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Boise School District pilots Environmental Field Experience for sixth graders

Misha Smith, Elementary Teacher

Boise, Idaho

Sixth graders from Highlands Elementary worked with The Watershed to collect water samples at the Boise River to answer the question, “Where does water connect human and natural systems?”

Environmental field trips have been a long standing tradition for sixth graders throughout the Boise School District. Many schools brought their students to MOSS or similar programs at camps in Cascade or McCall to fulfill science curriculum standards in an outdoor setting. Students benefited from immersion in a forest environment, while learning about environmental issues facing Idaho. Unfortunately, due to cost and other factors, many students did not have the opportunity to participate in these week-long programs. During the pandemic, the Boise School District chose to cancel all overnight field trips, and teachers were forced to reevaluate the program.

In 2021, district science supervisor Chris Taylor gathered together a committee of teachers, administrators, and members from private and public environmental education organizations such as Bogus Basin and The City of Boise to create an all new program that would be more equitable and science focused for all 6th graders. The result of this partnership is the Environmental Field Experience.

In the spring of 2022, three elementary schools piloted the week-long outdoor Environmental Field Experience, enabling about 150 sixth graders to spend three full days learning in the field as scientists. Three strands were offered, each answering a different essential question about environmental issues in Idaho. Throughout the week, at school and in the field, students participated in team building activities and gathered data to answer their essential question. At the end of the week, students put together projects and presentations to share what they learned with each other.

Lowell Elementary sixth graders worked with Canyon County Parks to survey plots at Celebration Park to answer the question, “How are humans impacting habitats in the Treasure Valley?”

Hawthorne Elementary sixth graders were one of the first classes to participate in the program. At the Foothills Learning Center, students surveyed and compared two different microclimates to answer the question, “How do natural resources in Idaho’s ecosystem affect biodiversity?” Students were also able to clear a section of the sagebrush ecosystem of an invasive species. The next day they traveled to the MK Nature Center and waded in the Boise River to collect samples of aquatic biodiversity. Finally, the sixth graders helped gather data at the World Center for Birds of Prey from three experimental plots to determine which treatment was working best to eradicate cheat grass in an area affected by wildfire. At school, students tie dyed shirts, roasted s’mores over buddy burners they made in class, and created story boards to share what they learned with their classmates. When asked about their favorite experience, students agreed that the service project clearing invasive species in the foothills was a highlight. “It was so satisfying to see how quickly we could make a difference!” remarked one student.

Sixth graders from Hawthorne Elementary pose proudly with their piles of Mullein, cleared out of an area in the Boise Foothills to make room for native species to grow. Students completed this task as a service project during their Environmental Field Experience last spring.

This fall, eight schools have the opportunity to participate in the new program. A service project component has been added to each strand as well. In four years, the district hopes to expand to include all 33 elementary schools in the Boise School District. Through grants from area programs, along with funds from the science department, the cost has been cut to make the experience more equitable for all sixth graders in the district. “We are really excited about being able to provide this unique experience to all of our students, to give them authentic opportunities to explore and observe like scientists in their own backyard,” Chris Taylor said. “This has all been possible because of our great partnership with local informal education providers. We are so grateful for their hard work.”


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