Third graders scoured a two-mile stretch of wooded trails near Great Falls searching for clues that would help them identify local trees, part of an annual Science class outing curated to inspire respect for nature while sharpening students’ observational and collaborative skills.
With guidance from adult chaperones, small groups of students fanned out in different directions on the looped course to find the laminated cards that LS Science teacher Eric Friedenson hung on trees, each with a puzzle that would help the budding scientists identify the tree by looking at its various characteristics.
Leading into the excursion, Eric directed students to have fun in the process. "Climb logs, scan the ground for toads or high trees for woodpeckers,” he said. "Identify extra trees and make videos of their leaves, bark, seeds, and buds.”
Three groups–the Red Oaks, Shiny Red Maples, and Horrible Hollies–headed clockwise on the trail. The Blue Beeches, Petrified Pawpaws, and Sick Sycamores went counterclockwise. Each cluster carried iPad cameras and clipboards with diagrams of tree characteristics, such as the blade, margin, and veins of the various leaves, and types of bark and seeds. After assessing their findings, each group recorded their observations and sent them to Eric.
"I thought it was really fun,”” said Eli. "I liked that you could exercise and still learn science, and I really liked the [lessons] with physical activities, like running to touch all of the trees.”
“I liked the walks AND the puzzles!” said Nazir.
Eric is no stranger to the trails, having walked these woods with students for 17 years. He said that over time, he tweaked and modified aspects of the trip to make it more interesting and educational.
"Kids learn in so many different ways,” Eric said. ”I started adding symbols and pictures to the clues.”
Holly Balshem, a third grade teacher who has taken part in the trip since its beginnings at GDS, said she’s seen aspects of the outing change in those years. "At first, there were a lot more clues–too much to read, and the teachers didn’t always know the answers,” Holly said. But letting the students work through the challenges themselves is part of the fun, she said, and even the teachers learned a few things along the way.
Eric feels that incorporating play is helpful to the learning process. More recently, he took the students for a walk around the GDS campus, and they easily identified all the trees. “When given the chance to play and do science at the same time,” Eric said, "the students seem to learn more.”