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In early June, a group of Louisiana educators spent a week in floating cabins on the west bank of the Mississippi River in the sweltering heat.
“Teacher summer camp,” Aimee Hollander, an assistant professor and director of Nicholls State University’s Center for Teaching Excellence, jokingly called it. “Because that’s what it felt like,” Hollander said. “Every day we went on a new field trip and we got to meet all these cool scientists and do and see the scientific phenomena in real life.”
Hollander is a co-principal investigator of a Louisiana project that seeks to fill a gap in the education of the state’s science teachers. Nicholls State’s department of teacher education, in partnership with Louisiana State University’s school of education and the Louisiana Sea Grant program based at the university, was awarded a two-year National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration grant for the project.
The project will use place-based learning to provide professional development to teachers across the state by establishing a partnership between science researchers and educators to create lessons on Louisiana’s environmental issues, educate teachers about the state’s coastal challenges and unique ecosystems, and teach them how to collect, analyze and contribute to a database of environmental samples.
“Anytime we can connect our classroom learning to the real world, especially our real world, it really engages kids and so for me, that’s been a motivating factor.”
Ali McMillan, an instructional coach and intervention specialist at West Feliciana Middle School, Louisiana
Hollander said the project, which is structured as a fellowship, is set up to look at both aquatic and terrestrial science phenomena in the state, as well as social studies elements because “there is a lot of history around that changing landscape of Louisiana and the cultural groups that are affected as well.”
Ali McMillan, an instructional coach and intervention specialist at West Feliciana Middle School in West Feliciana Parish, is one of 20 educators participating in the program. McMillan, who teaches in a rural southeast part of the state, said the geography of her school is one reason she applied to the fellowship.
“Many of [my students], being rural, spend a lot of their free time outdoors,” she said. “Anytime we can connect our classroom learning to the real world, especially our real world, it really engages kids and so for me, that’s been a motivating factor.”
Related: Teaching global warming in a charged political climate
McMillan said going out of the classroom and getting field experience was a step out of her comfort zone. The most meaningful part of the summer camp, she said, was learning that the Mississippi Delta faces challenges similar to those in other areas that are experiencing land loss, but that “our Delta region is so unique and it’s experiencing that in a much larger way.”
Every morning of the summer camp, teachers went into the field to learn about the Louisiana wetlands and how the Mississippi River Delta has changed. Researchers and scientists shared the ways different economic, infrastructure, and environmental factors are altering Louisiana’s coastline. Often, the group came back with artifacts like tree core samples to share with their students when school starts in the fall.
After the field work, the teachers were placed in small groups — based on which grade level they taught — to learn how to develop lesson plans for their students and other educators based on what they had learned. They were guided in this effort by educators like Hollander, her co-principal investigators Pam Blanchard and Danielle DiIullo, and Blake Touchet, a teacher support partnership specialist with the nonprofit National Center for Science Education (NCSE).
During the summer camp, Touchet’s lessons on “changing climate and adaptation” were the most popular, according to Hollander. “We got nailed with so many storms during the Covid pandemic, so it was the most interesting topic to our teachers because no one is immune to hurricanes and tropical storms in our state.”
Teachers in the fellowship will work with Hollander, Touchet and others this year to create and implement the lesson plans in their classrooms. The goal is to make them available as open resources for educators not only across Louisiana but other states that are being affected by climate disasters, Hollander said.
Related: Climate change: Are we ready?
Hollander said climate and environmental education is still considered a controversial topic in Louisiana, with an economy that revolves around oil and gas. Controversial or not, many teachers around the country feel ill-equipped to teach the topic, according to a 2016 national survey of science teachers by NCSE and Penn State.
“What we want to do is, one, educate our teachers on various examples that they can bring into the classroom that makes sense to their students,” Hollander said. She said that can be done by looking at tree cores, climate-related disasters such as the major hurricanes that have hit Louisiana’s coastline, or looking at changes in various species and at salts intrusion caused by the rise in the level of the ocean that has already claimed some of the state’s wetlands.
“Being able to have our science teachers be educated about these different things in an objective manner and understand the science behind it and creating lesson plans around them will be very helpful for our students,” said Hollander.
McMillan, in West Feliciana Parish, is in a unique position: She will not only be teaching students, but will also show teachers at her middle school how to integrate some of the new lessons into the existing curriculum, especially for the eighth-grade.
“Moving forward those connections to those researchers and other educators that I’ve met along the way are going to provide a wealth of resources that I can bring back into the classroom,” McMillan said.
This story about Louisiana science teachers was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter