Educator Spotlight: Sparking Wonder in the Schoolyard

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Stephanie Buttell-Maxin, this week’s Educator of the Week, challenged her students to take a much closer look at their own “backyard.” While identifying species, the class also discovered a deeper sense of responsibility for their local ecosystem. Stephanie teaches third grade at Kimball School in National City, California.

Stephanie introduces a map of Paradise Creek to the class. Photo by Evan Schell

You recently hosted a BioBlitz in the salt marsh creek adjacent to your school. What was that experience like?
During our BioBlitz, the students—with the help of adult volunteers—located, identified, and cataloged the plants and animals in Paradise Creek in National City. We collected data, selected samples and posted them to the website

Students wanted to learn and know everything about Paradise Creek. And while they already knew what it meant to be responsible for documenting their work, this experience added on a layer of understanding about what it meant to be responsible for a space that they previously had not considered “theirs.”

Why do you think the BioBlitz was so powerful?
It taps into a child’s natural curiosity and integrates so many lessons in a natural way. They have so much fun that sometimes they don’t even realize that they are learning. The “want to, need to, and how do I apply this?” come together in a mutually supportive way. The students become the ones in charge of their learning. They have the power to acquire and use the information they need.

Students can also use what they have learned and apply it to other situations. They can be agents of change. They can contribute to the community as young citizens. They don’t have to wait until they are older.

For example, in the time since my students did our BioBlitz, they have used what they learned to participate in a community forum regarding the development of a city-owned green space near the creek and create artwork for the next National City Stormwater Calendar contest.

Is there a particular memory that stands out from your BioBlitz experience when a student had an “aha” moment?
There was an incredible moment when a group of students literally lived life at “a snail’s pace.” They sat in a circle around a milk snail and watched it as it emerged from its shell. They were simply mesmerized—whether because they had never seen something like that before or were truly living in the moment. They appreciated what this small creature could teach them through thoughtful and careful observation.

Students sit near the creek describing attributes of rocks they find. Photo by Evan Schell

What advice would you give a teacher who is interested in bringing learning outside but isn’t sure where to begin?
The best advice I can give is start with something simple and close to home. It is the discovery of something unexpected and previously unobserved in familiar surroundings that unlocks the door to wonder. An ant, worm, blade of grass or ground squirrel take on a whole new look with a hand lens or pair of binoculars and provides endless conversation and teachable moments.

Anything else you’d like to add?
I just want to give a shout out to everyone with whom I have had the pleasure of working with and learning from during my 23 years as a member of the California Geographic Alliance and participant in the institutes provided by National Geographic. My students and I are much richer because of their influence.

This interview has been edited and condensed.


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The Educator Spotlight series features inspiring activities and lessons that educators are implementing with their students that connect them to the world in bold and exciting ways.

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