Educator Spotlight: Channeling Curiosity to Teach Natural Phenomena

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Sonia Saunders, this week’s Educator of the Week, taught her fifth-graders how plants and animals obtain energy by presenting students with three “phenomena.” Through research, creativity, and collaboration, students were able to better understand Earth’s natural processes and see themselves as part of a larger ecosystem.

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Sonia Saunders teaches fifth-grade at Brandywine Springs School in Wilmington, Delaware. Photo courtesy Sonia Saunders

Tell us about your lesson on the food chain, photosynthesis, and healthy ecosystems.

I initiated each lesson with a phenomenon, which is a situation in nature that makes one wonder, “Why?” or, “What caused that to happen?” This approach makes science intriguing!

For the first lesson, the phenomenon was a photo of bones and teeth laying in some grass. The students had to be “Determined Detectives” and look for clues, ask questions, and research to solve the mystery of why the bones and teeth were there. This prompted a lesson on the food chain and the ways animals get the energy they need to survive.

From there, I wanted to show my students how plants obtain their energy. I showed them two terrariums, one with healthy, green grass growing inside and the other with yellowed, withered, and mossy-looking grass. They dug deeper and discovered the processes of photosynthesis and water absorption.

Because water is such an integral part of both the food chain and photosynthesis, I then presented my students with two water samples, including one with added salt. I asked, “Is it really clean? Is it healthy? How can you tell? Why does it matter to ecosystems? To humans?” After some research about water distribution, watersheds, and water quality, we turned our attention to some problems in our environment, such as pesticides, sulfates, and acid rain, specifically in the Chesapeake Bay and the Delaware Bay. My students loved having the opportunity to be creative, innovative, and debate as responsible changemakers!

For the second unit of the lesson, students had to figure out why one terrarium had healthy grass and one had unhealthy grass. The answer? One terrarium was placed in the sun, the other in the shade. Photo by Sonia Saunders

What did your students take away from this project?

My goal was for my students to understand the delicate balance and interdependencies of our environment. I wanted them to be curious and explore through observation. I wanted them to make connections between the phenomena we explored in class and how they reoccur in other locations and real-world events. As a result of comprehending that we, as humans, are a part of an ecosystem and depend on the sun, air, water, plants, and animals, they realized that we are all stewards of our Earth. Each one of us is responsible for protecting nature’s balance. As students read and learned about current environmental issues, they felt empowered by this understanding and had the tools to make a difference.

How did you get into teaching?

I think I was always teaching, ever since I can remember. It just happened naturally. Everything I did and learned as I grew up, in college and throughout my teaching profession, has involved appreciating and considering human dynamics and how they are influenced by environmental factors in the natural world. My desire is to teach students to experience life dynamically; respect others for their uniqueness and individuality; to protect the inter-dependencies of our natural environment; and to find peaceful and respectful solutions to problems in our communities as well as across the globe.

Students went on a field trip to learn about classifying macroinvertebrates. Photo by Sonia Saunders

What advice can you give to other educators who want to introduce real-life environmental issues in the classroom?

I’d like to pass on the advice that was given to me: think big, start small. As educators, we need to think of the end goal, but it’s impossible to micro-plan every step. Plan out the phases in which you’d like your students to progress, then focus on the first phase. Start small by making connections to authentic situations in your students’ lives. It’s as easy as connecting the world issue of clean water to the water that is sitting in their water bottle, in the sink or in the water fountain down the hall.

Give the students a tactile experience with natural materials to encourage their use of senses and focused observation. Utilize partner and group work to emphasize collaboration, discussion, and sharing. Talk to your students about what they want to learn about and allow them to contribute to the direction of the lesson. Remember to stop intermittently to appreciate and acknowledge how the human systems and natural worlds weave together. Have students look out the window or go for a walk to find other examples of natural events occurring in their world.

After that, discuss causes and effects of imbalances in environments, as well as the unintended consequences of human activity and what we can do to prevent them. Help students to realize that this understanding is powerful. It will lead them to further research, analysis, reasoning, and actions to take for the betterment of our world. And finally, show your excitement! They will follow your lead; your energy and passion are contagious!

A student makes a new friend during a hands-on outdoor learning activity. Photo by Sonia Saunders

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.

One thought on “Educator Spotlight: Channeling Curiosity to Teach Natural Phenomena

  1. although curiosity is a natural phenomena but mostly people are not allowed either the society, family, circumstances not allow the young students to follow their curiosity by choosing it in the career of formal academics which will boost their skill and new innovations will be easy to students and they can easily came forward

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