Environmental education is expanding in schools across the Roaring Fork Valley. The Aspen Center for Environmental Studies grew its teaching programs over the last two years to include schools like Basalt Elementary and Carbondale’s Crystal River Elementary school. As Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen reports, studies show schools with environmental programs score higher on standardized tests.
Environmental educator Melanie Poole instructs a group of kindergarten students plopped down in a semi-circle. Today’s lesson is about duck adaptations.
"So, then you’re going to start to hatch. You’ll peck with your beak just a little bit on the edge of a shell. Oh man! That’s tiring!"
Once these mallard ducklings break free from their shells, Poole encourages them to venture out of their nests. What ensues is cuteness or chaos, depending on who you ask.
"Alright little ducklings, let’s go!"
This lesson on ecology is part of the environmental education curriculum ACES brings to schools like Aspen. The educators are employed by the non-profit, but in some cases, act as primary science teachers for grades kindergarten through fourth grade.
"I personally see K through 4, that age range, as a great and critical time for students to learn fundamental concepts of ecology," says Arin Trook.
He's the Education Director at ACES. The organization’s had a presence in the Aspen schools for 35 years but it’s expanding its reach. This school year, the group projects it will reach over 5000 students in the Roaring Fork Valley. Trook says the hands-on, often outdoor, lessons help students identify themselves as scientists.
"Kindergartners, first graders, second graders have just an incredible ability to observe the details of the world and so we try to capitalise on that and cultivate their scientific lens through that."
And, the benefits of environmental education aren’t just in science. The National Environmental Education Foundation reports scores in reading, social studies and math improve when environmental education is part of the curriculum. Aspen Superintendent of Schools John Maloy says the programs help with students’ comprehensive education.
"Looking at some of our science scores, I certainly believe that the partnership we have with ACES, the additional attention we’re giving to science and environmental education, helps our students to be much more well rounded and aware of environmental issues," he says.
Studies show environmental education builds critical thinking skills, which is an important component in new testing at the Aspen schools. The Common Core standards include test questions that focus on problem solving, critical thinking and analysis.
Back in the classroom, a new group of students, first grader’s, is learning about animals that live under the snow.
ACES comes up with its own curriculum and the school district approves it. Besides science, educators integrate language arts, creative arts and math into the lessons. Education Director Arin Trook says he thinks all education is environmental.
"With the nature of the world that we live in, and the social, environmental and political issues that we’re facing, having that strong foundation in ecological literacy is really what these students need to succeed."
ACES focuses on K through 4th grade students, but also has programming in middle and high schools in the Valley.