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When Do You Teach a Kid to Use a Ruler, and When Do You Give Them a Task that Requires Using a Ruler?  Practicing Inquiry in the Field

By Heather Flanagan
September 29, 2016
At left, BOP Education Outreach Coordinator Robina Taliaferrow role plays as a student using a sling psychrometer with Dayna Navaro (Soundview Academy), center, playing teacher. Also playing students are Jeffrey Bradshaw, right, of M.S. 88, and Clarissa Lynn of Central Park II.

At left, BOP Education Outreach Coordinator Robina Taliaferrow role plays as a student using a sling psychrometer with Dayna Navaro (Soundview Academy), center, playing teacher. Also playing students are Jeffrey Bradshaw, right, of M.S. 88, and Clarissa Lynn of Central Park II.

The CCERS Fellowship at Pace is a two‐year professional development program that trains teachers to engage their students in hands‐on environmental STEM and restoration ecology in New York Harbor.  The Fellowship is open to NYC Department of Education middle school teachers working in Title I funded schools.  Classes and trainings are taught by guest experts, scientists from Columbia’s Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, curriculum specialists from New York Harbor Foundation, and partner organizations such as The River Project and BioBus/BioBase.

Consider this question: “When do you teach a kid to use a ruler, and when do you give them a task that requires using a ruler?”

If you’re an educator with 30 excitable middle school students waiting to examine their Oyster Restoration Station (ORS), you’d better know the answer before you get to the pier, park, or dock where they’ll make at least four expeditions conducting a series of five scientific protocols.  It was the kind of question prompted by the activities lead by BOP Curriculum Specialists Ann Fraioli and Annie Lederberg at the BOP-CCERS Fellows Field Training #3 this September on Governors Island.  At this workshop, Annie, Ann, and the teacher-fellows from Cohort Two focused on how to use inquiry-based learning at their field sites.  

For those unfamiliar, inquiry-based learning is an educational practice that guides students to create knowledge for themselves driven by questioning (and in particular, driven by the students’ own questions).  The educator’s role might look different in every classroom, but it’s often described as a “teacher as facilitator,” with students conducting individual research or collaborating in groups, in contrast to a “teacher as expert,” standing in the front of the room, lecturing so many “empty vessels.”  It might be tempting to view this as a break for teachers, but in reality, structuring a safe environment for questioning and exploring and creating opportunities to genuinely provoke students’ curiosity can be a difficult task.  Here at Billion Oyster Project, the Oyster Restoration Stations are strange and slimy enough to pique most students’ interest- but how do you get from “hey that’s cool” to student-driven research projects that use the scientific method to answer real questions about what’s going on in New York Harbor?

First, a teacher needs to do a lot of preparation.  BOP-CCERS fellows need to know their field sites extremely well to set the stage for the learning that will take place there.  To get teachers thinking about their sites, the first activity of Field Training #3 was a map making activity in which they drew maps of what their sites, highlighting relevant features.  After completing their maps, fellows shared in small groups, then switched maps with a teacher from a different school, who was then asked to describe the challenges of their partner’s location.

Each site can have its own particular challenges.  Some are sparse on bathrooms- for this Ann recommended the teacher start the day with a flexible, restoration education-based activity in the classroom that allows enough time for each student to use the restroom at school.  Others might involve long walks from school or public transit, in which case fellows emphasized the importance of making sure the chaperones were able and willing to do the walk.  While some locations have hoses, most don’t have clean water for washing equipment, making it imperative to bring a gallon jug of water with them.  At a site with several ORS like Erie Basin in Red Hook, Brooklyn, there might be multiple classes there at once.  But even a challenge like this can be an asset- through the BOP Digital Platform, teachers will be able to post their expeditions in advance on the events page, and start a dialogue with other teachers and citizen scientists at their site, who might be able to help facilitate or collaborate.

