Moving Beyond the 3R’s: Extending PLT Activities to Meet Education Trends

Mississippi Governor, Phil Bryant, proclaimed that STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and math) is the gateway to attracting more high paying jobs and has placed an increased emphasis on STEM subjects in classrooms across the state.  In addition, the Mississippi Department of Education has highlighted the importance of these subject areas for the state’s current and future workforce.

John Hunt, Professor of Education at Mississippi College in Clinton, MS, is seizing the opportunity to showcase the STEM components and adaptations of PLT activities for aspiring teachers attending his course. Hunt has long been excited by using PLT activities to teach STEM. The following activity recommendations, with a few adaptations noted below, are lessons he uses in his instruction.

Extending PLT Activities to Meet Education Trends

For some time, Hunt has used Activity 67, “How Big is your Tree?” from PLT’s PreK-8 Environmental Education Activity Guide to demonstrate a way education majors can incorporate STEM subject areas into their instruction. This activity is hands-on and introduces students to different problem solving techniques used to determine various measurements of trees. The activity is also easily adaptable to teach other STEM-related lessons such as the use of wood, construction techniques, forest management, and forest product manufacturing.

Hunt says the “three R’s” (Reading, ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmetic) that once were the basis of education for previous generations are no longer sufficient. They have been expanded into twenty-first century skills: creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, and communications. His expansion of “How Big is Your Tree?” works to bridge the skill gap while emphasizing STEM subjects.

The introduction for the “How Big is Your Tree?” activity discusses real-world applications for calculating the size of a tree in the fields of forestry and construction. When leading this activity, after students determine the sizes of various local trees, Hunt challenges his students to determine how many trees it would take to build an average sized house. Hunt uses the following activity expansion to demonstrate the real-world applications of this activity.

  • Students Build Model HouseTo illustrate how many trees would be used in a full-scale construction project and open a discussion on the economics of a harvest, students use timber scale charts to calculate how many trees are needed to frame a 1,024 square foot house. As students learn throughout the “How Big is Your Tree?” activity, trees of different sizes yield different amounts of lumber. Timber scale charts provide quick conversions between the size of a tree and the board foot volume of lumber it will yield.
  • To assess student knowledge, Hunt creates a design challenge where students are asked to construct a scale-model house using the modeling software, Google SketchUp. Once the designs are complete, Hunt’s students then build scale versions out of thin modeling sticks and glue. Students are tasked with solving construction issues including determining the pitch of the rafters, the angle at which they must be cut, length of overhangs, etc.
  • To further address 21st century skills, Hunt requires his students to work in teams and collaborate with one another.

More Resources to Deepen the Engagement in STEM

To deepen students’ knowledge and understanding, Hunt also leads PLT Activity 27, “Every Tree for Itself” after the “How Big is Your Tree?” activity. By connecting these two activities together, students discover the connection between wood products and how forest management improves forest productivity, forest health, and environmental quality by learning the importance of such forestry practices as:

  • Selective cutting to maintain proper spacing between trees for optimal growth and to improve forest genetics by removing inferior trees before they can reproduce
  • Controlling competing vegetation to provide more resources for trees grown as crops including sunlight, water, and nutrients
  • Thinning over-crowded stands to allow sunlight to reach the forest floor and nourish plants favored by wildlife
  • Promptly reforesting stands after the final harvest, and
  • Utilizing Best Management Practices for Forestry to protect soil and water during forestry operations.

As written, PLT’s “Every Tree for Itself” activity places a balanced emphasis on STEM skills, which can be utilized when determining the spacing between trees, the amount of water a tree will transpire, methods of controlling competing vegetation, and more.  

Through Activity 34, “Who Works in the Forest?”, students can explore STEM jobs related to forestry and the forest products industry. Similarly, in the spring issue of the Branch, Jamie Knight, a forester in Oregon, explains what a day in the life of a forester actually entails and how she inspires students to explore jobs that will take them outside. Both are useful resources to share with students, especially those who are interested in exploring careers in forestry and forestry education.

Forester Guided TourFinally, Hunt is looking into using field trips as part of integrating STEM into his teacher training, such as a forester-guided tour of a managed forest or a tour of a forest products mill. By touring wood-product manufacturing facilities, industry professionals can help students understand the connections between standing trees in the forest and the wood products they use.  Students also learn about the good paying — and often high-tech — jobs available in forest industries and see STEM in action as they observe automated equipment perform jobs that were once slow and laborious, such as:

  • Computerized equipment that scans a full-length tree to determine how best to cut it into smaller logs for the highest yield
  • Computer-operated sawmills that set the spacing between blades of “gang saws” to produce the most high-value lumber
  • High-tech systems that burn wood scraps to produce process steam and even electricity
  • Other technology that has enabled modern mills to convert nearly all of the tree to usable products — some of which did not even exist just a few years ago

Students quickly see the importance of STEM education for workers who install, maintain, and operate such sophisticated equipment.

“I am very satisfied with the flexibility of PLT activities, and how well and easily they can be made to meet modern educational requirements,” Hunt said. He understands how PLT activities can be used as the basis for STEM units, and he is partnering with National PLT to incorporate these ideas into PLT’s Next Generation of curriculum materials (anticipated release 2016). Stay tuned!

Dr. John Hunt represents private colleges and universities on the Mississippi PLT Advisory Board, is a trained PLT facilitator, and was the 2012 Mississippi PLT Environmental Educator of the Year.


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