Lyanne Abreu, this week’s Educator of the Week, connected her urban students with the natural world through a challenge offered by the Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden in Coral Gables, Florida. Students learned about native and migratory bird species in South Florida, and collected data, made observations at specific sites and documented their findings in journals. They visited Everglades National Park and participated in Audubon’s Great Backyard Bird Count.
What inspired you to get your students involved in birding through a program hosted by the Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden?
My students live in an urban environment and don’t really feel connected to the natural world. They haven’t gone kayaking or swimming; they’ve never gone to the Florida Everglades or gone birding. I try to get them outside and stepping beyond their comfort zones, so they realize Florida is more than just the urban areas. We depend on these natural systems that they don’t see every day. I find that learning about birds helps connect students to plants as well, and the Fairchild Challenge gave me a foundation to structure the birding lab I wanted to do with my students.
What types of activities did students do as part of the Fairchild Challenge?
South Florida is a major resting place for migrating birds, and the challenge focused on mapping the biodiversity of bird species in this area. Students visited shrub sites and tree sites to observe and collect data, which they shared via Google Docs and iNaturalist, an app for species identification. They created observational journals illustrating and describing behaviors, sounds, colors, and types of organisms. They had to research scientific names of plants and animals and learn how to create a scientific study. This challenge engaged my students and helped them focus on the little things they didn’t notice before.
How did you notice this project affecting your students?
Initially they would go to their site and expect to see something right away. But that’s not going to happen! They were bummed at first when no birds were around, and I would encourage them to just try—identify a plant, or an insect, or a lizard. It taught them about the power of patience and the value of delayed gratification, and over time, they became better observers of the world around them.
My students learned to focus on the smaller things, like the lizards basking in the sun, ants crawling on leaves, or the effect of noise pollution on possible bird sightings. They began questioning things they hadn’t recognized before. It was refreshing to see their captivation with wild spaces and their interest in birds. They made keen observations and documented them effectively, communicating their findings via language, data, and illustrations to the greater scientific community.
Ultimately, my students developed a heightened level of awareness about the natural world and a greater sense of responsibility for it. One student worked with her former elementary school to create an organism scavenger hunt for an after-school program, and she’s also collecting seeds and growing native plants in places around our school to attract birds, insects, and lizards. You never know how much impact you’ll have when you introduce a topic, but when I see students push forward like that, it gives me meaning.
What do you hope students will learn from your classes?
I try to give them a sense of perspective. There are a lot of different ways to see something, and they need to look at issues from multiple perspectives before they decide what route to take or what their beliefs are. I want them to challenge what they hear and look for the truth.
Also, I believe you have to have fun in high school. If students don’t laugh and enjoy what they’re learning, they won’t try to pursue those fields later on.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Do you know a great educator who teaches about our world? Nominate a colleague or yourself as the next Educator of the Week!
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.