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Keeping it Real: Learning STEM in the Middle of a Lake

How do you make science more meaningful for young students?

For many teachers in northern Vermont, the answer is to take their students out of the traditional classroom and into nature.

The Community Sailing Center on Lake Champlain in Burlington, Vt., has been helping teachers in these efforts through the Floating Classrooms program since 2009.

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The program provides science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, learning opportunities through hands-on experiences related to sailing.

Learning about water quality takes on a different dimension for students when they're "standing right next to the lake where they get their drinking water," said Jen Guimaraes, the associate director at the Community Sailing Center.

Guimaraes said the program provides an opportunity for the students to see science in action first-hand.  

"They're able to make those connections rather than just talking about them abstractly in their classroom," said Guimaraes.

How It Works

For example, students in the program submerge a Secchi disk to measure the clarity of the lake water, and this might lead to a discussion about algae, what causes it, how it affects water quality, and the role humans play in the process.

The program has two full-year programs for 4th and 5th graders, and there is a special curriculum designed for students in other grades who will make only one visit to the facility. The curriculum aligns with the Next Generation Science Standards and comes partly from the curriculum developed by U.S. Sailing.

In 4th grade, students focus on cartography and how land and water interact. In the 5th grade, the focus shifts to the water cycle, the history of water use, and the role of humans in determining water quality.

The facility's environmental educator and outreach coordinator, who is with AmeriCorps VISTA, teaches all of the classes on land, and sailing instructors, who have been specially trained, teach the classes on the lake.

In the spring and fall, students spend three hours at the center dividing their time between the shore and the water. During the winter, the center goes to the schools two or three times to bring the lessons to the students.

Joni Pecor is a 5th grade teacher at J.J. Flynn Elementary School in Burlington, Vt., who's been taking her classes to the center for the past three years.

She says being in that environment makes a real difference to her students.

"It's hard to talk about the concept of interdependence with only a book or an online resource, but when we're in a sailboat and we can observe the impact of humans on the environment, the lesson is more meaningful," said Pecor. "I feel like I'm a better teacher when I have the opportunity to take them to places like this."

Schools pay a small fee to participate in the program, and the rest is covered through grants and foundation support.

Photo: Students get a lesson in STEM during an outing on Lake Champlain. (Courtesy Jen Guimaraes)


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