A Day in the Life at Engelmann Mountain school: Modeling the Watershed

Here is one example of a recent lesson given to students at Engelmann Mountain School. It shows the way our school bridges the environmental and educational paradigms through a fun and creative approach. This exercise also illustrates the importance of one ecological problem in particular that humans face in general and that we face on a local level here in Utah.

The following lesson concerns the Utah watershed, but the lesson ends up being about much more than that. What follows is a brilliant exercise in inquiry based learning, which is one of the many great things about Engelmann. This instance of inquiry based learning takes place in five critical stages.

First, the students are sat down and told to draw what they think a “watershed” looks like. Some use the color blue to signify water, others draw marine animals below the water, and still others draw with earthen colors like brown to signify a shed. This first step in the lesson allows students to begin thinking about what the lesson may be, rather than just sitting them down and forcing them to listen. Inquiry based learning gives students a platform to show that their ideas are also important. It helps them to learn with imagination and makes them a part of the lesson at the outset. While they draw pictures, the instructor also makes inquiries of the students, asking them various questions about the way water works, the different forms of water, where water comes from, and why water is important. This gets their intuitive juices flowing.

Second, the students are shown a picture of what a watershed actually looks like. This helps them to show where they were correct in their drawings, and where their drawings need correction. The students may also show one another their own drawings at this time.

Third, the students and instructor move to another part of the room to begin constructing a clay model of a watershed, forming mountains and canyons, placing model trees and various animals, and learning about each of these things as they place them in the model. Then they use squirt bottles to simulate rainfall which ends up gathering into various bodies of water similar to lakes and streams. Interestingly, the model was not only used to signify such natural landscapes in general, but also to show what happens locally in the Utah Mountains. Students were able to build, learn from, and interact with the model in play format. Most importantly, they perform this activity together, showing that care for our watersheds can only happen through cooperation.

Fourth, as the energy of the classroom shifts, the students are once again brought back to their seats to draw a watershed, this time with more of a comprehensive understanding of what it looks like and how it works.

Lastly, the students are shown a detailed illustration of their own local watershed, how it operates, the people, institutions, and ecosystem it provides water to. Students see where they live on the map (as most of them live locally) and recognize the importance of preserving and protecting the Utah watershed. Ending with a more structured learning assignment which has local significance drives home the importance of taking care of our own water and an understanding of the lifeblood of our ecosystems.

In exercises like this, all the forms of learning are happening at once—auditory, visual, kinesthetic, reading, writing, drawing, and hands on learning. Also, the students are introduced to an advanced lesson that unites pieces of the scientific method and the local importance of ecological matters with an incredibly creative and expressive exercise. It also should be noted that this exercise took place on a predominantly indoor day (It had snowed that morning). Much of the time students are engaging in learning like this in an outdoor setting, adding another dimension to inquiry based environmental learning.

In between these lessons and activities, students have snack time, which can become another opportunity for learning about whatever various topic of interest may arise, or to just allow them to relax and enjoy a tasty snack!

Stay tuned for part two of the watershed exercise, as well as other fun posts from Engelmann Mountain School. Also, please visit our website ( engelmannmountainschool.org ) to learn more about us and to support our awesome school. Thank you!

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