Dan Patton teaches science and is developing the science curriculum for the middle school. To read the long edit of this interview, click here.
Could you describe some of your field work in science prior to becoming a teacher?
The majority of my work was with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. I did eight field seasons over the course of about 10 years. We spent upwards of three months in the wilderness on some of these projects. By wilderness I mean way out there, like an hour-long flight in a float plane from Ketchikan. We lived in tents and were resupplied with food by float plane once a week. Most of the time we were taking data on adult and juvenile fish, but we also researched large mammals, mostly black bears. I also did remote field research in Chile.
Were you able to incorporate some of that field science into your teaching?
Definitely. Whenever the opportunity arises, I talk about my research. This shows students what attracted me into science in the first place. And it’s neat to contrast these wild Alaskan landscapes with the vast majority of the world, where the big migrations I studied aren’t happening any more. That’s definitely interesting to kids.
You came from a spectacular part of the world before moving to Leysin. How would you contrast these places?
If you look in certain directions from Leysin, it’s a lot like Alaska: covered in forests, with giant peaks and glaciers. But when you get into the Swiss landscape, you see that it’s in fact very civilized. You need to bring francs on a hike here because you’ll probably come across a mountain buvet and will want to get a coffee. This is very different from Alaska, where you’d better be prepared because if the weather changes or you get lost it could be a long time before you’re back in civilization.
How do you think the kids you taught in Alaska reacted to their natural environment, versus how the kids at LAS react to theirs?
My Alaskan students were a lot more comfortable in the forest. They knew how to dress, for one. A lot of them had hunted and gathered with their parents and had grown up playing in the forest. So it wasn’t as alien of an environment for them. By contrast, a lot of students at LAS have never been into the forest before. They’re from the desert, or they’re from the city, and this is the first time they’ve been into a real forest. A lot of the time they react like, “I don’t like this, I don’t want to be out here, this is scary, I don’t like ants, I don’t like being cold.” But most of them come around pretty quickly. By the third or fourth time they’re excited to go outside. They’ve learned that they need to wear warm clothes and sturdy shoes. It’s rare that I get a student who’s been out a few times and still resists it. This is nice to see. That’s kind of my goal.
What do you think about using citizen science as an approach to studying the outdoor environment?
Students want to believe that what they’re doing is going to lead to something. Or that what they’re studying is going to have some kind of impact on their lives. The idea that the information they’re collecting can actually add to scientific knowledge is enough to get some kids interested. Doing the LETS study year after year, even if scientists aren’t immediately picking up the information, will allow students to see that their data have actually gone somewhere. What they’re doing this year will be passed down to next year’s students, and so on. I think that pulls in some kids who otherwise would be less interested.
Do you think there’s value even for students who aren’t pulled in?
Definitely. It teaches them more about science. There are a lot of kids who start off thinking they don’t like science, so anytime you can show them that maybe what they’re doing can have an impact, I think this can be good for those kids. We need to show the students other examples of citizen science, places where regular citizens have collected information that has had an impact on science. For example, I want to show them the annual Audubon Christmas bird count. Citizen bird watchers have been going out on the same days every year for over a century, counting the birds that are in their front yard. After all this time the data has become really rich. You can see migratory patterns, notice changes, and compare those changes to things like the climate. Anytime we can connect what we’re doing to something bigger in the world, I think that’s good.
How long do you think it will take to bring our citizen science to where you’d like it to be?
As soon as we have a couple sets of data coming in and students can see differences between the years, they’ll start wondering why those differences exist. Was it because there was actually a change, or was it because we didn’t do a very good job of following the protocols? They’ll start thinking about science more. Not just someone else’s science, but the science they’re doing themselves. I think this will come pretty quickly.
What do you think about the cross-curricular opportunities with LETS? Do you think this study can be expanded from pure science into something that brings in more teachers from diverse fields?
There’s a lot of potential for that. We made a huge leap forward when we included the geography department this year. We have to understand the geography of the land before we can understand its biogeography. We don’t want too much change at once, but I think the next step will be math. Writing plays a big part in this, too. We want kids to become reflective, writing down what they’ve done and how this might prove useful to science. And then there’s journalism. Kids can tell their peers what they’re doing. Art has great potential. Since our goal is to get kids interested in their local environment and being outside, art might be the bridge that reaches some students. Photography is obvious, but also painting, and filmmaking. There’s a lot of potential for more cross-curricular cooperation.
The spring LETS Day is built around the IB Group 4 project for the 11th grade. What you launched last fall was for 8th through 10th grades. What differences do you see between the two groups?
In terms of getting good science, it’s important that the two field days do a lot of the same things. Obviously, getting two sets of data per year is better than getting just one. If we could go out four times doing the same thing, that would be even better. However, the students in 11th grade are a bit more sophisticated. They can carry out different kinds of data collection than students in 8th or 9th grade. Also, one of the goals of the Group 4 project is to be relatively self directed. They need the freedom to explore what they most want to study.
Any thoughts on working together with other schools on this, or on having other schools pick up on the LETS project and doing one themselves?
That’s really beneficial. Any time that students can make connections with students in other schools and can see that a project is bigger than just them, that’s useful. From the scientific point of view, the more places this can happen, the more useful data we’re going to collect. I think our job is to facilitate this by making the protocols we’re developing easy to understand. They need to be as simple and cheap as possible. This will make it much easier for other schools to pick up.
What about GLOBE Day? Where did it come from and how is it useful for citizen science?
Students need a venue to present what they’ve done. Anytime a student sees that what they’re working on has a larger audience, that’s going to give them more intrinsic motivation to do a good job. When kids work in groups and can learn from other students, that’s a very good life experience. When this is based on an authentic project that has a clear goal and a destination, that’s going to motivate them even more strongly.
Does the process of a doing a project followed by giving a presentation apply outside of the sciences?
Definitely. It applies throughout the curriculum and all the way through college, grad school, work, and life. These are the skills successful people need. When the audience is just the class or the teacher, students are often less motivated to do a good job, aside from earning a grade. The GLOBE Day presentations are a good way to supply more intrinsic motivation.
Can you tell me about your class soils project?
Today we finished this big project in my earth science class where we’re looking at soil, why we need it, and what humans are doing to affect it. What can people do to improve the soil, to conserve, and protect it? It’s important to be optimistic. The Swiss have done a really good job of showing how with foresight and management you can have the best of both worlds: You can have the forest as habitat, but you can also use it. But that’s not the situation in most of the world. Students need to see what’s happening in the rest of the world, and to realize that humans are causing a lot of damage. They need to come up with solutions to problems that will affect their own future.
So our soil study has been pretty very interesting project. At the beginning of the year we made the soil ourselves, then planted seeds of various garden vegetables. This fall we’ve tracked their growth. At the end of this unit we harvest our plants. We have a final party where everyone sits at the table and eats the fruits of their own labor. That’s a pretty interesting experience that shows the kids not only where their food comes from, but also shows them, “Wow, this takes a lot of work” –we’ve worked on this for three months and basically all we have is one salad each.
If there’s one thing that these kids are going to be doing in their future, it’s making decisions about nature and taking care of the earth. It’s cliché, but these kids are the future. I want students leaving my classes to appreciate not only the beauty of nature, but also the function of nature, the jobs that nature does, the jobs the ecosystem does. Our kids will be making big decisions about this in the future.
(AI – Dan Patton interview 151120 – short edit 1 (1800 words))