Student Involvement at Lee Academy: Finding Opportunities Out the Window

Lesson plans literally present themselves just outside the windows of Lee Academy in Lee, Maine, for teacher Susan Linscott and her high school students. A small bridge down the street, slated for replacement, has involved the environmental science and physics classes. A potential outbreak of spruce budworm in the forests surrounding the town has become the focus of another unit. And at the nearby junior-high and elementary schools, Lee students serve as mentors and tutors to their younger counterparts.

Lee Academy began in the 19th century as a “normal school” to train teachers. The original building, an imposing brick structure, is now the centerpiece of a campus with about 130 local students, as well as 80 international students who live in dormitories. Whether the students come from down the road or across the globe, they have gained an appreciation of how science relates to their everyday lives, thanks in part to Linscott’s classes.

“To me, it’s a priority to make learning place-based, community-based, and inquiry-based,” said Linscott, who has been involved with Maine PLT since 2003. “When I am going through standards and planning a unit, I think of ways to connect to issues or get kids outside.”

Lee Academy teacher Susan Linscott and students Lauren Dodge and Masato Tsuchida inspect the stream near their school.

Building a Better Bridge

During an educator forestry tour cosponsored by Maine PLT, Linscott learned about culverts, the tunnels or other structures built to cross streams and divert water from roads and bridges. Poorly constructed culverts can restrict stream flow and affect fish and other wildlife. After forest managers and engineers explained the intricacies of Maine’s thousands of culverts during the tour, a lesson was born.

Linscott’s unit on Stream Crossings began with a presentation from a local forester, who presented an overview of why stream crossings are important, their structure and the loads they need to support, and the costs and environmental impacts. Students conducted a survey in Lee to analyze culverts for environmental safety and structural integrity. They then assumed the role of engineers. Using materials that ranged from scrap lumber to soda bottles, they designed models that would have to minimize environmental impacts while also withstanding weight.

Linscott has learned that place-based education calls for flexibility when conditions in the “place” change. In summer 2016, a student noticed debris had dammed the stream below a small bridge down the street from the school. It turned out that the bridge is slated for replacement. Linscott revised her unit to draw on this real-world situation. Environmental science and physics students spent the past year researching the current impacts and suggesting potential replacements. In the coming school year, they will present their findings to the Town Selectmen. 

Tapping into Community Concern

In a series of outbreaks, most recently in the 1970s and 1980s, spruce budworms have devastated millions of acres of forestland in the northern U.S. and Canada, with environmental, economic, and policy-related ramifications. Canada has again been hard hit, with the possibility that the pest will move into U.S. conifers. Working with Maine PLT, the Maine Forest Service, and Canadian provinces to understand the potential for another outbreak, Linscott developed a unit to involve students in this pressing issue.

The unit covers the history, economics, and environmental impacts of the last outbreak and helps students predict how a future outbreak may impact the forest ecosystem. Students researched the science, interviewed Lee residents who lived through the last outbreak, and planned a “dine and discuss” community forum. The event featured presentations by a MFS regional forester, forest entomologist, and wildlife biologist, as well as the students’ findings.

When junior Lauren Dodge installed some of the traps at home, she had one of those revelatory moments that can make science so powerful. “We have fir trees, and I put up traps,” she said. “Seeing how science happens at your own house, and the world around you, changes how you look at everything.”

Mentoring and Community Service

Linscott created and facilitates a Mentorship and Community Service class, in which students spend time with younger students at the nearby junior-high and elementary schools. Just as Linscott has to figure out how to engage her students, they do the same with their younger counterparts. “I see how difficult it is for kids to focus, but how cool it is when they understand a concept and you are the one who has helped,” said Dodge. “I have a whole new perspective on what it’s like to work with students.”

Yvonne Yan, a senior, worked with a 6-year-old who arrived in the middle of last year speaking only Chinese. Yan helped the first-grader become acclimated to his new surroundings. She also tutored in math, her favorite subject, realizing that she often approached problem-solving in a different way based on her education in China. “There is more than one way to reach a solution,” she said, adding she recognizes that lesson applies beyond math calculations.

Another Lee senior, Masato Tsuchida, served as a resource to an entire class of third-graders. He admitted he had difficulty at first gaining their attention and respect. “But when they work freely to look up something that they are interested in and I could help, that is cool,” he concluded.

Earlier this year, Patricia Maloney, the Maine PLT coordinator, successfully nominated the Lee Service Learning Team, consisting of Linscott and her students, for the Spirit of Teddy Roosevelt Award sponsored by the nonprofit group Maine Woods Forever. “Thanks to Susan’s professional dedication and passion, the Lee community has gained a greater awareness of challenges facing their own region and can carry their messages far beyond the Lee borders,” Maloney said.

Increasing Involvement through PLT

Linscott draws on PLT’s Focus on Forests high school module and other K-12 guides to create lessons throughout the school year. She has also connected with Maine PLT through the Maine Forest Inventory Growth (FIG) Project, a field-based curriculum designed by Maine educators and natural resource professionals. Through FIG, students and teachers establish long-term study plots using protocol from the U.S. Forest Service’s forest analysis program, and Linscott said her students value the ability compare data across time and location. “Susan joined a FIG training and immediately made plans to set up a study plot at Lee,” noted Maloney. “She then became a PLT facilitator and soon after, hosted a workshop at Lee Academy.”

Linscott said she values the connections made through PLT with other educators and professionals. A district forester, Terri Coolong, lives within a mile of Lee Academy, for example, and is a great resource. “Pat [Maloney] has connected me with people, materials, and learning how to use tools,” Linscott said. “PLT is a great networking source to increase student involvement.”

Tips for Increased Student Involvement—from Students and Their Teacher

PLT asked Lee high-schoolers how they thought teachers could best engage with students and what has worked for them:

  • The younger you are, the more you can absorb. When we experiment and design things, it will stay with us for the rest of our lives. — Lauren Dodge, junior
  • You can learn about a concept like biomagnification. When you see the effect of lead on wildlife, for example, it really makes the concept stay with you. — Cole Harriman, junior
  • Let kids explore their own interests. When they ask questions that they have been wondering about, they will want to find out the answers. — Masato Tsuchida, senior
  • My father and I walked by a construction site in China after being at school in Lee and I could show him the difference between A and C level soils. He was impressed! — Yvonne Yan, senior
  • Whether kids are aged 8 or 18, don’t be afraid to get them outside. Let them get dirty, let them explore. — Susan Linscott, teacher

Resources

Stream Crossing unit plan and grading rubric draft, developed by Susan Linscott for Lee Academy

Spruce Budworm Community Outreach Unit

Maine Forest Inventory Growth Project

Paula Tarnapol Whitacre

Paula Tarnapol Whitacre

Paula writes on environmental, education, and health topics and is a regular contributor to The Branch Newsletter. Visit her website at www.fullcircle.org

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