Experiential science learning with Four Winds Nature Program

Kindergarten student Luke McNulty of Proctor, Vt., examines pond-dwelling organisms he collected while learning about ecosystems with the Four Winds Nature Program.

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On a sunny day this past June, 155 students from Proctor Elementary School in Proctor, Vt. trekked with their teachers and a crew of local volunteers to a small pond a half mile from their school. There they spent the morning exploring the shoreline, finding tiny water critters for closer study with magnifiers, and conducting other experiments such as measuring water temperature in different locations. This local field trip formed the conclusion of a year spent studying ecosystems as part of the Four Winds Nature Program.

Based in Chittenden and founded in 2006, the Four Winds Nature Institute is a non-profit organization that supports community-based natural science education and research. Four Winds provides people of all ages with opportunities for hands-on experiential learning. The Institute's programming fosters the critical thinking, problem solving, and citizenship skills needed to make informed decisions on environmental issues. Four Winds connects people of all ages to each other and to their local environments for rich outdoor experiences on an ongoing basis.

The Nature Program engages students in monthly hands-on natural science lessons based around major science concepts such as Ecosystems and Cycles in Nature. Each lesson is tailored to the New England environment, and is seasonally appropriate. This means that students might help milkweed seeds disperse in the fall, dissect a goldenrod gall in the winter to see what's inside, and learn to identify birds from their songs when they return in the spring. Each lesson allows students to experience the thrill of discovering the natural world right outside their classrooms. All of these inquiry-driven lessons also support the Next Generation Science Standards and Common Core State Standards.

Uniquely, the monthly lessons are not presented by classroom teachers, but rather by parent, grandparent, and other community volunteers who attend a training by Four Winds staff members prior to their class visits. With only eight part-time staff members, this "train-the-trainer" model allows Four Winds to reach exponentially more students than would otherwise be possible. This model also helps to build stronger relationships across extended school communities by connecting family and other community volunteers to students, teachers, and administrators in a meaningful way.

How do students feel about the program? Peter Welch, who is a volunteer in Guilford, said, "While dropping my son off this morning, I had a few of his classmates come by to say 'Is today a Four Winds day?' When I said it was, they would do this fist-pump twirl thing with a great YES pretty cool, I'd say." His sentiment is echoed by Leigh-Ann Brown, a parent of one of the Proctor Elementary students who visited the pond to study ecosystems. "If they saw the way my son smiled when I asked him if he had Four Winds, people would know just how important it is," she says. "He beamed the day this month that he had it!"

In the upcoming school year, approximately 1,520 volunteers and 14,250 elementary school students in Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, and Maine will participate in the Nature Program. In Windham County, the following schools are enrolled: Academy School, Green Street School, Guilford Central School, Newbrook Elementary School, Putney Central School, Twin Valley Elementary School, Vernon Elementary School, and Wardsboro Elementary School.

For more information on the Nature Program, please contact Elly Moriarty: elly@fwni.org.