Ann and Annie also stressed the importance of not only making sure that students are safe in the field, but that they feel safe.  One tool for accomplishing this is the BOP-CCERS Field Expectations Contract.  While teachers can decide how best to communicate the content of the contract with their classes, the document itself contains practical guidelines for student and teacher behavior that will allow for a safe and productive expedition.  In addition to explicitly stating that the teachers will keep students safe, it includes expectations that might be unfamiliar for city kids, like crossing the street as a class and only with the light, bringing a refillable water bottle, or wearing sunblock.  The contract also has extremely helpful directions for students unaccustomed to restoration work on what to wear and carry with them in the field, like wool or synthetic socks to keep their feet from getting cold and wet, and long underwear if the weather is cold.  (To make sure students of all socioeconomic backgrounds can be prepared, at the New York Harbor School Ann used to have a “used clothing sale” of donated goods- the sale took away the potential stigma of receiving donated clothes, and emphasized student choice.)

With practical considerations handled, Ann and Annie moved on to modeling what teachers might encounter in the field, with Annie playing a teacher and Ann, BOP Education Outreach Coordinator Robina Taliaferrow, and Eli Caref, an educator from BOP-CCERS project partner The River Project playing inquisitive students.  The fellows stood in a circle around the group, and were asked to pick a person and take notes on what they were doing during the simulation.  Annie, in character as the teacher, gave students a handout with the ORS “Oyster Measurement” protocol and a bin full of oysters, and let them figure out how to complete the work together.  The “students” investigated the oysters, poking and prodding at them, and pondered questions out loud to themselves and to each other while also trying to figure out how to use calipers to measure the oyster spat clinging to large oyster shells (collected as a part of BOP’s restaurant program!).


When the group discussed the simulation, the BOP fellows noted that Annie’s role wasn’t passive, even though she wasn’t lecturing the students or directing their actions.  Rather, she participated the whole time, observing the students’ interactions, rephrasing or reframing their questions as they came up, and writing down students’ questions.  The “students” were able to work through part of the protocol they were assigned, albeit more slowly than they might in a teacher-directed scenario, but they also clearly found genuine moments of fascination in their study that might have been missed in a more teacher-centric iteration.  Drawing on this model, fellows then had the chance to play teachers and students themselves, breaking into three groups to complete the five ORS protocols, with two participants in each group switching off for a half hour turn “playing” teacher.

After watching the first simulation and participating in two half hour role plays of their own, the BOP fellows had a lot to consider about how they’d use a student-driven pedagogy during their field expeditions.  Fellows found themselves surprised at how much time the protocols took when using an inquiry-based approach, particularly because using the perhaps unfamiliar equipment can have a steep learning curve.  This brings us back to the question from the beginning of this post, which fellow Andy Zimmermann of M.S. 88 brought up- when do you teach a kid to use a ruler, and when do you give them a task that requires using a ruler?

Like a lot of things in teaching…it depends!  While teachers definitely saw the value in what they described as a “scientific tool based inquiry,” some of them felt they’d need to do an extra field site visit to introduce students to the protocols and get them comfortable using the equipment in order to collect the four datasets required by the program, which might not be possible for all schools.  Other teachers thought it could be valuable to do tool inquiries in the classroom in advance of an expedition, so that the inquiry that day could focus on what they actually found at the field site.  And for fellows whose teaching practice already incorporated lots of outdoor time, students might have already learned how to use scientific tools in a prior unit.  Whatever the case, Annie wanted teachers to reflect, “Given what you think is so precious about the field, how can you use BOP to make that happen?”

It’s an ongoing question the BOP Cohort Two fellows will continue to investigate as the school year progresses, both on their own and at our upcoming professional development sessions.   We’re really excited to expand our learning community and we look forward to bringing hands-on restoration education to more NYC public school students than ever before!

Bonus footage: BOP-CCERS Program Manager Sam Janis demonstrates some new developments for securing an ORS!

Even more bonus footage: gif of Robina using the sling psychrometer!