Virtual or in-person, experiential learning is taking root in Hamilton schools

·3 min read

As Grade 4 teacher Brandon Stewart troubleshoots malfunctioning audio on the Microsoft Teams meeting, two waving hands appear on screen.

There is a buzz of excitement in the Hess Street Elementary School classroom as students wait to greet a Hamilton Conservation Authority naturalist who has come to answer their questions on how — and where, and when — plants grow.

“I feel like I’ve become a studio producer,” said environmental education specialist Sandy Root, who spoke to Stewart’s class on Tuesday against a backdrop of lush foliage. “It’s nice to be able to at least provide an outside demonstration of things from my greenhouse.”

This Grade 4 class is growing plants, including herbs and vegetables, using hands-on kits that come with seeds, soil, fertilizer, a pot and basic instructions. But the kids still have questions.

That’s where Root comes in.

Some questions are submitted by the class in advance. But some come as a surprise, like one Grade 4’s question: How do things grow in the ocean when there’s no dirt?

“I was like, that’s a great question. That’s a brilliant connection that they’re making,” Root said. “It’s always an unknown where they’re going to go.”

Pre-pandemic, school groups would come to the field centre at the Dundas Valley Conservation Area, where Root still has a virtual classroom. She said, by and large, the new pandemic-era format has been successful.

“It’s a virtual opportunity to engage our students in a way that matches the curriculum and the student interest,” she said. “It’s not easy, but it’s certainly rewarding.”

Lee Ann Armstrong, leader of experiential learning at the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, said, virtual or in-person, teaching kids about the natural world is a key part of education.

“It is connecting students to experiences outside of their school ... to extend the learning from the classroom into the real world so that students have the opportunity to see how what they’re learning connects to their community,” she said.

Armstrong said the planting kits teach kids the basics of gardening — “which we know is big right now,” she said — from starting seeds to potting to growing.

“It’s accessible for all students,” she said. “We can use community gardens, we can use our windowsills to grow things. It can be done anywhere, you don’t necessarily have to have an outdoor space.”

This project is one of many ways the board is working to bring learning to life for students.

Earlier in the year, a Grade 8 class at Prince of Wales Elementary School built cars powered by kinetic, solar and battery energy with the help of a Mohawk College auto instructor.

The board offers the same — or similar — activities to students in the remote learning program. Where necessary, materials are delivered to students’ homes.

Now that the Hess Street students’ seeds are starting to sprout, the kids want to know what to do with the plants when they get bigger.

Armstrong said this is something she and Stewart are looking into.

“We can walk outside with certain limitations, so would we be able to get the students to be able to walk to a location, to go to a community garden and donate their plants to the community garden and see how it works and understand what community gardening is?” she said. “(We’re) always trying to kind of take it to that next step.”

Kate McCullough, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator