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West Jordan Journal

Ascent Academy students take science learning on the road with trip to Antelope Island

Nov 07, 2018 04:38PM ● By Jana Klopsch

Antelope Island (Pixabay)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

Biology students from Ascent Academy spent nearly six hours on a field trip, immersed in real-life scientific work. 

“I wanted them to see what wildlife biologist and ecologists do,” said biology teacher Joanna McLean. “I wanted them to participate in collecting data, being scientists and contribute to something that is meaningful.” 

Students worked with scientists on Antelope Island to identify invasive plants—the puncture vine and Canada thistle—measure their growth and density, and implement biocontrols to manage them.

Unlike in classroom labs where they follow procedures to recreate their teacher’s results, McLean’s students didn’t know what the end result would be in this real-life application of the scientific process.

Students participated in the real work of a biologist. (Joanna McLean/Ascent Academy)

 “That was interesting to see what it would be like to actually be a biologist and have to figure it out for yourself,” said ninth grader Hollynd Bowler.

McLean said many students picture the stereotypical male working in a lab coat when they think of scientists. She hopes the experience of working with local scientists in their field of study will open her students’ eyes to the opportunities of a career in science.

“I hope they saw science can be fun, and it’s not just in a lab,” she said. “I want to show them that science can be done in the field, somewhere beautiful, collecting data.” 

Students were not passive observers of the work. After measuring invasive growth of the invasive weeds, they systematically released the plant’s natural consumer, a weevil, into targeted areas. 

Their work was not just for a grade; the park rangers use the data students collect to manage the plants and insect species from year to year.

“We did this so that we could realize the stuff we are learning in the classroom actually works in real life,” Hollynd said. “It’s not just something that we’re going to be tested on and be done with—it’s actually someone’s job.”

The field trip augments the biology curriculum standard of competition between organisms for food, water, sunlight and space. 

McKinnon Smith said seeing the plants up close helped him understand how quickly a non-native species can overtake an ecosystem.

“It only takes a half centimeter of the plant to grow—it sends out shoots like an aspen,” he said.   

This was the third year McLean has taken her students to Antelope Island. She loves the idea of outdoor learning. 

When McLean moved to Utah from Rhode Island, she wasn’t familiar with mountains and deserts. She gained firsthand knowledge of them through the Utah Master Naturalist Program, which took a group of teachers camping and hiking through Utah’s various ecosystems for in-depth learning.

Data collected by students is used by park rangers to monitor the species. (Joanna McLean/Ascent Academy)

 McLean wishes she could provide more field trips for her students to participate in science right where it is happening, but she is limited by funding constraints (buses are expensive). Therefore, she works to incorporate hands-on, engaging activities in her classroom. She is constantly searching for resources to creatively apply music, art, movement, games and activities to demonstrate scientific concepts. 

One such activity, to illustrate the amount of energy lost through the food chain, had students pass a leaky cup of water to each other in a line, each representing an organism in the food chain. With water loss representing the loss of energy, students understood what is meant when 90 percent of energy is lost through the food chain process when there wasn’t much water left for the last person in line. 

McLean regularly encourages creativity in her assignments. When teaching about body systems, she allows students to choose an expressive style to showcase their knowledge. Some choose to design theme park attractions that teach about a body system. Others make a manipulative learning tool that could be used to teach the concept to vision-impaired students. Others choose to write a book that teaches the body system facts to kindergarteners.

“I try to bring in a bunch of differentiated learning and appeal to all the learning styles so every student gets to learn the way they learn best,” said McLean.