator of fine arts at the UA Museum of the North. “Everybody gets a copy. We’re doing classroom and field work all week. It’s a fun thing to do. There is a real exciting kind of synthesis.”

Margie Beedle, a teacher from Juneau, spent Monday getting to know “her” plant, Corydalis sempervirens (rock harlequin). “It’s a new one for me,” she said. While she finds drawing a wonderful pastime, she also sees it as a useful tool with students. “It helps kids quiet down and hones their observation skills,” she said. “Integrating art in the classroom is important. It helps students notice what is around them when they are outside and gets them more interested in the natural world.”

Randy Smith Middle School teacher Chris Pastro was huddled over horsetail. “How many times have I looked at horsetail and not noticed the nodes?” she asked. In the area assigned to her she counted over 50 horsetail plants. In her research she had learned that the roots can go as deep as 40 inches. “They’re rally quite fascinating,” she said.

Pastro is helping with the workshop by showing teachers how to take what they learn this week back to their classrooms. “Our goal is to empower teachers to get kids out and feel competent and observe, to learn some of the science we are integrating,” Pastro said. Throughout the workshop she is creating podcasts about the project to demonstrate to the teachers that they can do that with students too.

For her, it will be a wonderful result when every school library features “beautiful but science-rich books” like the ones being created at STEAM.

Extended Learning teacher at Joy and Ladd Elementary Schools Sandra O’Connor is excited to share what she learns with her students. “This is going to be so neat to do with the kids in the fall,” she said. “I like for the kids to be outside the classroom and I’m fascinated with book-making. The kids will like the hands-on of being outside and sketching useful art.”

The STEAM Institute, offered through UAF Summer Sessions, gives teachers the opportunity to work with professional botanists and artists in a scientific and artistic exploration of the flora of the local boreal ecosystem. It continues through July 13.

Margo Klass, book artist, was delighted with her finds in the forest. She will lead the participants in making botanical books.

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