SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald
The group of third-graders gathered around the rabbit brush plant as Allison Smith showed them an insect egg that had been nesting in its branches. The egg would eventually turn into a larvae and then an insect, Smith told the students, squiggling her finger like a worm.
The egg was one of dozens of natural props Smith used as she led the Park Elementary School students along trails that wound around the 140-acre Durango Nature Center, owned by the environmental education nonprofit Durango Nature Studies. The natural surroundings provided fodder for each aspect of Smith’s lesson about life cycles, and she shifted seamlessly from the water cycle, to metamorphosis to the plant cycle as the group walked through the property located south of Durango.
Over the course of this school year, Smith and her colleagues will give dozens of similar lessons for every elementary class in Durango School District 9-R. The lessons are part of a new science collaboration between the district, Durango Nature Studies and the Durango Discovery Museum. In addition to the lesson at the nature center, each elementary school class participates in a science lab taught by the museum’s “mad scientists” and goes on a field trip to the museum.
The program is free for the schools thanks to a $100,000 grant from BP.
The collaboration is a part of the district’s work to refine its science curriculum to align to new state standards. Part of the process includes piloting new programs that will enhance student learning, said Victor Figueroa, assistant superintendent of student achievement with the district.
“We feel (the program) really engages children in meaningful relevant learning,” Figueroa said. “Kids get the opportunity to learn lessons in the classroom and then take those objectives and use it hands-on or go out in the field and discover.”
It also is a chance for the district to take advantage of the expert resources in the community, he said.
Both organizations have aligned their programs to state curriculum standards and aim to add an interactive element to the subject.
“It’s more memorable when you have a physical experience with something,” said Lexie Wallace, education director at the Durango Discovery Museum. “Hands-on activities set the stage for discovery and inquisitive thinking.”
The museum’s science labs vary by grade level and cover topics like energy sources, electricity and climate and weather. Employees intend to give students a very “science-y” laboratory experience that they usually don’t get in elementary school, said Sarah Margoles, the museum’s education manager.
Durango Nature Studies’ lessons are designed to take advantage of Durango’s abundant outdoor resources to focus on life sciences.
This is the first time the school district has had extensive collaboration with other organizations, but the desire to have it isn’t new.
“This is something the organization has been wanting to try for (all of its) 17 years,” said Karen Hickerson, program director at Durango Nature Studies.
When it comes to science education in 9-R, the collaboration is a model the district would like to duplicate, Figueroa said.
“Experiential types of learning opportunities, combined with classroom lessons, is the way we really need to go,” he said.