May Street Elementary School second graders shared a watershed moment recently with their parents, teachers, and Pam Hollander, Ph.D., associate professor of education.
The students created a large mural depicting a flowing river and its surrounding watershed in the gym at the school on Thursday, May 30, as their parents and school staff applauded, capturing the sweet moment in dozens of cell-phone photos.
The presentation was the culmination of a six-week STEAM project titled “Welcome to the Watershed.” (STEAM adds arts to the familiar science, technology, engineering, and math acronym.) The appreciative audience watched as the students each pressed a canvas they had painted into a Velcro-lined frame to form a large mosaic mural. As students came forward with their paintings, one by one, they each read a few words about their artwork as part of their presentation.
The mural-creation event marked the conclusion of a six-week project that included two hands-on science-related lessons on watersheds, a field trip to Mass Audubon’s Broad Meadow Brook Sanctuary in Worcester, and three sessions of painting and writing with the school’s artist-in-residence.
“Each of the paintings is like a piece of the puzzle that, when put all together, is the story of the whole watershed,” Hollander said. “The final event brings everything full circle because we’ve been working on the science—we had a field trip where we saw salamanders, we saw a fox, we saw trees—and then they got to paint their own piece of it.”
“Welcome to the Watershed” collaborators included Hollander, who developed it as her sabbatical project; Lisa Carlin, assistant sanctuary director at Broad Meadow Brook; and Worcester Public Schools artist-in-residence Jen Swan. Also contributing was Worcester State student-teacher Sarah Kasof, who was assigned to one of the two second-grade classes involved. “I was really happy that she was there because I wanted her to see what was possible for her to do,” Hollander said.
Hollander initiated the idea of using an artist-in-residence for an educational project because of positive associations she has had with such programs from her past. “That was my passion because, when I was a child, I remember artists-in-residence coming into my school and doing performances or art or music and it had such a big impact on me,” she said.
Coincidentally, as she started planning her sabbatical project a year and a half ago, she learned that the May Street School was looking for ways to expand its arts programming. “I met with [May Street Principal] Luke Robert [’86, M.Ed. ’07,] and we were batting around ideas and second grade seemed like it would be good to work with because they don’t have MCAS during second grade and they didn’t have any enrichment programs planned,” she said. “We wanted the art to help with some academic aspect of school and so we decided science would be a good place to merge them.”
A highlight for the students was the field trip to Broad Meadow Brook which, at about 400 acres, is the largest urban wildlife sanctuary in New England. “The kids loved it,” Hollander said. “They loved seeing the frogs and the salamanders and just being out of the classroom and free to run around. They enjoyed it so much and they were very attentive. They were really interested in learning about the plants and the animals.”
Their sanctuary tour guide piqued the students’ natural curiosity, with hands-on learning involving all their senses. At one point, she picked some fragrant wild mint for the students to hold and smell. Then, she made quite the olfactory contrast by giving them each a piece of that odious harbinger of spring – skunk cabbage.
“One plant smelled really good and the stinky cabbage was so disgusting, but when you’re combining new knowledge with a smell or a touch or seeing something for yourself, it makes it stick more,” Hollander said.
“The kids were amazing,” Broad Meadow Brook’s Carlin said. “It was so much fun to learn about the water cycle and then to get them out to the sanctuary so they could really see how things impact the watershed and everything around them. They really took it to heart.”
Carlin had the students play with a 3-D “enviroscape,” a scale model of a natural environment. “They put different simulated chemicals onto the earth surfaces like fertilizers and pesticides, road salt and sand and what happens to all that when it rains? So, it was a really awesome visual for the kids to be able to see that.”
It’s important for kids to start learning about the environment while young so they can begin to learn about issues and become good environmental citizens, Carlin said. “We only have this one earth and even second graders understand that we have a lot of challenges going on right now,” she said.
The project was funded through a Massachusetts Cultural Council STARS Residency Grant and the May Street Elementary School Parent Teacher Organization.
“We are very proud to be able to support this kind of project because it’s powerful, powerful learning,” Diane Daily, program manager for education at the Mass Cultural Council, said during brief remarks at the May Street mural event. “It’s taking the sciences and it’s taking the arts and putting them together, and when you do that you have so many avenues into learning. It appeals to every single one of the students, which is why we think it’s so important.”