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Plant Talk

Rooting for Students in 2019: Urban Advantage Educates In and Out of the Classroom

Posted in Plant Science on June 25, 2020, by Christina Edsall

Christina Edsall is the Urban Advantage Coordinator for The New York Botanical Garden.


Photo of teachers wading into the Bronx River

During a 2019 workshop, teachers wear waders to get a closer look at the Bronx River.

What could possibly motivate a teacher to wake up early on a Sunday morning in 2019 and travel to the Garden to learn about the Bronx River and collect data on the slimy, crawly creatures that scientists call “macroinvertebrates”? Before I answer, allow me to explain the program called Urban Advantage.

Urban Advantage (UA) is a city initiative that brings together the resources of New York City’s cultural institutions, the NYC Department of Education, and public schools to improve instruction in middle school (and more recently, elementary school) science. UA is designed to provide teachers and students the opportunity to engage in authentic science through paid professional learning, classroom materials, and access to science-rich cultural institutions that, to name a few, include not only The New York Botanical Garden, but the American Museum of Natural History, the Staten Island Zoo, and more. UA launched in 2004 with 31 participating schools and now works with more than 300 schools across the city. Schools can decide which institutions they would like to visit for field trips and teacher workshops. In 2019 alone, The New York Botanical Garden hosted 27 field trips for Urban Advantage schools and has entertained over 1,000 UA visitors (including students’ families!).

A pillar of UA’s programming includes professional learning workshops for teachers. On a yearly average, the UA team at NYBG hosts seven multi-day workshops ranging in topic from watersheds to Charles Darwin’s garden. Mona Arriola McNamara, Professional Development Specialist at the Garden, is celebrating her 10th year with UA and NYBG.

Before coming to the Garden, McNamara developed her expertise working in museums, as well as teaching middle school math and science.

“[Upon coming to NYBG], I was really excited about the opportunity to bring together my informal science institution experience with my formal education experience and to be able to work to support teachers in bringing science and the natural world into their teaching,” she recalls.

Photo of teachers examining a leaf pack

McNamara demonstrates a leaf pack taken from the river. (2019)

These teachers had come from all five boroughs on this particular Sunday morning in 2019, drawn by the rich resources of the Garden and a dedication to improving their teaching practice. During the workshop, a little time in the classroom for instruction and group discussion was of course necessary, but McNamara enjoys finding unique ways to incorporate the Garden grounds into teacher workshops:

“I tend to stick to the more unplanned areas of the Garden. The ornamental sections are beautiful, but it is usually easier to access ecological concepts and phenomena when exploring the parts of the Garden that have the least human intervention. We spend a lot of time in the Thain Family Forest. Fifty acres of native forest is such a spectacular and special resource to have in the middle of New York City … I also make a lot of use of the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, generally to discuss ideas around adaptation and evolution.”

Other workshops are centered on content that does not have to be focused in a particular location in the Garden. Math and data analysis workshops, for example, use tree circumference and diameters, leaf surface areas, and flower patterns, data that participants can find throughout the grounds.

UA’s work has also been deemed meritorious by education researchers. Several studies have shown that participation in UA improves both students’ academic achievement in science and teacher retention rates. These findings have implications for improving science education and creating strong partnerships between schools and external institutions.

But what makes UA’s professional learning workshops unique from others? UA uses the SIMPL (Science Immersion Model of Professional Learning) strategy. This model structures workshops in particular “lenses.” Teachers first delve into a “science learner lens,” where they learn science content during an immersive experience. For example, on that aforementioned Sunday afternoon, teachers are wearing waders and walking into the river and collecting leaf packs for macroinvertebrate observations. Then time is set aside to unpack that experience from a teaching perspective and modify those activities to fit their own classrooms.

“I want them to be able to feel science is in their lives outside of school,” one teacher said, emphasizing an underlying goal that science can be done within their immediate natural environment. McNamara adds, “I think that demonstrating the importance and the accessibility of providing kids with shared experiences to ground science learning has made a difference in how our teachers work with their students.”

It is those teachers enrolled in Urban Advantage that find many reasons for motivation to get out of bed on a Sunday morning and be excited about science.

Photo of teachers examining a leaf pack

Teachers sorting through the leaf pack and collecting data on macroinvertebrates. (2019)

So, how can you get children more excited about science? Get excited about it yourself! Enthusiasm can be incredibly contagious. McNamara suggests encouraging children to look closely at objects they see every day: house plants, any fruits or vegetables, seeds, herbs, insects, birds, even their pets!

“Encourage some wondering and reasoning based on evidence and other things you know about before jumping online to look up the answer,” she says. “Science is not just an established set of facts, but the process of how we come to understand our world; cultivating curiosity and a sense that you can find out more by observing and testing your ideas is a great place to start.”

While the Garden remains temporarily closed, we’re looking forward to returning to educating even more classes of curious and motivated teachers when we’re able to return to our beautiful 250 acres. In the meantime, the next time you step out into nature, challenge yourself to pick a plant that intrigues you. Practice this simple exercise by asking yourself: What do I notice? What does the plant remind me of? What is one question I have about an observation I made?

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