Going Beyond the Classroom: Experiential Learning in our Hudson River Region

by Gary Lyon
Director of Environmental Education

Winter 2010

As our school sits in the middle of two significant watersheds (the Hudson River drainage basin on the New York side, and the Hackensack River drainage basin on the New Jersey side, which flows into the meadowlands around Secaucus), studying the Hudson River forms an important component of the developing, environmental education curriculum at The Elisabeth Morrow School.  To that end, back in October, forty excited fifth graders visited the Alpine Boat Basin for the annual, “Day in the Life of the Hudson River” fieldwork trip.  This event was coordinated by the “River Project,” and was part of a multi-institutional effort to raise awareness of The Hudson River, increasing appreciation of its vital importance and value in our daily lives. 

Involving groups that ranged in age between elementary school children and university researchers, students were asked to take careful measurements of a variety of parameters that would be a sign of the state of The Hudson River. The data collected would then feed into a central database to be analyzed and interpreted, thus providing a meaningful study of the dynamics of the river and an understanding of the river’s “health.”

Elisabeth Morrow students were engaged in careful measurement of water quality parameters, such as, salinity oxygen levels and percent saturation, water temperature, nitrate levels, pH levels (acidity), chlorophyll levels and turbidity (the clarity of water). In addition, observations were made of prevailing weather conditions, such as cloud cover, wind speed and direction, and air temperature. Physical changes, such as tide changes and current speed, were also determined. Our students also had the opportunity to use a seine-net, allowing them to capture and identify fish from the Hudson River estuary.  In the past, we’ve caught a diverse array of fish, but this year only managed to capture white perch and silversides.

The Hudson River study has been a recurring aspect of the fifth grade science and social studies curriculum for a number of years.  The value of this fieldwork cannot be underestimated, since it introduces students to the direct, hands-on techniques used by scientists as they conduct their own research in the field. Such applied research also develops important skills: observation, recording, and predicting. 

“The Day in the Life of the Hudson River” is just one of the ways Elisabeth Morrow uses our local environment as an outdoor laboratory.   Throughout the entire school, we want our curriculum to develop in our students a sense of wonder and appreciation for our temperate biome and the ecosystems that fall within it.  Our third graders, for instance, study The Hackensack River Watershed and go every year to the Meadowlands for a boat trip where they learn about the tidal wetlands and witness the impact of humans on the environment. 

Even our own campus serves as a valuable workshop.  Our students use the Wharton-Lessin Forest and the associated brook as study sites for environmental activities.  We have constructed a pond to complement our studies of the brook. The pond has several catfish, some goldfish, numerous frogs, including developing bullfrog tadpoles and (we hope) two surviving red-eared terrapins.  Students learn how to manage the pond and that it is also maintained by rainwater runoff.  Elisabeth Morrow also has a bathhouse, a weather station, and a number of gardens.  

In the vegetable garden, students have sown and harvested squashes, tomatoes, Indian corn, sunflower seeds, beans, basil, potatoes and much more.  The vegetables are then used to prepare delicious meals in our school kitchen.  As well, pokeweed berries and acorns have been harvested and used to produce dyes for wool, then knitted or weaved into fabric.  We also have a wildlife friendly garden that provides splendid displays of color along with a variety of blooms and blossoms. These gardens also attract a variety of animal species to our campus: cautious deer, tentative turkeys, cunning and furtive red fox, malodorous skunks, cute cottontail rabbits and corpulent groundhogs have graced our garden. Students use these gardens for research and observation.  Maintenance is also important, as we pass through the autumn equinox; students learn to prepare for the next growing season.  Leftover material from the gardens is composted and the students begin to plant colorful bulbs for next spring.

The Elisabeth Morrow School has easy access to the Hudson River, easy access to many parks and preserves in our region, and even easier access to our own small biome on campus, just outside our classroom doors.  Very convenient, true, but more importantly our students are able to experience environmental science directly; beyond just reading or seeing, our students are doing.  Clearly, when students are active participants in the lessons, the lessons have greater impact.  To keep matters in perspective, we know that preparing students for high school, and eventually college, has taken on new dimensions in the twenty-first century.  As important as it is to get our students thinking globally or using technology effectively, we must also educate our children about the environment, as many signs seem to indicate that conditions are changing drastically.  The Elisabeth Morrow School has taken significant initial steps to making environmental science and stewardship an integral part of its curriculum.  And not just a class here and there or a dedicated club or two, we are trying to make sustainability and environmental studies part of our core, from age three to grade eight, in hopes our students will carry with them a lifelong understanding and passion for protecting the planet.