Connecting Students with Experts in the Field
The Importance of Experts:
Connecting students with experts in the field can be a powerful motivator for children. It allows them to interact with individuals who have successfully used their knowledge to make the world a better place. It helps students to see the value of their day-to-day learning. Throughout my teaching career, I have worked to provide my 1st through 5th grade students opportunities to connect and collaborate with experts in the field, in an effort to enhance and enrich their learning experiences.
Over the years, my students have been fortunate enough to learn first-hand from herpetologists, entomologists, arachnologists, biologists, cardiologists, botanists, bee keepers, historians, military officers, immigrants, refugees, sushi chefs, and much, much more depending on our current unit of study. Learning and working side-by-side with experts in the field helps students understand how their knowledge can make a difference in the real world. These authentic experiences create higher levels of engagement, even in the most reluctant of learners.
Water Quality Assessment:
During our, "A River Runs Through It" expedition (or long-term unit of study) on the life-giving force of our local river, we were fortunate enough to have a volunteer from the Ogden Nature Center come to our class. She engaged the students in a mini-lesson on water quality testing through macroinvertebrate identification. After the lesson, she and the students went kick-netting along the creek behind our school (a tributary of the river) to engage in a water quality experiment. Using microscopes, dichotomous keys, and pollution tolerance charts, the students completed water quality reports in pairs. After returning to the classroom, results were shared and compared in a debrief session.
Later on in this expedition, we met up with volunteers from the Utah Department of Natural Resources at the river itself for a first-hand look at the life forms that rely upon the river for survival. These amazing volunteers set up several stations along the river, each with a different area of focus. Our students rotated to these stations throughout the afternoon, recording their newly acquired knowledge about the plant life, the river restoration efforts, the macroinvertebrates, and the different species of fish in the river in their fieldwork journals. This was accomplished in large part to our remarkable parent volunteers who worked with the DNR to arrange the event. You can view the news video above for a closer look at the experience.
Experts Across the Hallway:
Sometimes you needn't look beyond the walls of your own school to find an expert that will enhance your current unit of study. Such was the case during our "Land of the Rising Sun" expedition. During this unit, my students explored the factors that influence where and how communities develop through the lens of the Japanese culture. I knew that my fellow teacher Mr. B had a passion for Japanese culture and a gift for nurturing Bonsia Trees. He was gracious enough to combine our classes for one afternoon to teach and demonstrate the art of Bonsai to the students. My students later recorded the experience in their travel journals. Their big "take-away" was that the geography of Japan combined with their high population density and love of nature, gave rise to the popularity of the art of Bonsai.
Ikebana & Martial Arts Experts:
My 3rd graders also had the opportunity to learn about the art of Ikebana (or flower arranging) and several different varieties of Japanese martial arts through two wonderful ladies, Lara and Dana. They had both lived abroad in Japan for many years and had truly immersed themselves in the culture during that time. After teaching the students how to write each of their names in Kanji and how to count to ten in Japanese, Lara engaged my 3rd graders in an Ikebana demonstration. She arranged the flowers completely from behind, as was the custom, as she explained the importance of each flower and their placement.
Dana had dedicated her time abroad studying and practicing Japanese martial arts. She explained that in Japanese culture, martial arts takes serious discipline and devotion. Earning your black belt, for example, meant that you were just beginning to take your training seriously. With the help of some very eager 3rd grade volunteers, she demonstrated how to use an opponent's force against them and reminded the students that her training was only meant to be used in self-defense. Both Lara and Dana inspired the students to integrate an Ikebana and martial arts scene into their performance celebration of learning which you can read about here: Performance Celebrations of Learning.
Pig Lungs in the Classroom:
For our "I am Some Body" expedition, we were excited to have a volunteer from Weber State University engage the students in some hands-on, discovery-based learning about the respiratory system. Our little K-2 students were becoming experts on 6 different human body systems with the long-term target of helping them understand how to keep their bodies healthy and strong. Our eager young pulmonologists slipped on protective plastic gloves as they examined the differences in color, size, and texture between healthy pink lungs and unhealthy, tarred pig lungs.
During our K-2 "Fabulous Frog" expedition, we invited a local herpetologist to the classroom to engage the students in a hands-on, up-close study of frog anatomy. He brought both preserved and live frog specimens as well as frog skeletons for the students to gain a better understanding of the unique adaptations that allow frogs to survive in their habitats. He also brought samples of fish and reptiles to help the students answer one of our long term targets: Where do fish belong? It's important to share the learning targets with the expert guests prior to their visit so that they can really focus in on the intending learning outcome.
During my 3rd grade "Arthropod Expedition," we met up with honeybee farmers at a local beehive supply store. This honeybee hobbyist demonstrated the process of extracting honey from his hives for us. He showed the students how to uncap the honeycombs to reveal the honey and how to load the frames into the extractor. He explained that centrifugal force created by the spinning motion of the extractor is what pulls the honey to the inside walls and allows the honey to dispense from the tap at the bottom. The highlight for the students was the opportunity to sample beeswax for the first time!
Hunting Down Experts:
If you're looking for experts to shine a fresh new light on your upcoming units of study, and help bridge that connection between the classroom and the real world, I recommend working with your parent community. You can usually find at least one parent in your school community who is an expert in the field of your current unit of study. If not, parents can often provide connections to local experts and/or be enlisted to research and track down individuals who would be willing to share their expertise with your students.